Faculty Who Failed Series: Bruce Lewenstein
January 18, 2024
Graduate school is a time for students to push themselves, try new things, and explore. It’s also a time when students are likely to experience what feels like failure. These small or large challenges along the way to your degree are to be expected, and most faculty members experienced such stumbles themselves in graduate school.
To share stories of successful people who have overcome the setbacks that come with pursuing a graduate degree, we’re interviewing faculty members about how they “failed” in their academic careers. The Faculty Who Failed series highlights how resilience can carry you through the tough times in your degree program and come out of the experience stronger and better prepared for future challenges.
Read about Professor and University Ombuds Bruce Lewenstein‘s experiences.
Can you describe a time you felt like you failed in graduate school? This could be a time when an experiment didn’t work out, you considered leaving (or did leave) your program, etc.
It wasn’t so much “failure” as “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Shortly after starting graduate school, I had an opportunity to earn some freelance money in the industry where I’d worked before graduate school. I was getting paid (literally) five times as much as my graduate student stipend. I was newly married, and my wife was having trouble finding a job after we’d moved for my graduate school. We knew that job prospects in my academic field were uncertain (at best!). I wondered: Is this worth the effort?
Initially, the issue was resolved by my wife getting a grossly-overpaid job, so that we were suddenly flush with money (so much so that we bought a house, figuring we’d be in town for several years until I finished my Ph.D.). But there remained an unease about whether an academic career was really worth it.
A couple of years later, I had a chance to intern in a different branch of my original industry. I discovered I felt a visceral identity with the professionals I was working with. These were “my people”! And so again, I questioned whether an academic career was right for me.
How did you bounce back from your perceived failure, or what got you through to the other side?
By then, I was about halfway through my program – I’d started research, but hadn’t fully nailed down a dissertation topic. Because I had the incredible privilege of a supportive partner with a good income, I was able to say: “I want to finish the degree, just for personal satisfaction that I took on something hard and completed it.” I had a burning question about my industry that I couldn’t answer if I was working full-time (that was why I’d gone to graduate school in the first place), and I wanted to answer that question. But I was pretty sure I would return to my industry after finishing the degree.
Then we had our first child, and in the grand-old-American Way, my wife didn’t get her job back. Suddenly I was back to, “is this worth it?” Once again, I was saved by privilege: My parents were in a financial position to offer support until I finished my degree.
As I was finishing my dissertation, I received two job offers: one here at Cornell, the other in industry. I’d struggled with which way to go, and my wife and I were acutely aware of the financial limitations of an academic career, even at an elite institution like Cornell. Although many factors went in to our decision, my wife and I decided that if I was going to try academia, a tenure-track job at a name-brand institution was the way to go. If it didn’t work out, I could always go back to my previous industry.
What lessons did you learn from this experience?
First, when people ask, “what do you mean by ‘privilege’?” I have an answer. This is what it looks like: people around me who could afford to use their own financial resources to let me pursue a dream with an uncertain outcome, including an uncertain financial outcome. Most people don’t have access to those kind of resources. That’s privilege.
Second, pursue that dream if you can! I had a burning question (in my case: “What is the role of science journalism in the relationship between science and society?”, a question that emerged out of my own professional experience). Knowing I couldn’t sleep easily if I didn’t pursue an answer to that question kept me going through the uncertainties of graduate life.
How did you use this experience to become better at what you do?
I strongly believe in having a “plan B.” Literally until after I had tenure, I continued freelancing. I wanted to be sure that, if academia didn’t work out, I had another option. I’ve been told that I went through the tenure process with less stress than some people, because I knew that I had other options if academia didn’t work out.
What advice do you have for current graduate students who might be struggling or in a comparable situation?
For the first lesson: I don’t have advice about privilege, except to be self-aware if you have it and recognize that other people might not have the options you do.
For the second lesson: Know why you’re in graduate school. Are you driven by a question you can’t answer without studying? Go for it. Are you there because you know what “school” is like and you want to stay in it? I’m not sure that’s sufficient to get through the doubts. Do you need a Ph.D. as a job ticket for a particular career? Well, maybe. But again I’m not sure it’s worth it, especially if that career is in academia with all its uncertainties in the coming decades. Overall, be sure you’re in graduate school for a positive reason, not because you’re avoiding something else.