My most embarrassing moments in academia

In the spirit of my shadow cv (listing all my rejected papers, rejected grants, etc.), and in the interests of helping you overcoming any imposter syndrome you’re experiencing, I thought I’d share my most embarrassing moments in academia.

This is sort of following up on Meg’s post in which she urged you not to be afraid to admit “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to admit “I embarrassed myself” either. It happens. To everybody.*

Not that you want it to happen, of course. Up to a point, the desire to avoid embarrassment can be a good motivator. For instance, the desire to avoid embarrassing yourself can motivate you to be well-prepared (e.g., for giving a public lecture). But even if you’re well-prepared for everything you do, at some point you’re likely to get embarrassed anyway.

Probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever felt as an academic was as a postdoc back in 2002 or so. After a lot of thought, I had developed what I thought was a really neat idea, to use the Price equation from evolutionary biology to analyze biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships. And in a piece of good luck, my institute had invited Alan Grafen in to give a seminar. Alan Grafen is one of the world’s top evolutionary theorists and a leading expert on the Price equation. So this was a great chance to get some feedback on my idea from a leader in the field. I booked half an hour of one-on-one time with him. On the day, I introduced myself and told him that I wanted his feedback on an idea I had about applying the Price equation to ecology. I went to a white board and started writing math, walking him through the idea. As I recall (and I admit I may be fuzzy on details–this was over a decade ago), about 30 seconds in, he interrupted and asked me to clarify my notation. It was a small question, the sort of thing you easily clear up–at least, if you know what the hell you’re talking about. I started to answer–and then realized I couldn’t. In an instant, I realized that I didn’t really understand the Price equation at all. Here I was, standing in front of the Alan Grafen talking nonsense. It was very awkward, and totally mortifying. And the fact that I did eventually figure out the Price equation didn’t retroactively make the awkwardness and mortification go away.

Another embarrassing moment I recall was when I was totally caught out by a line of questioning on a faculty job interview. The interviewer asked me what I thought was the best ecology and evolution paper published in the last decade. I was prepared for this and immediately replied West et al. 1994 (evolutionary optimization of space-filling circulatory systems as an explanation for quarter-power allometric scaling; the paper that’s at the core of the “metabolic theory of ecology”). To which my interviewer immediately responded “But you don’t do anything like that.” The implication being that I wasn’t doing what I myself considered the best sort of work in ecology and evolution. I was completely caught out, to the point where I wasn’t able to think on my feet and give a coherent reply as far as I can recall. And it was embarrassing, because the interviewer’s response to my answer was perfectly natural and fair. I should’ve either anticipated it, or at least been able to answer after a moment’s thought.

Those aren’t my only professional embarrassments. I’ve given at least two really dud job talks that I can recall, for instance. And I’ve written a few blog posts that I’ve come to regret (and probably at least a few others that some people think I should regret). And there are probably other embarrassments I’ve forgotten completely.

And in many cases, my embarrassment wasn’t even redeemed by any lessons I learned. In a recent interview, Tony Ives talked about how, as a scientist, you have to be prepared to be flat-out wrong sometimes. Not “I was wrong but I learned a lot from the experience.” But just “I was wrong.” That’s going to happen, and you have to be comfortable with it. Because if you’re not, the desire to avoid being wrong will cause you to make bad decisions. I’d say the same thing about being embarrassed. At some point, it’s going to happen, even if you’re well-prepared, or think you are. So you have to be comfortable with the possibility of it happening, and able to deal with it when it actually does happen. Because otherwise, you’ll end up making bad decisions out of a desire to avoid being embarrassed. For instance, I do worry about embarrassing myself by writing a bad blog post. But if I was really scared of being embarrassed, I wouldn’t have ever started blogging in the first place. Which would’ve been a bad decision for me, I think.

*Note that “don’t be afraid to admit it” doesn’t necessarily mean “broadcast it to the world.” The stories I tell in this post aren’t big secrets–I’ve told them to friends in the past, and mentioned them in passing on the blog. But back when I was a postdoc interviewing for faculty positions, I would never have told interviewers about embarrassing things I’d said or done on previous interviews. Nor would I have published my shadow cv as a postdoc, even though there’s nothing on it that’s embarrassing or even surprising. The point of this post is just to say that everyone gets embarrassed at some point in their professional lives, so if it happens to you, you’re not alone. I’m not arguing that everyone should advertise all the times when they’ve been embarrassed!

