You might have encountered Bradley Voytek through his writings and fan-convention talks about the brains of zombies, or through his more serious day job as assistant professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. But some know Voytek because he’s open about just how hard it was to get to where he is now.
In college, Voytek had wanted to study physics, but almost immediately fell into academic probation, and eventually got suspended for poor grades. This is just one part of the “Rejections & Failures” section of his C.V., along with grad school and job applications that were rejected, grants and awards that fell through, and publications declined by multiple journals. A few days before I visited his office—generally plain save for a small collection of zombie figurines and a zombie face mask on a shelf—he had given a talk to summer transfer students about his difficult journey.
Most academics are not so vocal about the setbacks they’ve faced, but Voytek’s story has gained traction. Online discussion boards about graduate admissions have invoked Voytek’s name to show that it’s possible to enter a Ph.D. program—he went to the University of California, Berkeley—with a subpar transcript. One even asks: “Is the neuroscientist Bradley Voytek a real or fictional person?”
“It’s a thing out there,” Voytek says, “which is weird, to have something that was so terrifying and shameful to me as an undergrad be this motivator for so many people out there now.”
Why a C.V. of Failures?
Voytek isn’t the only academic who’s “out” about failures. Last year, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, got a flood of media attention for having his own C.V. of failures. He compiled it after a friend had gotten rejected from a position, and thought it would be a good way to support friends and students. When I asked by email if he’d continued adding to the C.V. since it went viral last year, Haushofer replied, “yes I have, although I've recently been quite prolific in producing failures, so I'm a bit behind.”
Haushofer was inspired by a 2010 essay in Nature by Melanie Stefan, lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland in the biomedical sciences. She suggested keeping a log of all unsuccessful applications, proposals and papers. “It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight,” she wrote. “But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”
Failing is a huge part of the scientific process—not only in conducting experiments or achieving results, but also in getting the credentials and funding to do science at all. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of graduate students in science, engineering, and health in the United States doubled from 328,000 to 685,000 between 1975 and 2015. This influx of young researchers compete for a limited number of grants, positions and pages in journals. Nature ran a special issue in 2016 with an infographic showing that while the U.S. has 4.3 percent more people with science-related doctorates each year, there are only about 3,000 new full-time jobs created at universities annually.
Recently, Stefan told me she no longer updates her overall failure log “because there are just too many!” But she still keeps a record under certain circumstances. For research grants in particular, she logs applications that failed and the feedback she received on them, as way to learn for next time. She also creates a game out of the notoriously difficult process of securing funding: For each grant application, she buys a lottery ticket. “So, as long as my grant income exceeds my lottery winnings, I am fine,” she told me by email.
Although Haushofer said he does not find motivation in looking at his own long list of failures, Stefan views hers as a way of tracking how much she has tried. This personally inspiring in the face of imposter syndrome, the idea that one’s accomplishments are inadequate despite evidence to the contrary.
“So often, we sort of feel like we don't belong or like we don't deserve to be where we are (this is common in academia, but I am sure it pertains to other areas as well),” she said by email. “Looking back at my long list of failures reminds me that I have actually worked hard to get to where I am now.”
That’s not to say that everyone should post a list of failures to the world.
Depending on your situation, it could even negatively affect your chances of employment when everyone else has a success-only resume, notes psychologist Kathy Seifert.
Reflecting on failures is largely an internal activity, but an important one, James Bailey, professor of leadership at George Washington University School of Business told me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in list form or just private reflection—just be honest with yourself. “What separates the extraordinary practitioner from the merely competent one is the habit of reflecting on what went well, what didn't, and why.”
Not a fictional person
Voytek had been good at math and science in high school, and had a passion for astronomy. Skipping senior year of high school, he enrolled at USC on a combination of scholarships and work-study opportunities. In a two-story dormitory for honors students, his room became a social destination. He would stay up entire nights talking about the universe with his friends, but in his courses, the math and physics made no sense, and his grades quickly tanked. “My very first quarter, I failed a class called Quality of Life,” he recalls.
Everything came to a head when he went to register for junior year courses and found out that he was no longer enrolled. He had lost his scholarships, and his family didn’t have the money to support him.
“I honestly felt like I'd blown my chance at building the life for myself that I wanted, and that my course had flowed irrevocably away from that,” he said. “There were certainly moments of despair. But ultimately, the fact that I'd seen my family overcome so many difficulties in their lives—yet they remained happy and hopeful—allowed me to let go of some of that.”
An undergraduate student advisor helped him get reinstated and secure student loans. The vice provost of USC sent him a letter stating that he could return to the school on probation, requiring a 2.3 GPA in at least 12 units every term until he returned to an overall 2.0. He pinned that letter to his Twitter feed a few years ago, with the comment: “August 21, 2000. Turning point in my academic career.”
Determined to stay in school, Voytek studied more and, casting aside peer pressure from his hard-science friends, switched majors to psychology. Though he had done poorly in quantitative coursework previously, he found a niche combining technical skills he had learned with his new field. Assigned to copy hundreds of text files into a spreadsheet for a prominent researcher’s laboratory, he wrote a computer program to accomplish the task in days rather than weeks. He loved using his knack for programming to help the lab’s workflow.
Voytek managed to graduate on time and get hired at a positron emission tomography (PET) scan laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles. He developed technical skills for running the scanner and helped streamline processes for getting data, but the job came with a uniquely unglamorous task. The scanner subjects received radioactive glucose—the most active parts of the brain eat the most of it, creating a map of activity on the scan—and then were asked to urinate to reduce the amount of radiation that stayed in the body. Voytek had to ensure none lingered after they left.
“I’m on my hands and knees in this bathroom with gloves and this radiation cleaner and a Geiger counter, looking for radioactive pee-pee spots to clean up, and I’m like, ‘This is such a weird job that I have,’ ” he remembered. Regardless, he found a great mentor in lab director Edythe London, who was one of the people to recommend him for graduate school.
With an undergraduate GPA below 3.0, Voytek only received one offer of admission for a Ph.D., and it wasn’t smooth sailing once he got to Berkeley. The CVs of the postdoctoral scholars and young professors were bedazzled with awards and papers, and he didn’t even know how to write one. He had difficulty publishing until 2010, the year he graduated. Suddenly, he had multiple studies in journals, with media attention to boot. Around the same time, new graduate students started asking him for advice. That was when he started taking stock of how many rejections he had to endure before succeeding. His list would demonstrate to first-year students: “The way you get your first couple of papers is by trying for five years and failing over and over again,” he said.
Now, on the UCSD faculty since 2014, he has students of his own. He emphasizes to them: Ask for help. Find mentors. And when he chooses undergraduate and graduate students to work in his lab, he values skills and motivation over grade-point averages. “The fact that I’m here because a lot of people were willing to just say, ‘We’re willing to go to bat for this person,’ has absolutely shaped the way that I run my lab,” he said.
And don’t forget: If you’re expecting zombies to attack, Voytek has you covered—at least when it comes to analyzing their brains.