Hendrik Huthoff

“Failure sucks but it instructs”

“The experience of deciding to leave my first PhD was the most important one of my professional life and shaped my character to a large extent.”, says Hendrik Huthoff. He is the scientific manager at the Jena School for Microbial Communication in Germany where is charged with the scientific development of the students and preparing them for academic and non-academic career paths. When starting his first PhD position, Hendrik quickly noticed that it was a toxic working environment, so he decided to quit. “As a graduate school manager, I now find myself responsible for a large body of students and their wellbeing is my main priority”, Hendrik says, as “having gone through a difficult situation myself means that I really take these matters to heart.”

“I thought my story might be useful to others who feel stuck in a similar situation and possibly help them to make their own choices about how to address this.”

Hendrik recently published his story, in the “Working Life” section of Science magazine here. “On the Friday afternoon just before the Christmas holidays 2018, I read the very personal account of Katarina Radošević (Forced to change – for good) and it struck a chord with me”, Hendrik says. This is when he started writing down his own experience of leaving his PhD position now says he is very proud of the published end result. “Probably more so than of any of my scientific papers. I truly feel that with this article, I have turned what I regarded as a personal failure into a success. Sometimes that takes 20 years.”

“What concerns me is that, in cases of student-supervisor conflict, it is often the student who draws the short straw and is in a more vulnerable position with regards to moving on from it. It is understandable that recruiters may have reservations about candidates who walked out of their previous post, but many may have legitimate reasons to do so.”, Hendrik says. He finds it hard to provide advice to students in similar situations, other than refraining from speaking negatively about previous employers. This only reflects badly on yourself. As he only spent 3 months in that lab, he did not put it on his CV at all, which is an advantage of not having waited too long before deciding to leave. What he did learn is “(…) to trust my gut feeling. I knew that things were wrong in the lab, even though on paper it looked like a great opportunity. This contrast was hard to face. It also was a stark reminder that none other than yourself can make the choices that are best for you.”

“I thought my story might be useful to others who feel stuck in a similar situation and possibly help them to make their own choices about how to address this.”, says Hendrik. He has started an evening event in a local pub called “Failure sucks but it instructs”, that gives staff and students the opportunity to share their failures in a 10 minute stand-up format. No PowerPoint, no questions, nothing leaves the room. Although it does usually end up with a group discussion. “It can be a great relief to get it off your chest and then enjoy a pint in good company.” Sharing stories that we are not so proud of and would rather hide from, releases pressure and gives others the opportunity to feel that they are not alone in this. Indeed, Hendrik says that “sharing my experience has also been cathartic.”

Hendrik Huthoff  

Hendrik Huthoff has failed at becoming a musician, mosaic artist, jockey, poet, dancer and alchemist. He studied chemistry but failed at becoming a chemist, so he aspired to the traditional academic career in virology but failed to become a Professor after failing to obtain some critical research funding. Strangely, all these failures have led him to a job he absolutely loves, proving that lots of wrongs can make a right. He is embarrassed to admit that he fails to remember people’s names on a regular basis but then he doesn’t usually forget a friendly face. He likes to spend time in his kitchen preparing meals for friends, while listening to his collection of vintage jazz and tango vinyl records to celebrate his failures. He has thus far failed to make his wife appreciate said jazz records.

Article by the FAIL! team