23 thoughts on “My most embarrassing moments in academia

  1. Wow, I am totally blown away by the openness and humility of this post. I have never seen/heard an academic talk about this, although I suspect it is one of our greatest fears. Thank You Dr.Fox for addressing this!

  2. As a young postdoc, I gave a talk at a conference in London, after which a very senior figure in the field (who I’d only just met) said: “A few of us were wondering how you were going to turn that into a decent paper for the proceedings”. I was absolutely mortified and walked out of the conference early, and onto the underground without buying a ticket, I was so pre-occupied with what he’d said. On one level he was correct, the talk was poor and I’d misjudged the conference and the audience, and the manuscript I submitted for the proceedings was rejected. However on another level he was just plain nasty, a reputation that follows him around to this day.

    I learned three things from this: (1) don’t give crappy talks at conferences; (2) being professionally unpleasant to people can damage confidence, so don’t be a dick head* ; (3) grow a thicker skin.

    What doesn’t kill you…. etc., etc.

    *For the benefit of North American colleagues, that’s a synonym of “asshole”

    • Um, we do have the word “d**khead” on this side of the Atlantic too. There are many differences between the Queen’s English and English, but that’s not one of them. 🙂

  3. What I’d really like to know are the times that I should have been deeply embarrassed by something done/said but didn’t recognize even that (similar to Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns).

  4. Seriously, I’m having a hard time leaving a comment because I’ve made an ass of myself on a great variety of occasions, and it’s hard to choose. I think that as I get older and figure things out better, that it happens less frequently. I’m thankful for the forbearance that has been shown by most people. And I am not successful as I’d like to be at forgetting the times when others capitalized on my lapses.

    My skin is now very thick when it comes to criticism and rejection, but I’ve always been prone to enthusiasm and naiveté that must have been really annoying. I think I’m still naive about a lot of things, and still enthusiastic about the same things, so this is still a challenge. Meanwhile I think enthusiasm and going into realms beyond your depth (naiveté) are both traits of good scientists. But expressing these traits can leave me open to criticism.

    About that anecdote about identifying the most important paper of the last decade, and being about something that you don’t work on – I don’t see that as any kind of deficiency at all! If the embarrassing part is getting flustered afterwards, that’s understandable. But on the other hand, to point towards something that you work on, and claim that this topic the most important thing, that just sounds arrogant to me. (Maybe there’s a layer to this story that I missed.) We all need to work on something that we think is important, but recognizing that some other work could be the ‘most important’ as a certain point in time is mighty fine, right?

    • “About that anecdote about identifying the most important paper of the last decade, and being about something that you don’t work on – I don’t see that as any kind of deficiency at all!”

      It would sound arrogant to me too to name my own stuff. But I certainly could’ve named work more closely related to my own (and it’s not as if I’d be fibbing to name such work, there are a bunch of *great* population dynamics papers I could’ve named). So my embarrassment didn’t arise solely from getting flustered, it also arose for similar reasons as in my anecdote about Alan Grafen. The interviewer’s response to my answer embarrassed me because it revealed to me that I hadn’t thought through something I should’ve thought through.

      Now that I’ve thought things through, I could give a two-pronged response to my interviewer:

      -I’m always most impressed by work that’s quite different from my own, precisely because it is different. I know how the population ecological work that most impresses me is done, so it impresses me less. Just as a magic trick is less impressive (or perhaps is impressive in a different way) if you know how it’s done. Obviously I can’t speak for others, but I would hope that other ecologists who work on different questions or in different systems than me find my work impressive for the same reason.

