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Fail Your Way to Your Doctorate | Issue 195




  1. Editor's Note

  2. Words from the Wise on Mistakes and Failures

  3. Worst Peer Review Comments: Just How Mean Can They Get?

  4. Feature Article: Fail Your Way to Your Doctorate



Editor's Note: Making Friends with Failure


"The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure." ~ Sven Goran Eriksson


"Nothing succeeds like success," goes the proverb. I, however, think we ought to update it to "Nothing succeeds like failure." Failure can be friendly—but if and only if you know how to use itIf mistakes demoralize you, you are not alone. If the fear of rejection or criticism paralyzes you, you've got company. But these attitudes will hold you back in your search for dissertation and career success. 


Getting over the shame of making mistakes really mattered when I struggled with Argentine Spanish after emigrating in 2003. Years of standard classroom Spanish in the U.S. failed to prepare me for conversing and working in Buenos Aires. My various flubs ranged from the mildly inconvenient, as in showing up at dos (two) instead of doce (twelve), to the hysterically funny, as in saying that I needed to coger (have sex with) a bus. (That phrase that works just fine in Mexico, mind you, for indicating transportation needs.)


Instead of retreating, I forged ahead, creating novel blunders daily until I achieved sufficient proficiency. Making friends with failure allowed me to become a sought-after translator for the country's top firm and a local speaker on how to apply positive psychology. My colleague Nora Misiolek and I regularly coach doctoral candidates through their darkest moments. We concur: When ABDs learn to survive rejection, mistakes, and failure—as well as the fear and shame of failure—they zoom ahead on their dissertations.


You made it this far. Will you let fear of mistakes or fretting over failures hold you back now? Read on for proven strategies for setting yourself up for success by first learning how to fail. Fail well and your possibilities are limitless.



Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.




Words from the Wise on Mistakes and Failures


"Inside of a ring or out, ain't nothing wrong with going down. It's staying down that's wrong." - Muhammad Ali


"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." - Albert Einstein


"Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them." - Bruce Lee


"It's failure that gives you the proper perspective on success." - Ellen DeGeneres


"The only real mistake is one from which we learn nothing." - Henry Ford


"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." - Oscar Wilde


"Do not fear mistakes. There are none." - Miles Davis




Worst Peer Review Comments: Just How Mean Can They Get?


Sadly nastiness knows no bounds when reviewers are anonymous. Check these out.






























Feaure Article: Fail Your Way to Your Doctorate

By Nora Misiolek, Ph.D. and Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.


Failures and setbacks pop up like rusty nails on the dissertation trail, jeopardizing not just your progress, but also your confidence and self-esteem.


Face it. To cross the finish line, you must survive your quota of "ABD ego attacks." How many of these have you already experienced in some form? Which would deflate you the most?


  • Your adviser throws your Chapter 2 back at you for a gazillions revisions. . . again.

  • You aced your conference job interview--and then received a letter saying they are pursuing candidates whose qualifications better meet their needs.

  • You were sure your conference paper could win the Best Paper Award, but it was not even accepted for presentation.

  • For weeks you've slaved over your data analysis—with inconclusive results. Now your chair recommends collecting more data.

  • You got less grant money than you requested—now you're stuck looking for a part-time job to make ends meet.

  • Your first journal article got rejected. You swear Reviewer 2 could not have possibly read it given his scathing, ridiculous comments.


Beware as more setbacks are just around the bend. Are you cringing, praying that you will somehow magically bypass them? If so, you are in for a rough ride ahead.


Your best hope is to embrace failure, a tactic endorsed by countless notables, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Jean Paul Sartre, Steve Jobs, James Dyson, J. K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey, and others. [For more, see this list of 50 Famously Successful People Who Failed At First.]



The Shocking Reality of Nasty Academic Reviews


Years ago I (Nora) was startled at a doctoral consortium when a luminary in my field arose to speak during one plenary session. At our table, we ABDs wondered what he would talk about. His passion for his work? Secrets to success? Words of encouragement?


























None of the above.



Instead, he described how setbacks helped make him the scholar that he is today. He recounted how he eagerly submitted his very first journal article—and was devastated by the response. . . not because his article was rejected, but because of gratuitous nasty reviewer comments.


Deeply stung, he took to his bed for an entire week, blinds drawn, convinced that he would fail as an academic.


