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 overcome 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. 1997 (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!

**Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’d give a two-pronged answer. First, I’m always most impressed by work quite different from my own, precisely because it is different and so less familiar to me. I would hope that other ecologists whose work is very different than mine are impressed with my work for the same reason. Second, I don’t think there’s a single most important or most 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 interesting and important, and that the approaches I take are powerful.

Note: This is a lightly-revised version of a post that first ran in 2014. Sorry for the reruns. Meg, Brian, and I are all really busy right now. Normal service will resume shortly.

10 thoughts on “My most embarrassing moments in academia

  1. I was relieved to read this document….. I have just returned from two-day field work at a construction site together with a hard-core engineer team. During these two days, my personal errors and embarassment moments were coming up one after the other: I almost lost my GPS with all data in it, I left SOMEWHERE my notebook with three-years notes in it and I had to ask the engineers to look for it and worst of all, the simplified small mammal key we had designed as training material for the engineers and we had been so proud of revealed “bugs” from the very first moment we asked the engineers to identify a mouse……

    Jeremy thank you for this post…..

  2. Yep, great post, wise words. One thing I’d add is that what is memorably embarrassing for the person concerned will probably be forgotten by everyone else in a short space of time. That doesn’t make it any less embarrassing at the time, but afterwards it makes the memory a little more bearable…

    • Yes good point. I’m sure Alan Grafen quickly forgot his conversation with me, for instance.

      This is related to Meg’s remark that you needn’t be self conscious when wandering alone at conferences. Because no one is paying you any attention.

      • On the subject of being self conscious at conferences, I’ve been asked to give a keynote at a big conference in Germany this summer. When I registered I saw that there was an opportunity for attendees to “book a date” with any of the five keynote speakers. My wife is wondering what sort of conference I’m speaking at…. 🙂

  3. During my comps, the first question was what is a monotonic relationship. I said the concept perfectly and then I draw a curve that was anything but monotonic… My advisor almost kill me until I realized I was being betrayed by my own hand…

  4. The first time I met a scientist I admire at a conference it was the most awkward thing ever. I was tired and spacey, and they were shy, and it was just a hopeless stab at conversation. We had a great chat the next year. Believing they didn’t remember Encounter 1 gave me the courage to try again.

  5. In 1986, with a brand new PhD, I gave a seminar at San Diego State that featured a terribly pseudoreplicated experiment . A Very Kind Senior Ecologist ran interference during the questions from the audience and spared me from complete humiliation. It was an important lesson for me, and one I always share with my undergrad ecology class when I force them to read Hurlbert 1984 (and use the really fun teaching activity suggested by Meg in her post here from 2013 (sorry I don’t think I can link to it from comments),

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