      -I don’t think there’s a single most important or interesting question in ecology, or a single best approach. Which isn’t to say all questions and approaches are equally good. I believe in the value of developing our hypotheses in the form of mathematical models, in tightly linking models and data, and in drawing on experimental evidence as much as possible, although the way one has to go about doing all that often is quite question- or system-specific. I think the questions I ask in my own work are big, interesting, important ones, and that the approaches I take are powerful ones. (here’s an old post where I talk more about this:

  5. During a job interview, I was meeting with the search committee. They were asking me about what I would teach. I was talking about an ecological programming class. They asked me what language I would teach. I said something like R or Matlab – I would never teach something in C because it was too low level for ecologists to learn. This caused much looking around. I knew I said something wrong but not what. Found out later the chair of the search committee taught a programming class using C. I think many others on the search committee felt this wasn’t working for their students and agreed with me, but of course it sounded like a criticism of the chair (unintended though it was). I don’t know if that was my most embarrassing moment or just my most awkward (or if there is a difference), but definitely very uncomfortable. Ironically in the end, if I had to guess the chair voted to hire me and others voted against me and I didn’t get the job, but as best I can tell not because of my faux pas.

    • Yeah, I’d put that in the category of awkward rather than embarrassing, or maybe embarrassing because it was awkward (rather than embarrassing because you suddenly realized you’d screwed up). After all, there’s no way even the most well-prepared job candidate could know what programming language the search committee uses to teach his/her own classes. But wow, very awkward all the same!

    • I really thought the punchline was going to be that they actually meant e.g. english or french, but this is really funny as well! Am I the only one who thought that? Perhaps it is more likely to be asked this question in Europe of course.

  6. With your quoting Tony Ive’s about being just plain wrong, I completely agree. Its hard to be truly creative if never being wrong is a priority. Being creative is inherently about going out on limbs so tiny nobody has gone out on them before. And sometimes they will break. And if you don’t have the mentality to admit your falling when your falling, your not a scientist.

  7. On topic: I also cannot come up with an embarrassing moment right this instance. Must mean I haven’t dealt with them fully, they just creap up to me right when im about to do an interview/presentation 😦

  8. Thought of one: I once told a senior female colleague that I greatly respect that my female phd advisor dealt with some things in a “male” way, meant as some sort of compliment. This obviously came across as a very sexist statement, and she called me out on that. I didn’t mean it like that, but there was no way I could explain what I actually meant without making it worse an worse and growing more nervous with every word. …..

    • Alas, no; sometimes there is only Fail. Louis Agassiz was among the most brilliant biologists of his age, but he stuck with (genuinely scientific, but incorrect) creationism long after everyone else had given it up.

  9. A couple more short ones:

    Giving a morning talk at a conference following a late night chatting in the bar, I showered and shaved in a rush to get to the venue on time. I then presented the talk with a large smear of saving cream down the side of my face. Friends I’d seen beforehand had seen it but decided not to tell me….

    During an interview for a postdoc in a Geography department at a large UK university, I was given a tour of the department by the geographer who was offering the position. Up on the roof of the building he surveyed the city below and said “There to the south-west you can see….no, that’s the south-east…..” Without thinking I smiled and quipped: “You’re not much of a geographer, are you?” Turns out he had no sense of humour…. That comes under “awkward” rather than “embarrassing” I suppose. As a postscript, I didn’t get the job, but then they only interviewed two candidates and the project was essentially an extension of the other guy’s PhD. I was there purely to fulfil employment law: VERY annoying.

    • Good ones!

      Re: the second one, yeah, on interviews a good rule is to steer away from any jokes at the expense of those interviewing you.

      “Friends I’d seen beforehand had seen it but decided not to tell me….”

      I do not think the word “friend” means what you think it means. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Friday links: how to give a chalk talk, the importance of role models, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  11. Not a professional embarrassment as such: I was too young. But I was studying piano seriously in those days, and had some thoughts of becoming a musician rather than a physicist (in the end I did neither). The piece I was performing in concert would have the composer in attendance, and very regrettably his name was misspelled on the program (Stein rather than Steiner, or something non-obvious like that). So it was my job to make a little speech correcting his name and pointing out his presence.

    That was long before I lost my fear of public speaking (which is another story). After making the speech and pointing out the composer (for whom the audience duly clapped), I was so nervous that I made a complete balls of the performance. I doubt if anyone clapped for me, but if they had, I was too mortified to hear them. I got off the stage somehow and tried my best not to think about it.

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