Tomorrow’s Graduate Students and Postdocs
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Yoda Was Wrong: It’s all About Try
Yoda, legendary teacher of Jedi knights, famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might be beneficial for training Jedi, but it is misleading for doctoral students and postdocs. For you, it is all about “Try.”
The binary “Do or Do not” frames the world in stark contrasts. Succeed or fail. Fly or crash. Blow up the Death Star or die. For us mere mortals, failure is not that consequential.“Do Not.” It’s the decision not to attempt. Choose against testing long odds. Play it safe.
The “Do / Do Not” choice operates for many grad students. When failure seems to be around every corner, when hard work is unlikely to be rewarded, the choice “Do Not” is much easier to make. The high risk of failure acts as a deterrent. Inaction seems prudent.
“Why apply for that Fellowship/job/postdoc? I won’t get it?” “Why offer to run the local Pint of Science festival? I have never done anything like that before. It is sure to be a flop, distract me needlessly from my research, and incur the wrath of my advisor.” “Why apply for a postdoc as a digital humanities specialist? I don’t have all of the skills that they are asking for.”
Trying and failing is the other way to understand “Do Not.”
Try. Despite what Yoda said, that is the other path.
Setbacks are inevitable. Failure instructs. It guides us as we try again.
Yoda’s counsel was actually somewhat more nuanced than the iconic quotation suggests. Luke was explaining why he could not do the task Yoda had set before him. “It is different,” he argued. It was not the task he had mastered before, so he couldn’t accomplish it. Yoda shakes his head (as you can see in the video clip). He urges to Luke to commit fully. “Do” is “try” with full commitment.
Graduate students should embrace opportunities with a spirit of full-throttle Try. In this stage, you are shaping yourself. You are learning new skills. You are discovering your proclivities and talents. You are testing your limits. You have permission to take risks and push boundaries. Indeed, you are expected to.
Most of the opportunities that enter your sights within your grasp. (Like Yoda, your mentors offer the achievable.) Success might seem inaccessible, but with confidence and a big jump, you just might reach them. And if you don’t, you made your best effort.
“If I honestly try, push myself and really try hard—whether I succeed or not—I am happy and proud of myself. Far more than I’d be if I never even tried.” Dr. Egle Cekanaviciute shared her philosophy with me. This risk-taking attitude has opened up many new worlds. The words of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman have become her guide: “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
Failure is inherent in Try. When you make a big stretch, and take a big risk, then failure is more likely. It is more common than success.
This requires a shift in attitude. Welcome risk, rather than avoiding it. Recognize that everyone fails. A lot. It is normal. It won’t destroy you or your life. It should not change how you view yourself or your future.
Chutes and Ladders via Flickr Ben Husman under Creative Commons license
Life is not an epic battle, ala the Star Wars saga, it is more like the board game Chutes and Ladders. Sometimes we plod along, sometimes a ladder shoots us forward, and often a chute slides us back. We revisit the same terrain more than once. (Although, unlike the original ancient Indian version of the game, moving forward and backward is not a moral consequence. It is simply part of the journey.)
The recent attention of “CVs of Failure” underscored that we all have more failures than successes. Unfortunately, our efforts and missteps are usually hidden. (I wrote about why grad students should start their own CV of Failure, and provided an outline to get you started.)
Handling failure with grace gets easier with experience. Professional failures are surmountable. Life is a story with many chapters and many possible paths. Failed experiments, failing quals, not getting any of the fellowships or jobs you applied for, or not getting tenure. You can recover from all of them. As my mother is wont to say, “It’s not the end of the world.” Give yourself the minimal time you need to get over a setback. Then get on with it.
It’s Not Only About You
You can’t control everything. There are dozens of exogenous variables that affect the outcome of every situation.
Applying for a job? You can’t determine who the other candidates are. You don’t influence the desires or prejudices of the search committee members. You don’t even know about the competing demands that the Dean is juggling. All of these are out of your hands. (David Perlmutter’s blog post outlines the many reasons why you might not get a job you apply for.)
Your task is to keep trying. Sometimes there are things that you can improve when you try, try, again. Your cover letter is more to the point. Your research has evolved further. Your interview answers are crisper. Control what you can control. Do the best you can. Trust your efforts. And remember that it is not all in your hands.
Another science fiction icon, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
 These latter two examples were the actual experiences of Dr. Egle Cekanaviciute, who ran the 2016 San Francisco Pint of Science, and Dr. Bridget Whearty, who was a CLIR Fellow, 2013-15. Both provided input and inspiration for this blog post.
 Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
 Star Trek: The New Generation “Peak Performance” written by David Kemper, 1989.