Responding to change or setbacks

At some point in your life, perhaps while you’re at Oxford, you will need to do something that feels quite radical in order to step off a familiar track that is no longer good for you. Sometimes change is forced upon you: a supervisor moves to a different university, funding runs out or your research group is reconfigured.

While there is truth in the familiar saying “be the change you want to see”, it requires courage and a willingness to bear some less comfortable experiences along the way.

The Careers Service is here to support you in planning for change, and going about it.

We recommend reading how others have responded to the particular challenges that exist in academia. You will see the weaknesses in professional systems more clearly, put your motivations in context, and, quite possibly, be inspired to try new directions or even fashion a role that fits your talents and priorities. You may then want to book an appointment with a Careers Adviser to discuss these.

Herminia Ibarra’s book ‘Working Identity’ is useful for anyone thinking about moving on from academia after a postdoc, or similar mid-career transitions. It contains case studies and a framework to evaluate your experiences when trying out new directions. 

Other helpful sources include pieces by PhD students and postdocs: An experienced Oxford DPhil student shares tips on exploring your work preferences and options beyond academia in a Nature article. And one Canadian postdoc recounts what she learns about academia through her attempts to get a permanent position and why she decided to become an independent professor and consultant researcher, as well as her life story.

Senior academics are also starting to identify the structural problems within academia and make clear strategic suggestions to PhD students and postdocs.

Talk to your peers, departmental administrators and faculty to see what you can do together to create an open conversation about change and build a culture of support.

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Many of us have phases where we have no idea what we’re doing, or everything feels like it’s going wrong: that we are failing, or even that we are failures. Sometimes such phases feel less like phases than a permanent default. And often we assume – wrongly – that no one else ever feels the same.

This is an initiative intended to help make it OK to think and talk about failure. It grew out of an event held in June 2016 which brought together DPhil students, early-career academics, and researchers at later stages of their careers in academia or beyond, for a frank conversation about academic failure and success. The event made clear how powerful it can be to acknowledge perceived failures, talk about them, reframe them, and learn from them, rather than bottling them up and pretending they never happened.

The resulting resources currently include a series of five audio podcasts and an Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure workbook (PDF).

The Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure Workbook

The workbook offers prompts to reflect on your experiences, alter your perspective on them, and take action to continue learning in the future. It also includes CVs of failure from some of the event speakers.

The podcasts explore things in a little more depth, with the help of contributions from some of our speakers plus other people at different career stages. The podcasts are not short (around half an hour each) and will reward focused engagement. We recommend that you take some quiet time to listen, perhaps with a pen and paper to hand.

Download the Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure workbook (PDF)

Podcast 1: The Feeling of Failure

What does failure feel like, and what happens when you sit with it?

Podcast 2: Failure and other people

Other people (or our idea of them) can induce feelings of failure and alleviate or transform them.

Podcast 3: Failure and the farewell to academia

Why does the idea of leaving academia so often feel like professional failure?

Podcast 4: What to do about it all: Personal attitudes

How to change your own attitudes to failure and success, and how failure relates to regret.

Podcast 5: What to do about it all: Personal actions

How to take action to change the role failure plays in your life.

  • Susan Blackmore: psychologist, lecturer, and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences; Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth
  • Julia Bray: A.S. AlBabtain Laudian Professorial Fellow in Arabic, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford; Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford
  • Rachel Bray: former Careers Adviser for Postgraduate Research Students and Research Staff, Careers Service, University of Oxford; Research Associate, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford
  • Barbara Gabrys: Academic Visitor, Department of Materials, University of Oxford
  • Adam Hart-Davis: photographer, writer, and broadcaster
  • Jaz Hill-Valler: DPhil student, Department of Physics, University of Oxford
  • Leanne Hodson: Associate Professor of Diabetes and Metabolism, Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford
  • Dan Holloway: Head of Administration and Finance, Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford; founder of Mycelium
  • Ritchie Robertson: Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford; Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford.
  • Chris Wickham: Chichele Professor of Medieval History (emeritus); Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford

We thank all our contributors for talking so openly about their experiences and what they have learned from them.


Audio files notice

Due to limited staff capacity, the podcasts are not yet available in any other format than the audio recordings. If you cannot access the audio recordings, you can book an advice appointment with a careers adviser to discuss your individual needs.


New to Oxford?

Join the Oxford Research Staff Society (OxRSS) to meet other researchers, join in on social activities in and around the city, and ensure your voice is heard in university decision-making.

Your partner or family will find a warm welcome at Oxford’s Newcomers Club, an organisation, run by volunteers and hosting regular gatherings. The club’s aim is to help those accompanying newly-arrived visiting scholars, graduate students or newly-appointed academic and administrative members of the University to settle in and to give them the opportunity to meet people in Oxford

Facing redundancy?

Your first line of advice and support is the staff-member in your department responsible for Human Resources (HR). If you are unsure who this is, or want advice from someone with a wider perspective, we recommend talking to the HR team in your Division. More details on how to get advice plus University policies and procedures are on the University HR site.

Need more support?

The Counselling Service is here to help all Oxford students gain understanding and insight into any difficulties they may be experiencing, to develop emotional resilience and put into effect real change, enabling the fulfilment of academic and personal potential. The Service offers free and confidential support, but it is not an emergency service.

Research staff members can call on the support of the Occupational Health Service (OHS) for support and counselling for work-attributable health issues impacting performance and wellbeing at work. This team comprises specialist clinical staff that provide independent advice to employers and employees concerning the relationship between health and work, and the effects one has on the other. The OHS web pages also contain links to a wide range of wellbeing and mental health resources.

All staff members (and members of their immediate family) can access the free and confidential Employee Counselling Service provided by Zurich care. This telephone service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and can offer support with a range of personal as well as work-related issues. For more information on the service and how to access it, please visit the Employee Counselling Service page.

Other resources

If you are one of the many researchers who are finding the academic environment especially stressful at the moment, there are some useful tips on developing resilience on the Oxbridge Early Career Researcher blog that may help you to put things in perspective.

At times of uncertainty in their own work or in the wider environment, many researchers respond by putting off dealing with their bigger challenges and instead focus on smaller, peripheral tasks which can be more easily accomplished – clearing your email inbox or sorting your electronic filing system, for example.

While these tasks may well need doing, using this as a way of deferring the time when you will have to tackle the bigger issues, though understandable, can become a habit. A new podcast on the Oxbridge Early Career Researcher blog has excellent tips for researchers who are finding that current circumstances have created the perfect conditions for procrastination to set in: do have a listen if you feel that this describes you.

If it feels as though your whole world is out of kilter, taking time to step back and evaluate how you prioritise the amount of time and attention that you give to work and all the other elements of your life is a worthwhile exercise.

The podcast series ‘The Happiness Lab’ by psychology professor Dr Laurie Santos of Yale University is based on the latest research into human cognition and the cognitive biases that impede better choices. Try listening to the episode on Working your Way to Happiness (Season 2 episode 4), though all the episodes give useful insights into how we can make small changes to improve our levels of happiness.

Talking to others about the difficulties that you’re experiencing can be a good first step to dealing with them. However, whether you’re new to Oxford or you’ve been here for a long time, finding someone to talk to about your struggles with work and your sense of wellbeing can be a challenge – often we worry that revealing these thoughts and feelings to our friends and family will make them think less of us.

The new Oxford initiative OU Coffee Ambassadors responds to this challenge by offering free opportunities for a confidential conversation over coffee with trained peers who provide a listening ear and may be able to signpost you to other resources that you weren’t aware of.

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