Failing and then not.
In summer 2010, I failed my computer science preliminary exam at the University of Michigan. Before that, I had prided myself in being very good at school. I had always ranked among the top students in my middle and high school as well as during undergraduate studies. The concept of failing was completely foreign to me. Needless to say, this first failure triggered an existential crisis. Clearly, I wasn’t smart enough for a Ph.D. in computer science, much less, to become a successful scientist that I had always wanted to be. My family would obviously be very disappointed. I had quit a well-paying software engineering gig and had chosen to travel to a different country to pursue my dreams, of which I was now deemed incapable. It didn’t help that I was the only woman in a sea of very intelligent and invested men, one of the few Indian immigrant students who chose to pursue a Ph.D. My failure made these differences from the average CS Ph.D. student starker.
I also lost sight of what to do next; I didn’t fully comprehend the feedback that was provided and I was mortified to ask for more information. My privilege was having an advisor who took this failure as what it represented and nothing more than that. As younger student, I hadn’t fully grasped the idea of doing science yet, I hadn’t figured out how to talk about my work. I needed more coaching, more practice, more guidance. My failure represented that I hadn’t learned yet and not, that I couldn’t. He spent the next couple of months working with me to identify what went wrong, how could we better design experiments to support the hypotheses, how could I improve my writing and presentation etc. My second exam was better but still quite rough. The week I spent waiting for the result is the closest I have ever come to a complete nervous breakdown. I couldn’t sleep or eat - I would spend my entire day watching CSI New York. I dared not to take a break because whenever I tried, existential dread took over. My loving friends and family were rightfully concerned about my well being. I remember my friend and colleague banging my door down to make sure I was doing OK. The results came and I passed - this chapter of my life was done. My advisor was starting a new research effort on robots learning from human instruction and he thought I would be a good fit. And, that project set me on a path that I am still going on.
So, why am I writing about something that happened over 10 years ago? One reason is catharsis. Now, I have graduated with a Ph.D. and am employed as a scientist. I have raised millions of USD in funding, led research teams, authored several inter-disciplinary papers, and given several invited talks in academia and industry. Colleagues from industry and academia seek me out to work with me and my institution. It feels like I have made it as a scientist and as a consequence, I don’t feel the shame in talking about this particular failure (and, I have failed a lot more but that is for later). The second, more important, reason is to remind myself of what it felt to be a graduate student and a trainee scientist. As I grow in influence and power, it gets easier to live in the delusion that I always knew what I was doing. But, that was not the case. The overwhelmed, confused yet persistent graduate student is the mother of the productive scientist. My mandate as a senior scientist and principal investigator is to create a space of exploration and learning in the projects I lead. My hope is that in this space a young trainee can discover what kind of scientist they will be. My role as a mentor and a manager is to support this discovery, to provide scaffolds for success, and to provide a safety net for inevitable failures.
And, third, perhaps the most important, is to normalize failure in a culture that constantly engages in self-praise and advertisement of achievements. In the twitter storms of accomplishments, it can be hard to digest failing at something you invested a lot in. Here is the truth of it though - no exam, no person, no event can decide if you are worthy of your goals. Only you get to decide that - you fail, you observe, you think, and you learn! Perhaps, writing a CV of failures would serve my purpose well. But, I wanted to explore the emotional context around my preliminary exam and my learning from that experience - a fitting exploration for my first blog post.