anticipating failure

/ October 25, 2020/ personal

As trite as I think it is to discuss time and the perception of time (especially in the context of quarantine), this semester has really wrought havoc on my sense of time. In this past week alone, I’ve shifted between operating on so many different timescales that I’ve found myself completely disorientated, staring down the barrel of another week. To reorient myself, I wanted to write a little about the NSF GRFP application I just submitted; I think it can feel good to talk these things through, and maybe it’ll be interesting to read.

These past two (three or four, really) weeks I’ve spent a lot of time and energy preparing my application to the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the big competitive money pot that everyone applies to and no one gets. I began the application with very few expectations; I wanted to apply because applying would get me to start my graduate applications early, and I could reshape my GRFP application materials into my statements of interest, etc for the December/January application season. I held no belief that I would contend for the award, or even that my application would become such a concerted effort. (Un)fortunately, I have advisors and friends who believe in me, far more than I believe in myself.

So I spent a good week or more writing and revising a personal essay, working with my wonderful editor at the writing center. This was slow, excruciating work. I felt like I was slowly drawing the words, the intent, the concepts out of my body, like drawing blood. Despite my constant progress on the personal statement, I struggled with the other component of the application, which was a research proposal. I spoke with a handful of people, many of them researchers at potential grad schools I’ve been considering, and eventually settled on a proposal idea with the help of Dr. Follette.

From there, things began to pick up: I was soliciting feedback from people I’ve never met, I was reading 1-2 papers a day, I was writing and rephrasing and making figures and rewriting. Even though I had plenty of other commitments, the application was all I worked on, right up until Thursday when I pressed “submit.” Without really intending it, I had committed a lot to this thing. And because I had such supportive advisors, and really good friends, I had (have) expectations for myself.

That’s frustrating for me, I realize now. Because of how uncomfortable failure is, and how deeply failure affects me, I make it something of a practice to avoid holding expectations of myself and my work. I realize that its a form of self-sabotage, but also a valid response to intense rejection and psychological strain. Its not something I can shed easily, either. No matter the outcome of the GRFP, whether I win or lose after having invested so much into the application, the next time I’ll have to face rejection, I’ll have to confront the self-sabotage and grow beyond it. In that way, I suppose it’ll be good to have developed some expectations for my GRFP application, no matter how skeptical I am about my chances of success. Rejection or otherwise, I’ll be happier moving through life with higher expectations of myself.

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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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