Students Staff

25 June 2019

Bump ahead? How to overcome every-day setbacks in academic and professional life

Filed under: Latest news — ckeitch @ 3:53 pm

Students and staff can sometimes face challenges – or ‘bumps in the road’ – in their academic life. In such moments, the fear of failure can be quite stifling. Yet, it is important to recognise that setbacks are normal – failure is in fact essential to the scientific method, and part of life and learning. As the inventor Thomas Edison remarked: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Everyone can encounter these every-day challenges. Below, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jules Pretty, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Designate, Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony share their experiences about how they have faced and overcame their own ‘bumps in the road’.

Professor Jules Pretty.

Professor Jules Pretty.

Can you tell us about a time when you experienced a professional setback, and describe how you were able overcome it? What did you learn from that experience?

Prof Pretty: I remember the first time I gave a talk at a conference. I was so afraid, I was terrified. But now I am a decent speaker because I learned methods of speaking in professional settings. I looked at what worked, I tried one new thing each time, I got voice training, I worked at it. Nothing special. And then, because I did it a lot of times, now I know the tricks of the trade. I had to build the personal resilience over time. And to build this resilience, you need to watch others.

Prof Fox O’Mahony: When I was a PhD student, I had a very bumpy time in the second year. My supervisor encouraged me to seek feedback from other staff in the school, to get a fresh perspective – so I approached a few other staff members to ask their advice. Then, an opportunity came up to apply for a fixed term teaching post and I was able to stop the clock on my PhD for a year. This gave me time to let my research percolate a bit more, and to publish some articles. Focusing on writing shorter-than-a-thesis pieces really helped sharpen up my thinking and my writing, and I submitted on time a year later. The lesson I took was that when faced with a setback it’s important to step back and consider alternative ways to approach the challenge. Since then I have cultivated the habit of sharing setbacks seeking advice – and the more I did this the more comfortable it became.

Professor Lorna Fox O'Mahony

Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony.

More generally, what do you think students and staff can do to face and prepare for potential setbacks? What advice would you give to a student who is afraid to fail a test or module, or a member of staff whose project is not going as expected?

Prof Fox O’Mahony: My advice is not to hesitate to ask for help. No one is immune from setbacks or fear of failure – it’s a natural and inevitable part of life, especially when you set yourself ambitious challenges and aim high. Sharing setbacks helps us put them in perspective, and also get practical ideas about alternative ways forward. If you need to take a different track, be open to adapting your approach and trying again.

Prof Pretty: For academics – with research particularly – we face constant rejections with papers and grants. You always take that personally. We always do. Once you have achieved some things, you can go back to them and then that makes it easier to deal with rejection. But for early career researchers, rejection is the most difficult thing. I have learned that people who remain naturally curious about the world can accept challenges simply as part of new developments in their field and profession. For the students, I think it is important to recognise that the skills you learn at university are probably not something you came across at school or college – particularly if you come from a home that does not have an academic background. You are exploring new things, which is interesting and exciting, but also scary. Sometimes you might not do as well in one particular assessment, but that might not be a bad thing. That might tell you about what you know and what you don’t know, what worked, or which different revision methods work for you and others. This is exactly what will make you better: you might experience setbacks, but you should pick up the ball and go again!

What does the university do to support students and staff when they are faced with academic setbacks?

Prof Fox O’Mahony: For students, there are a range of options: in your department, your personal tutor is there to help you overcome academic setbacks, along with your module tutor or course leader. Student support services, and our amazing Students’ Union. For staff, I think that nurturing a culture of collaboration and sharing is important, so that we have those connections to sustain us when we hit bumps in the road. In our new University Strategy 2019-25, we have emphasised our commitment to living and learning communities that foster students and staff to feel a sense of belonging, inclusion, well-being, resilience and empowerment. Supporting each other through setbacks is what community is all about.

Prof Pretty: I think institutionally, indeed as a whole sector, we can do more to provide advice, support and help to address people’s fear of failure. And for this, you need a mental model, and this is mine: You can’t control the arrival of external shocks – what you can control is your response to them, how we absorb a problem and respond to it. I think the word ‘failure’ implies that the road has come to an end – but these things are really bumps in the road. The road continues! These are only setbacks. Creating that kind of language and conversation about the problem is important.

The University provides lots of help and support to help students and staff overcome bumps in the road. Here are just some of them:

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