Fiona Godlee: My biggest career failure

fi_blogLike 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.

Fiona Godlee, Editor in chief, The BMJ

A recent article in Student BMJ asked six doctors to reflect on their biggest career disappointments. This blog was originally published as part of the article.