It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Murphy Swing

The greatest baseball players fail to get on base the vast majority of their at-bats. In fact, Daniel Murphy—second baseman for the Washington Nationals—currently holds the title for the highest batting average this season at .411. To many, that batting average justifies the $37.5 million, three-year contract the Nationals just signed with Murphy. That’s $37.5 million for failing six out of ten at-bats. To be fair, when he does make contact with a pitch, he usually scores runs and contributes to the Nationals top standing in the National League East.

Being a former baseball player and a lifelong Cubs fan has helped me through the past couple of months (and not just because the Cubs are actually winning games, although that helps). Rather, spring for academics means that we start receiving responses to all of the grant and fellowship applications that we carefully crafted the previous fall and winter. After writing and rewriting dozens of project proposals and harassing advisors for letters of recommendation, now is the moment when the responses from anonymous committees start to roll in. And, with only a couple of decisions still outstanding, my success rate in fellowship applications translates into a Major League Baseball batting average that might earn me a place in the line-up of the Houston Astros.[1] And, while pursuing the academic study of history will never earn me a $37.5 million contract, I use baseball to take comfort in the fact that even the greatest players in the game fail six out of ten times they try.

However, in the future I might not need to construct awkward baseball analogies to remain confident in the face of overwhelming failure mixed with a few modest successes. Enter the CV of failures, or as a colleague at the Archivo General de Indias called it, the Shadow CV. The genealogy of the idea traces back to Dr. Melanie I. Stefan, doctor of molecular biology and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, who wrote about her own experiences being rejected for fellowships back in 2010. The concept is simple: an academic CV contains a seamless string of achievements that overlooks countless rejections. Back to the baseball analogy, that would be like Major League players all claiming perfect batting averages because they would only record at-bats that ended with someone getting on base. Perfect batting averages for everyone in the Major Leagues might look good on paper but, as statistics, they would be useless.

For graduate students, the CVs of more established scholars make for disheartening reading. As we open one more email with the first line reading: “Thank you for your application, but…” it is easy to assume that we are the only people experiencing failure. In essence, that is what makes the Shadow CV so valuable, it demonstrates the rejections and failures that it sometimes takes to construct those polished CVs on department websites. And now, thanks to Johannes Haushofer—a very accomplished assistant professor of psychology at Princeton—we might take heart in knowing that academia, much like batting averages, is not all about successes. Professor Haushofer recently posted his own CV of failures, listing, for anyone interested, the graduate programs he was not accepted to, the fellowships he did not receive, and the papers that were not accepted. And, as it turns out from the subsequent conversation on Twitter about this, Professor Haushofer’s CV of failures is not alone.

Baseball players, at least the good ones, use strikeouts to learn to be better hitters. Look at Murphy, who might strike out or hit a pop up to right field only to turn around and score the game-winning run at the next at-bat. On paper, he succeeded only two out of four attempts, but in real life his batting average goes up and the Nationals win one more game. Shadow CVs make it clear that in academia, too, failures do not spell disaster. Having gone through the first round of applying for grants and fellowships, I can honestly say that the process served me well in sharpening my argument, clarifying my source base, and forcing me to confront a realistic timeline for finishing my dissertation. I can’t promise to knock the next application out of the park, but I do feel more prepared than I was. And, thanks to a growing recognition that rejection can feel isolating, I certainly feel less alone.

________________

[1] No offense to Astros fans, of course, but it has been a tough season in Houston.

6 comments on “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

  1. […] via It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over — The Junto […]

  2. Brad says:

    Daniel who? Neil Walker is the man, and the Mets are only a game out. Adios Nats.

  3. Casey, abandon history as a field and move to literature…(or sitcoms). We (the reading public) need you. That’s the cryptic way of saying “Good job” & thanks!

  4. I think it’s important here to guage what we mean by “failure” when it comes to fellowship, grant, job, or even Ph.D. program applications. Without wishing to conduct a lingusitic analysis of the word, I nevertheless don’t think it is a worthwhile approach to judge a fellowship application solely by whether or not you won the award. I tend towards the conclusion you come to at the end, Casey: that writing proposals helps to focus our projects and establish timelines to adhere to regarding the research and writing involved. It seems to me that most other scholars only ever come into contact with our work in proposal form. Refining this method of pitching one’s work is a skill worth honing in and of itself.

    I won’t deny that there is always a sense of disappointment at not winning a given award at any particular moment (I know my heart has sunk these past two years when I haven’t won a Huntington Library fellowship, although I’ve been lucky enough to make it out there twice anyway). But I think framing that disappointment as “rejection” isn’t quite right either. For the most part, the odds are against you with any particular fellowship, grant, and especially job you submit to, given the number of applicatns relative to the number of positions offered. While I admire the collegiality of scholars like Melanie Stefan and Johannes Haushofer in displaying their Shadow CVs to hearten junior scholars, I think their long list of rejections highlights an essential truth of the grant process: that not winning something is rarely a reflection of you as a scholar, or of your project’s merit. Rather, it’s a reflection of how well your project fit that particular grant, and yes, how well it caught the eye of a particular committee member tasked with deciding among hundreds of excellent proposals. If highly decorated scholars like Stefan and Haushofer do not win fellowships, well, that should both assuage junior scholars that this needn’t dissuade you from your goals, but also that “rejection” is the norm among scholars.

    Of course, your piece says all this, and more. I think this is a valuable post making a point I wish we heard more often from scholars, senior or junior.

    • Thank you the kind words. I’m also glad that you made this point about the words “failure” and “rejection.” I agree that if we could see being declined for fellowships, etc., as something completely normal in this profession, it would make the process much easier.

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