The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.

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