On winning and losing in academia

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
― Grantland Rice

When playing roller derby, my feelings of success are often not directly tied to the final score. If I played well with my team, if we communicated and implemented strategy, I feel great even when we lose. Conversely, if I couldn’t put my body where it needed to be on the track, or if I couldn’t get through the pack as a jammer, I feel like rubbish even if my team won.

Weirdly, I experienced both of these scenarios recently in my academic life.

During spring break, I took my written doctoral exams in a small, windowless room. Day 1 was 4.5 hours on 4 questions. I outlined all of them, did some jumping jacks, then finally found my stride on question 4. Question 4 and I formed an amazing wall that no jammer or committee member could break through. Then it was already half-time, and I couldn’t go prose up my other outlines. Day 2 was 4.5 hours on my choice of 3 out of 4 questions. I outlined them all, then prosed up my chosen 3. I experienced flow (Csikszentmihalyi). My mind and body were lining up. It felt pretty okay.

I then left the exam and went to a job interview. The position required a mix of foreign language pedagogy, K-16 teacher professional development, outreach, and online course design. The interview committee of 5 staff members were friendly, engaged, and asked interesting questions, which I felt like I answered confidently and successfully. It felt more like a conversation than an assessment of my potential in the position.

[Pause to enjoy a few days of unofficial events surrounding the SXSW music festival. Then a week of additional preparation and the Honk brass band festival]

Yesterday, I entered the room for my oral exam, feeling relatively confident and calm. I had prepared to orally flesh out those three questions from day 1. Yet, nothing went as I had expected. It felt like I wore the wrong wheels and could barely stay up on my skates, let alone score points for my team. End result: I passed with conditions (meaning I have to complete two additional tasks before I can advance to candidacy, aka get on with my dissertation). I understand the reasoning, and this result is not uncommon. But I still felt unsettled. End result: I won, but I don’t feel like celebrating.

A few hours later, I received a rejection email regarding the job. But it somehow still felt like a victory. While some of the staff preferred a candidate with more experience in online learning, I was able to convey my strengths and talent in a way that felt successful. I’m on their radar as a potential candidate interested in an alt-ac position. End result: I lost, but I played the game well and have potential for future wins.

3 thoughts on “On winning and losing in academia

  1. Dear Devon,
    All the greatest compliments on your passed oral examen.
    Now be happy and content with your own! You was successful in the examen – that’s fact. Now you can manage the step to your next goal.
    I wish both of you a happy Easter.

  2. Hi Devon,
    Mach dir keinen Kopf, mündliche Prüfungen sind irgendwie riskanter als schriftliche. Das Ganze hängt dann extrem von deiner Tagesform ab bzw. deiner Verfassung in diesen wenigen Minuten. Abgesehen davon hat man auch viel mehr persönliche Interaktion mit den Prüfern, entweder zu deinem Vorteil oder halt auch Nachteil… Ich habe auch mal eine verkackt 🙂

  3. Danke für die Aufmunterung! Ich war eigentlich ganz okay in den mündlichen, und jetzt hab ich auch durch die Extra-Aufgaben komplett und offiziell bestanden.