Faculty Who Failed Series: Lisa H. Nishii

Lisa Nishii

Lisa Nishii when she first got to Cornell, fresh out of grad school.

October 9, 2023

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 Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa H. Nishii‘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.

At the end of my first year in my Ph.D. program, I helped my advisor to organize and host the annual conference of the International Association of Conflict Management. I was excited because many scholars I idolized were going to be there. We decided that I would be the one to present one of our ongoing projects. It would be my very first conference presentation. Determined to make my advisor proud, I prepared my presentation well in advance, including word for word notes on what I would say. I was so nervous I practiced my presentation out loud many times in the days leading up to the presentation. I was scheduled to go last in the symposium. I remember struggling to regulate my breathing and calm my nerves while others were presenting and could barely focus on what they were saying. Then, my turn. Unfortunately, I was supposed to have 25 minutes for my presentation, but the presenters before me went over, so there were only 12 minutes left in the session. I knew that meant I wouldn’t be able to present everything I had rehearsed, but I didn’t have the confidence to go off script and improvise, so in my tight and shaky voice, I just tried to talk really fast. I wasn’t even a third of the way through my slides when my advisor signaled to me to wrap it up. I don’t even remember how I did that. I may have just stopped and said something pretty lame in an embarrassed voice, like, “well, I had more to say, but I have run out of time. Thank you.”

How did you bounce back from your perceived failure, or what got you through to the other side?

I wanted to hide for the rest of the conference, and I think it took a full two weeks for me to finally stop feeling mortified.

What lessons did you learn from this experience?

You shouldn’t assume things will always go as planned! Also, it’s never good to try to pack too much into a presentation.

How did you use this experience to become better at what you do?

I paid attention to other people’s presentations to identify patterns that differentiate good presentations from bad or boring ones. Obviously, presentations are much better when they don’t come across as scripted and robotic. Good presenters sound human and natural, and they connect with their audience. Now, at most I will jot down a few points that I don’t want to forget to share (e.g., specific stats or examples) and I will look over those before a presentation, but otherwise just roll with it and say it however it comes out of my mouth, naturally.

What advice do you have for current graduate students who might be struggling or in a comparable situation?

Trust that you know more about the content of your own presentation than others in the room. I know this is especially hard when you are a new graduate student, but even then, it’s probably true that you have spent many more hours thinking about your content than anyone else. Just own it and try your best to relax. And, if you ever feel like you bombed something, don’t hold onto that feeling for as long as I did. We’re usually our worst critics. There’s a good chance others didn’t notice, and if they did, they certainly will forget it pretty quickly, and so should you.