When he mustered the courage to share the letter with his advisor, the older scholar shrugged it off as "just one rejection," casually observing that one of his most cited papers was rejected not just once but twenty times before it was published. "And I'm not the only one," he added.





Setbacks can be as painful as they are inevitable. However it is your mindset about failure that determines whether you will flourish or flounder, according to research by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford.


Your biggest danger is not failure—but imagining that a failure defines you.


As Dweck explains, individuals with a "fixed mindset" assume they are only as good as their performance. Accordingly, they end up avoiding risk, externalizing blame, and ultimately failing to achieve their potential.


However, when you depersonalize mistakes, you foster the "growth mindset" that leads to success, Dweck explains. Failures create learning opportunities. Mistakes and missteps serve as sources of information for exploring new possibilities. The table below contrasts the two mindsets Dweck identified.






















Consider the growth mindset as "failing forward," advises leadership guru John Maxwell.


The good news: You can develop a growth mindset.


Experiment with these research-backed strategies to develop vital habits for transforming setbacks into springboards to success at work, at home, and at play.


1. Write about it—and focus on lessons and possibilities.


Journaling about difficult events and emotions can reduce stress, improve mood, help in processing what happened and why, and provide perspective. Dr. James Pennebaker, University of Texas, recommends focusing on lessons learned, how things can be different as a result, and potential positive outcomes rather than negative emotions.


Furthermore, writing in the third person allows you to step back and view things from different angles, Pennebaker explains in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. You can even try writing in front of a mirror to encourage honesty and self-reflection.


2. Reframe setbacks as opportunities to learn, laugh, and accept.


University of Kent researchers found that positive reframing, acceptance, and humor are effective strategies. We pose these questions to our ABD coaching clients to help them process a setback and move forward:


  1. What is the goal? Refocus from the setback to your goal.

  2. How can this move you closer to your goal? Brainstorm possibilities.

  3. What is the good? Explore what you can take from the experience.

  4. What did you achieve? Explore the gains despite the setback.

  5. What did you learn? Explore what you learned from this.

  6. Is there anything that you can laugh at? Explore what could be funny.


3. Move from blame to positive accountability.


Instead of settling for less than your goal, keep asking "What else can I do?" to get there, counsel Roger Connors and Tom Smith in their classic book, The Oz Principle: Getting Results through Individual and Organizational Accountability . When you shift from blaming others to accepting responsibility, you reclaim the power to influence the situation. In short, acknowledge the setback, assert ownership, identify potential solutions, and then act accordingly if you want to be successful.


"I failed my way to success," Edison quipped, noting his 10,000 failures before his triumph with the first practical incandescent light bulb. Next time you fail, view it as a step closer to success. Chances are high that you won't even begin to approach Edison's record for failures (or overtake his record of 1093 patents—a mark that was not surpassed until 2003).

Finally, remember that you are a work in progress.


Setbacks hold transformative potential for you to unlock. They aren't the end of the world, though it may seem so at the time. Welcome them as milestones on your journey to your doctorate and as opportunities for developing your real potential for success and well-being.


So here's to setbacks! May you fail forward all the way to your doctorate and beyond.



Recommended Reading


Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., and related website,


Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success by John Maxwell, D.Min.


Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James Pennebaker, Ph.D.


The Oz Principle: Getting Results through Individual and Organizational Accountability by Roger Connors and Tom Smith




About the Authors


Nora MisiolekNora Misiolek, Ph.D., M.B.A. is an Executive, Life, and ABD Coach who divides her time between Rhode Island and upstate New York. She is deeply passionate and committed to helping organizations and individuals develop their full potential through coaching. She particularly enjoys working with students who are returning to academia to continue their studies, having done so herself. Her teaching and research interests include managing innovation, virtual collaboration, leadership and teamwork, organizational change and development, and the psychology of work. Her website is, and you can reach her at


Gayle ScroggsGayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., relies on evidence-based positive psychology to coach academic and professional clients to feel, be, and do their best. If you want more success and well-being, contact her at, and enjoy free resources at Gayle enjoys serving as editor of the All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide and helping ABDs find the right coach. A resident of the Chesapeake Bay area, she also offers positive psychology-based workshops for graduate students and faculty on how to thrive on the dissertation journey. Please write for more details.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources at She also speaks fluent Spanish and delights in new exotic Scrabble words as she savors life in the Chesapeake Bay area, California, and Argentina.


BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG

Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.


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