Officially Enrolled – New beginning

anti-cv of my PhD application history, and some reflections on failure

First term in my Psychology undergraduate course, we were introduced to BF Skinner’s operant conditioning. It relies on a simple premise that behaviours that are rewarded will be reinforced; vice versa, behaviours that are punished will be diminished. Lab mice shall soon learn to jumping through hoops while reciting pi.

“Every failure is a step to success” William Whewell’s motivational speech did not distinct “failures” from “mistakes”. I do think there is a fine line between those 2 – mistakes doesn’t always lead to failures, failures doesn’t require any mistakes [mistakes are neither necessary nor sufficient for failures]. There is a role for uncertainty, for luck, for other unseen circumstances that have led to the (un)desirable outcome. Whilst this should not be exaggerated to an extent that the individual blindly believes a predeterminism that requires luck and nothing else, reserving ones humility and respect for the uncontrollable helps separate ourselves from the lab mice – to not be taken back (too much) by the all too common “punishments” in life.

No different from any other keen beans in my cohort, I started worrying & applying for jobs and PhD half way through my MSc. July 2019 also marks the beginning of my failures of PhD applications. In the 2.5 year window, I have been invited to 10+ final interviews, written 5 full PhD proposals on different topics:

  • self-harm and apathy
  • cash-transfer and depression in LMIC
  • natural language processing in clinical records
  • Ethnic density and psychiatric illnesses
  • Universal Credit and mental health problems [data linkage]

    I applied to multiple funders such as MRC, ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Alan Turing Institute, NIHR… and many other DTP schemes. Failures after failures. I polished my cv, practiced my interview skills, brush up my twitter profile, present at conferences, write blogs and podcasts… But my “PhD Applications” folder failed to escape their destiny – rename, (rejected). After all the failures, nothing seem to be helping my case. I felt stuck – as my internal locus of control urges me to tackle my “mistakes” to deal with these “failures”. What more can I do? Am I just attending these PhD interviews such that the panel can say the diversity requirements are fulfilled? Perhaps I am just not good enough. The cost of living away from my hometown and family is high, why must I stay in the UK? These are questions I interrogate myself with, as Covid rampages across the world.
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…because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3-4

I learned to be patient, only because I cannot proceed. I am no any more persevering than anyone. I am privileged to be supported by great colleagues and friends, privileged that my family encourages what I do, privileged that I am passionate about the health and suffering of others, that this passion helps me to be curious, and curiosity brings motivation.

I am grateful for my current duo role as a research assistant and a part-time student. This helps immensely on the financial situation. This is better value than any previous studentships that I have applied! On top of that, I can now appreciate how my previous failures have bought me time to understand academia loads more than when I first graduated. It could be that William Whewell is eventually correct. A mistake is not necessary nor sufficient for us to learn from – a failure can serve the same purpose. Fresh into my role, I have welcomed my first rejected mini-grant application. But now I am much more ready to face it, taste it, and learn from it.

“15th October, 2022 – This is to confirm Joseph Lam is currently enrolled as a MPhil student at UCL.”

To happy learning!

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