To follow on the last couple of posts on success, it might be timely to discuss (again) the topic of failure. In this case, I mean failure in an academic sense -- e.g., failing to obtain a degree or failing to do well in research (as a student, postdoc, or faculty member).
There are of course many scenarios, reasons, and types of people who don't do well in the academic ecosystem. The various types include:
- those who could do well if the powers-that-be weren't evil, biased, and/or lacking judgment, or who could do well if the academic system weren't so inflexible;
- those who could do well but are hindered severely by problems beyond their control (e.g., physical/mental illness or family issues);
- those who could do well if they tried/worked harder (that's a loaded statement, I know);
- those who are intellectually unable to do the work;
- those who are intellectually able but lack other essential elements (e.g., creativity; ability to complete a project, including writing)
I am not going to discuss the first two items today.
I have observed examples of the other three species throughout my academic career. They have always existed and will always exist. A challenge for faculty advisors is to identify them before accepting them as advisees. At this I have failed repeatedly, providing me with some expertise on the topic, as well as my own experience with failure.
It is important to note that I am not talking about people who could do well with good advising, mentoring, and a flexible research program -- I place them in the first two categories in my list.
It might seem to be easiest to identify in advance those who are intellectually unable to do research, but this is not always the case. Some of my best graduate students have had not-so-stellar undergraduate records, and some of my worst were undergrad stars.
Determining whether someone is going to be enthusiastic about their graduate/postdoctoral work is also difficult. Example: a graduate student who, as an undergrad, had done a research project and apparently done it well, with excellent reference letters from the undergrad research advisor; applied to grad school because of an apparently deep interest in research and excitement about an array of possible projects; arrived at grad school and suddenly lost all interest in research, appearing in the department occasionally to attend a class and teach a lab. I can't help but think of all the applicants we had to reject (owing to the limited number of grad positions available) the year this student was admitted; if we had known, of course we would have chosen differently.
Judging someone's ability to do research can also be difficult to do before that person is given a chance to demonstrate their abilities. However, giving someone a chance to get started with a research project to a sufficient level to judge their abilities fairly takes time. That, combined with time for courses, exams, and teaching labs (in some cases), means that you might not know for 2+ years whether a grad student is going to be able to do Ph.D. research. In the case of a 'failing' grad student, although the right decision may become more obvious with time, it also becomes more difficult to make.
I know of no fool-proof way to know in advance if someone has the ability and passion to do research. Genetic testing? Personality quiz? Crystal balls or tea leaves? I think it's going to have to continue to be an educated guess + trial-and-error kind of experience.
Failing is seldom an unemotional thing. I have never had a student who, after a year or two, just shrugged and said "oh well, I guess this research thing isn't for me but thanks anyway for trying to help me". Nor have I had a student who, after leaving the program (voluntarily or involuntarily), said "I am tormented by regret about all the money that was spent on me, including precious grant funds that you worked so hard to obtain and that I have essentially wasted because I didn't do the work I was paid to do. Here's the money back." [hands the department a check].
Some of my colleagues hope that there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who waste a substantial amount of everyone's time and money before quitting or failing. I am perhaps not so extreme, though I admit to having unkind thoughts about such people from time to time. Instead, I think it is better to wish our 'failures' well, and hope that they will succeed in their non-academic lives and be happy .. and perhaps also make a lot of money and send us that check.
8 months ago