My biggest career failure
Six doctors reflect on their biggest career disappointments
Earlier this year, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, Princeton University, US, published an unusual version of his CV. Instead of listing his achievements, he listed all of his career failures, detailing disappointments in his life such as the times he didn’t get the job he wanted, the awards he didn’t win, and the publications that were rejected.
A career in medicine can be littered with potential disappointments: competition is stiff and consequently there are high rates of failure, from medical school applications to getting a job as a consultant.
We asked doctors—some just starting out on their careers and others in their prime—about their experiences of failure and what they learnt from them.
Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, The BMJ
Like most of us, I have known failure. I tried to get into Cambridge to do preclinical medicine from sixth form—twice: once in my fourth term and again in my seventh. Both attempts were unsuccessful. Instead I went to University College London and got to know London (my favourite city), and had the added benefit of studying history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute. But I did subsequently get to Cambridge for the fourth and fifth years of medical school and I live there now.
I nearly didn’t get my first job at The BMJ. Having passed the membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, I was shortlisted for the journal’s editorial registrar job in 1989 but asked to defer for a year so I could take up a general medical registrar rotation in London. When I reapplied the following year I wasn’t shortlisted. I remember getting the letter and calling my mother in tears. She told me not to be so wet, it was obviously a mistake, and that I should phone them immediately and explain. I did, and they said it was a mistake. The moral of that story is that you should always listen to your mother and appeal a decision if you think it’s wrong.
In 1995, while in the US on a Harkness fellowship, I was shortlisted for the Lancet editorship. The selection process took months and in the end it came down to two of us, me and Richard Horton who was then an assistant editor on the Lancet as I was on The BMJ. Richard was offered the job and I thought my life was over. But one kind mentor told me I would live to be grateful, and she was right. It’s possible that had I got the Lancet job at that early stage in my editing career, both I and the journal would have suffered from my inexperience. And I might have been too busy to go to the party in January 1996 where I met my husband.
Things tend to turn out alright in the end, and as my brother often reminds me, if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.
Parashar Ramanuj, Harkness fellow in healthcare policy, Columbia University department of psychiatry and New York State Psychiatric Institute, USA
I didn’t get into core medical training (CMT) at the first time of trying. This was unplanned for, uncalled for, and in my mind unquestionably someone else’s mistake. I was a molecular man who was destined to tinker with the weights and measures of nephrology. Or so I had thought.
Thinking back to that time now it seemed like my career had stuttered before it had even properly begun. But it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I “settled” for psychiatry, thinking that I’d try CMT again in a year. I never looked back. Psychiatry let me flourish in a way I never thought I could. I realised there were more molecules in the brain than in the kidneys, and that they mattered less than the connection you try to make with your patient.
The types of people medicine attracts are not known to be failures. Maybe that’s why we’re so unprepared for it. It’s not something that medical school teaches us how to deal with. But medicine is hard—sometimes cruel. Visit any paediatric oncology ward if you really want to understand the consequences of our failures. But when done right, the rewards are immeasurable—visit the same paediatric oncology ward to see just how rewarding. Maybe we learn more about doing it right from our failures than we do from our successes.
Rhys Davies, foundation year two doctor, Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK
A combination of nerves and unpolished presentation technique meant that I failed my final practical exam at medical school. While my housemates cheered that they were now doctors, I stared blankly at my email telling me I was not. It bore no such felicitations, no matter how many times I clicked refresh. I felt numb and alone.
The re-sit exam was in 12 weeks’ time. I was going to pass. Moping around, feeling bad for myself wasn’t going to help me. Instead, I dissected my failure with one of our pastoral tutors, attended an intense revision course, and practised my technique every day before the exam. I would lie awake at night thinking that I couldn’t pass this exam. But I was wrong. I passed and became a doctor.
I couldn’t have come back from this failure without a stubborn, pig headed well of determination. But a positive mental attitude is useless unless you get busy making things right. I could not have done that without the help of medical tutors, doctors, and my friends. No one can succeed in life on their own.
Lastly, this episode has left me with a sense of humility. You are allowed to make mistakes—but you don’t have to take them lying down.
Clifford Mann, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, London, UK
I had spent five years as a senior house officer in the late 1980s and early 1990s trying to decide on a specialty, sitting exams, and changing my mind several times. Eventually, having taken an accident and emergency post—largely to pay the mortgage—I finally found a subject that was sufficiently broad to gain my interest. Obtaining a registrar post, however, was quite another matter.
I was interviewed and rejected by Leeds, York, Leicester, Lincoln, St Mary’s, and the Central Middlesex. I learnt quite a bit from these interviews, including the lesson that one should never cancel a holiday to the Algarve in an attempt to get a job in Yorkshire. It was the Leicester interview that was the most memorable, however. It was clear almost from the outset that they did not want to appoint me, but the final question from the chairman of the panel was the “coup de gras.”
Chairman: “I see your primary postgraduate qualification is the membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians. Did you pass that first time?”
Chairman: “So you haven’t got a lot of experience of that either.”
Eventually in 1993 I obtained a post in Portsmouth. By such twists of fate are careers and lives determined.
David Levine, retired consultant physician, Penzance, UK
I had my share of not getting certain jobs and of having papers rejected but, although these rankled, I can’t now call them career failures. A major career failure was, instead, taking too long to appreciate the nature of “career.”
My attention was too often on some future when I considered my career would formally start. This was wrong; my career was every day in every job from first preregistration house officer post—awful as that one seemed at the time—and arguably, from the start of medical school because that is when professional identities start to form, even though they change throughout working life and beyond.
I wish I’d known that clinical work and professional life seen as a young trainee would change in major ways every few years; professional behaviour is the only constant. I wish I’d realised earlier the need to work constantly to help form and maintain close, stable teams, and to defend them against those who would destroy what is good through ignorance, stupidity, or malice.
More than all these, however, my worst career failure was not telling certain people how much I’d appreciated their support and guidance. This is painful when I now read their obituaries.
Ben McAllister, foundation year one doctor, Darent Valley Hospital, Kent
During the final year of my neuroscience degree, I decided that I would go on to study medicine. I had good results, I had done a bit of work experience, and I had sat the UKCAT after skimming through a practice paper. I naively assumed that I would walk into the medical school of my choosing—I was wrong.
My application for graduate entry medicine was rejected by all four universities without a single interview. I was surprised—and so disappointed—but determined to ensure that this was only a temporary setback. While my friends moved on to PhDs and graduate schemes, I moved back home with my parents. I got a job as a carer for older people with learning disabilities and began volunteering at my local hospital. This “setback” provided me with the opportunity to get invaluable hands-on experience in an environment vastly different from the one I was used to.
When I was accepted into medical school 12 months later, I could look back on how much I had gained to prepare for a career in medicine. Although I couldn’t fully appreciate it as a positive experience at the time, learning to see that failure is not the end of the world was a key part of that.Katy Bettany, sixth year medical student
Imperial College London
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- Haushofer J. CV of failures. 2016. www.princeton.edu/~joha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf.