Facing the challenges of a career in STEM
Portions of this post were originally shared as part of a SETAC women’s workshop fundraiser
On the night before I started my post-doc, my mother sent me an email with her best career advice. It was my first job after graduate school, and her message was a way to wish me well and to help me start with my best foot forward. Her advice included Be present; Find meaning and happiness in what you do; Don’t sell yourself short; and Don’t look for others to validate what you’re doing.
During those first few months, I remembered her advice and did my best to embrace it. I faced challenges and issues in my post-doc, as expected in any new job , but overall I felt confident in what I was doing. I felt like I was placing myself in the right career trajectory. But a year and a half later into my post-doc, another piece of advice rang loudly in my ears. It wasn’t because I had followed my mom’s advice but rather because I had gone against it. I went home after having a complete crying break-down in my boss’s office, feeling horrible for not having followed my mother’s simple advice: Don’t cry at work.
As much as I tried to move on from what was a quintessentially bad day, I felt myself becoming increasingly distressed and anxious about my job and my career. I felt guilty about my break-down and worried that I would be seen as weak and overly emotional. I felt like I had gone from being an up-and-coming independent scientist to the girl who cried in the office. More than anything, I struggled with the feeling that I was no longer on the right career path. I wondered if I was not ‘cut out’ for life as a scientist or as a researcher.
Unique challenges for Women in STEM: Self-confidence in times of stress
I was fortunate that the stress that had taken over my day-to-day life eventually resolved itself. The months I had spent dealing with new and urgent tasks and the endless shifts in my project’s aims finally came to a resolution and I had a clear path ahead for what needed to be finished by the end of my post-doc. The fear of not having my contract extended was alleviated when the paperwork came through and I was relieved to find that my job would not end as abruptly as anticipated. But I still struggled with feeling like I was not a good scientist. If I had gotten to the point where I cried at lab, was I really cut out for life as a researcher?
It was at this point that I had to force myself to realize that I was not a bad scientist just because I had become frustrated. I was organized, hard-working, and forward-thinking. The thing I was lacking was the self-confidence. Confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this”—and when you hear that voice, you believe it. Confidence lets you see your positive attributes at difficult times, and also helps you recognize that the mistakes you make on one stressful afternoon don’t have to define you in the long term. We touched on this topic in a post earlier this year and discussed the importance of self-confidence for navigating through the numerous challenges you might face as an early career researcher.
A lack of self-confidence is not a unique challenge that early career researchers face, and I am certainly not the first person to wonder whether I was ‘cut out’ for something or not. In particular, women who embark on careers in science face unique challenges related to self-confidence, even from a young age. When children are told a story of a person who is described as “really, really smart” and are then asked to select a gender for the person in the story, girls as young as 6 years old were more likely to identify that “really, really smart” person as a man. Girls were also less likely to play games that described as being for “children who are really, really smart”.
Another study found that 10th grade girls tended to rank themselves as less skilled in math and science than their male counterparts, even if the girls’ test scores reflected strong abilities in STEM. Even though it was the girls who performed better on tests, it was the boys who saw themselves as being more skilled in math and science.
How can we build better self-confidence for women in STEM?
Our own internal dialogue is a powerful force that dictates our actions and reactions. When we don’t know how to counter our own negative impressions of our abilities or have low self-confidence in general, it can make pursuing a career in STEM challenging. A lack of confidence makes science seem like it’s only meant for the “really, really smart” people. Given the importance of self-confidence in pursuing and staying within a career in science, how can we better encourage women in STEM to stay the course and work through the more challenging times as they come?
One recent study provides an example of the importance of peer mentorship as sources of inspiration for motivating women. The researchers looked at exercise habits and found that people are inspired to run faster and train harder when they see friends sharing their own fitness stories on social media. But the most noteworthy finding from this research was that while men can find inspiration from both male and female friends, women tend to only become inspired to exercise harder when they see stories from other women.
If we want to encourage more women to become scientists, we as women scientists can start by encouraging self-confidence and serve as mentors for girls who are looking for someone to inspire and support them. Another recent study demonstrated how female engineering undergraduate students were more likely to feel more confident in their technical abilities, as well as their perception of their ability to overcome stress or challenges, when they were connected with a female mentor at the start of their program. Female undergraduate students who had no mentors, on the other hand, were more likely to feel out of place and anxious, with 11% dropping out of the program entirely (in contrast, all of the female students who had female mentors remained in the program). Interestingly enough, grades had no bearing on whether a student remained in the program or not—but the presence of a mentor did.
What does the future hold?
It can seem daunting to look at the facts and figures related to women in STEM and contemplate a way forward. But by recognizing the fundamental importance that self-confidence and mentorship can impart on young minds, we can bring all of the best and brightest minds to science—and make it clear to them that they are welcome, and able, to stay.
If you are working in STEM and are struggling to find your place in the community, start by working independently towards improving your own self-confidence. While you work on building yourself up internally, start your search for your networking support team by reading our Research Entourage series. These articles focus on the characteristics of the members of your career development team, the people who can work with you and support you as you move forward in your career.
If you are lucky enough to feel confident in your career path and want to help the next generation of scientists and engineers, you can volunteer to serve as a mentor for girls and women in STEM. You can also explore the outreach activities happening at your institute and get involved with local events happening in your community that are STEM focused. One great example in the UK is Soapbox Science, an organization that recruits and supports women scientists for science communication and public engagement activities.
Becoming a confident scientist
The life of a scientist will always be fraught with challenges as well as rewards, joys, and ‘eureka!’ moments. After my stressful moments in the lab, I realized that my frustration and tears were not a sign of weakness but were instead a realization that the job I was in was not the right fit for me. With this realization, I was able to focus my energy on finding a new STEM career path that was a better fit for both my expertise and my passions. I’m now enjoying my third month as a medical writer, a job that feels like the right area of STEM for me. My hope is that by finding your own self-confidence and bringing together your research entourage, you can find the job that's the right fit for you!
The strategic graduate student
An early career researcher faces a lot of pressures within the academic research environment. We’re expected to work hard and put in long hours on experiments and data analysis, under the idea that more output (or, in our case, more data) will inevitably lead to more papers and more opportunities. Hard work is a crucial aspect of success in graduate school, but what’s sometimes not as clear, especially in the early periods of our research careers, is how to work smart.
Working smart means being strategic with time: set goals, plan ahead, and adapt as needed. But how exactly can we learn to become more strategic in our work? It’s one thing to design a flawless plan of experiments and analyses in great detail…but what about when an unexpected results offers new insights or inspires different experiments? With an endless array of tasks, distractions, and the all-enveloping feeling like we have to be doing something at any given point in time, how can we clearly see and decide on the most valuable course of action at any given moment?
I’ve been interested in answering this question both in a broad sense as well as for my own work-life balance. And while I’ve had wonderful mentors, coaches, and bosses who have taught me how to prioritize my current work while visualizing the future, I also like to find inspiration from other sources. My reading hobby typically leads me towards history books, in part as a break from reading about science but also as a source of awe-inspiring stories. It’s incredible how often the lives of the great men and women of history were defined by how they made pivotal strategic decisions or how a single idea changed the entire course of history.
One of my recent such reads was Robert Greene’s “The 33 Strategies of War”. Greene’s book offers insights on how you can make your own career, or even your entire life, more strategic. The book is interwoven with stories from history highlighting the 33 concepts described in great detail in his book. If you’re not a military history aficionado, there are also a number of stories about politicians, business leaders, and even artists who fought in their own sort of ‘wars’ as they worked to bring their goals and ideas to life.
Highlights from “The 33 Strategies of War”
Greene’s book is not a practical ‘How to make war’ type of book. It instead focuses more on the psychology of conflict and how to approach these situations with a rational and strategic mind. One of the most important facets of good strategy is to have a wide perspective of your situation. In the case of research, you should thoroughly understand the problems that your field is working to solve and the possible solutions:
“To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into.”
“The essence of strategy is not to carry out a brilliant plan that proceeds in steps: it is to put yourself in situations where you have more options than the enemy does. Instead of grasping at Option A as the single right answer, true strategy is positioning yourself to be able to do A, B, or C depending on the circumstances. This is strategic depth of thinking, as opposed to formulaic thinking.”
Greene also stresses the importance of acting on the plans you make while being flexible to changing situations. While strategy is the “art of commanding the entire military operation”, tactics refers to the “skill of forming up the army for battle itself and dealing with the immediate needs of the battlefield.”
You can think of strategy as the plans you draw up for the experiments you need complete for your dissertation and tactics as the action you take if you find out that one of those experiments was already done by another lab or is no longer needed because another paper refuted the hypothesis. And regardless of how well you plan, you must also be ready to work hard and to learn from any mistakes you make. As Greene said: “What you know must transfer into action, and action must translate into knowledge.”
Greene’s book discusses how to use both victory and defeat to your advantage. Both victory and defeat are temporary, says Greene, because what matters is what you do with the lessons you gain from each encounter. If you win, don’t become blinded by your own success but keep working hard and moving forward. If you lose, envision your loss as a temporary setback and use the lessons learned to plant the seeds of future victory.
Greene also talks extensively about the way that emotions can cause you to make ill-informed decisions. This is especially true for academics and young researchers, where the pressures to work hard and publish can lead many to mental health problems or simply finding themselves burned out from exhaustion. Many of the stories in 33 Strategies of War show how people extricated themselves from difficult situations and provide hope for the rest of us that anyone can make it through any type of challenge we might face:
“Fear will make you overestimate the enemy and act too defensively. Anger and impatience will draw you into rash actions that will cut off your options.”
To become a strategic student, start by waging a war against yourself
Greene’s book goes into great detail on the many facets of war, including offensive and defensive tactics as well as methods for psychological warfare. What I found the most resonant, especially for early career researchers, were the discussions around internal warfare: ‘declaring war on yourself’ in order to progress and move forward. Greene also focuses on the importance of self-confidence and having a positive mindset—a topic we discussed earlier this spring.
One of the most striking personal stories in this section is about General George S. Patton, the famous WWII general who was instrumental in leading the Allies to victory. But before he was a WWII general, he found himself commanding a small contingent of tanks in France during WWI. At one point his unit ended up trapped, their retreat back to base blocked and the only way forward through enemy lines. He found himself terrified to the point of being unable to move or speak. In the end he was able to muster enough courage and stride forward, but the moment left a mark on Patton. He made a habit of putting himself into dangerous situations more regularly, to face that which he feared in order to become less afraid of the situation.
This is one of my favorite stories from 33 Strategies of War. It not only shows us the human side of a great general from modern history, but it also shows us the importance of facing our fears. There are many unknowns, uncertainties, and even fears we face in our own work: what if we get something wrong, what if an experiment fails, what if we don’t win that grant or fellowship. But putting ourselves into challenging situations is part of how we progress. Facing and embracing what we fear helps us move forward and lessens our anxiety surrounding failure.
Another important consideration for graduate students and early career researchers is the importance of taking time away from our work. We’ve discussed the importance of breaks and time away from the lab to give us perspective on our work and refresh our minds, and Greene also highlights this as a strategic move:
“If you are always advancing, always attacking, always responding to people emotionally, you have no time to gain perspectives.”
Through these opening chapters, Greene explores this internal war and how we can develop a warrior’s heart and mindset. Instead of summarizing the chapter in great detail, I’ve highlighted are a few of my favorite quotes from this part of his book:
“He (the warrior) must beat off these attacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learned from defeat—they are worth more than from victory”
(About your presence of mind): “You must actively resist the emotional pull of the moment, staying decisive, confident, and aggressive no matter what hits you.”
(On being mentally prepared for ‘war’): “When a crisis does come, your mind will already be calm and prepared. Once presence of mind becomes a habit, it will never abandon you.” and “The more you have lost your balance, the more you will know about how to right yourself.”
(About keeping an open mind): “Clearing your head of everything you thought you knew, even your most cherished ideas, will give you the mental space to be educated by your present experience.”
(About self-confidence): “Our greatest weakness is losing heart, doubting ourselves, becoming unnecessarily cautious. Being more careful is not what we need; that is just a screen for our fear of conflict and of making a mistake. What we need is double the resolve—an intensification of confidence.”
(On moving forward): “When something goes wrong, look deep into yourself—not in an emotional way, to blame yourself or indulge your feeling of guilt, but to make sure that you start your next campaign with a firmer step and greater vision.”
I’ve learned a lot from mentors and colleagues throughout my career, but I also enjoy looking for inspiration outside of my normal work environment. Greene’s book “The 33 Strategies of War” provides great inspiration in the form of quotes, advice, and stories from history for approaching life strategically and rationally. Greene’s book is also very grounded and realistic in its approach, and he encourages us to do the same:
“While others may find beauty in endless dreams, warriors find it in reality, in awareness of limits, in making the most of what they have.”
Whether we are focused on our own research projects, maneuvering into the world in search of fulfilling work, or just going through our day-to-day lives outside of work, we will encounter different types of battles. Greene’s book focuses on the importance of goals in waging this war, whether they are personal or professional:
“Do not think about either your solid goals or your wishful dreams, and do not plan out your strategy on paper. Instead, think deeply about what you have—the tools and materials you will be working with. Ground yourself not in dreams and plans but in reality: think of your own skills or advantages.”
“Think of it as finding your level—a perfect balance between what you are capable of and the task at hand. When the job you are doing is neither above nor below your talents but at your level, you are neither exhausted nor bored and depressed.”
How we approach them depends on our own strategy, but we can all face them with courage and strength by adopting a warrior’s approach to facing conflict. Greene’s discussion about internal warfare might be one of the books’ most relevant sections for graduate students. There are numerous quotes in this book and it’s difficult to highlight all of the great advice discussed in just one blog post, but to close off the post, here is a post on the importance of having a warrior’s heart:
“It is not numbers or strength that bring victory in war but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them.”
The origins of a super hero
(Spoiler alert: details of the plot of Wonder Woman in this section—proceed with caution!)
I went to the cinema last Saturday eager to see Wonder Woman and optimistic that it would easily be one of my favorite superhero films. But after the film, I spent the entire way home on the tram complaining about the story to my husband. I’ll avoid extended discussions on my frustrations with films that feature breast-shaped armor for women and my other costume-related annoyances (I know it’s a tropical Mediterranean island…but they were fighting with swords and spears. Shouldn’t they be wearing pants or longer skirts that would actually protect your legs from getting hurt??).
In reality, my frustration went deeper than the lack of proper clothing. I was disappointed with the lack of inspiration from Diana’s origin story in that I didn’t feel it was relatable nor realistic. “But it’s a superhero/fantasy movie!” you’re now thinking to yourself. “Of course it’s not real.” But just because the setting is imaginary, it doesn’t mean that the characters can’t feel real or can’t have a backstory that remind us of our own.
Throughout the film, Diana was following her path towards achieving her destiny. She was brave, personable, cared about protecting people, and had a love of justice and doing the right thing, which are all qualities that we should strive for. But she was also the daughter of Zeus, trained from childhood by an island of Amazons for the purpose of defeating her half-brother Ares. For those of us who aren’t born the daughters of gods, how can our own origin story compare?
From humble beginnings to…?
Of the large number of talented, hard-working, and dedicated PhD students and early career researchers, only a select few will end up becoming tenure-track professors. The origin story of the PhDs who don’t end up with a tenure-track job will at first glance look the same as those who go on to be professors: a love of science, a natural talent or ability that leads he/she to a career in research, a dedication to our project, and the hard work and grit it takes to finish a dissertation. But the story doesn’t finish neatly there—at some point, for many of us, the path of our presumed destiny takes a turn.
Turning off from this traditional career path leads us to a new type of beginning. We go from accomplished academic researchers, working hard on every experiment and fighting for every data point, to finding ourselves in an unfamiliar new working world. Any new career path means starting over: a new work culture, new buzzwords, new colleagues, and an overwhelming sensation that we are no longer the experts that we thought we were.
Last week I embarked on my first day as an associate medical writer. I spent three years of life as a post-doc and felt that there was a place for me in the world of research. But after three years, I realized that following what I once thought was my destined path, of becoming some world-renowned/world-changing scientist, was no longer the path for me. I welcomed the opportunity to adjust my career trajectory and explore a new path in the area of medical communications. It meant starting over with a new commute, a new office, new rules, and a new hierarchy, all while becoming familiar with a completely new way of working.
I may not have achieved what I thought had been my destiny, but starting over and embarking on a new path was something that I really wanted to do. Now I have the chance to embrace a new ‘destiny’, taking the lessons I learned on my previous journey while forging ahead to something unknown yet exciting.
If you feel like you’re having a difficult time with starting over, or perhaps even knowing where to begin in writing your own origin story, here’s a few suggestions and things to keep in mind:
Writing your own career origin story
Embrace your passions and abilities.
Our skills and passions define who we are more than the paths we choose in life. Part of finding the right path involves reflecting on what you’re passionate about. We all have a love or a fascination with science, but was it always connected to something else? In your research, do you feel the most inspired when teaching, writing, being creative, or helping others? A successful career is any path that leads you to feeling fulfilled and that puts your passions and expertise to good use. Finding this path is the true definition of success in a career.
Superhero take-home message: Heroes who follow their heart are the ones who inspire us to do the same.
Be ready to change your perspective.
Embarking on any new path forces us to see things with a new pair of eyes. Even just moving to a new lab or getting a new boss provides us with new ways of working and interacting with colleagues. People who make the most of their changing career paths are the ones who are able to learn from their new perspectives and keep a broad look across the horizon. Be ready with an open mind to embrace a new way of working or thinking and you’ll gain as much from your new situation as you’ll put into it.
Superhero take-home message: It’s not enough to follow your heart—you need to open your mind to new ideas and perspectives to be able use what you’ve learned.
Find a mentor and an ally.
Even a solitary hero needs trusted friends on his/her side, and very few super heroes ever work in complete isolation. In any origin story you’ll always find someone who falls into a mentor or teacher role. This is someone who helps the hero embrace a new perspective and progress through their story. Find a person along your path who will help you do the same, a person who will encourage you to work towards your passions while ensuring that you learn as much as possible. A strong mentor wants to see you succeed—so let them guide you, and at times push you, in order to help you get there.
All superheroes need allies, so find someone along your career path who’s either been through the process or who is even learning alongside you. This ally can become your friend, your confidant, or just someone you can share your joys and frustrations with as you progress. Having a person who can empathize with your situation is a strong reminder that even when you’re struggling or you feel like you’re not getting something right, you’re not alone.
Superhero take-home message: Even the strongest of super heroes can’t save the world on their own. All of us need people to guide us and to support us along the way.
Failure is part of the learning process.
We’re all driven by success and by feeling like we’re good at something. For those of us who always excelled in school, a failed experiment or a critical comment hits us in harder than we expected. But many super hero origin stories show us that even heroes make mistakes, both early on and even when they are at the top of their game. They stumble when trying to learn something new or find themselves unable to move forward when faced with a difficult challenge. Remember that critiques are not there to punish us but are there to help us learn and to make us better. Embrace your failures and strive to learn from them instead of fretting over them.
Superhero take-home message: A hero gains more from what he/she gets wrong than what he/she gets right. Use every mistake as an opportunity to learn something new.
We all have to start somewhere.
Anyone who’s at the top of their field, be it a CEO, an institute Director, or a world-renowned researcher, wasn’t born into that role. They had to work to get to that position by starting at the bottom and working their way up. It’s easy to feel downtrodden if we compare ourselves to others without recognizing the potential of our own career stories and remembering that all origin stories have to start somewhere. Instead of comparing yourself to others, recognize that the starting point of your career is the part of the path where you have the most potential. Your actions and your attitude at this stage will help define how far you’ll go in the future. Take a deep breath and remember that even your first step, however small, is still a step forward.
Superhero take-home message: Even in the most personal of origin stories, many heroes learn that the story is not just about themselves. Be ready to take a step back and see the picture from a broader perspective so you can better see your own potential for growth and progress.
Finding (and becoming) your own hero
Your career origin story is as unique and as varied as you are: it comprises your passions, your skills, the opportunities you embrace, and what you do with the challenges life puts in front of you. Perhaps I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I thought I would because I’ve already found super hero inspiration from other origin stories. As my own career path changes trajectory from research scientists to technical writer, I find myself attracted to stories where the hero finds himself or herself in an unexpected place but uses his/her skills, passions, and fortitude to progress and excel. And what’s even more inspiring than tales of fictional super heroes are the people I’ve met who have shared their career transition stories, who took advantage of new career paths and opportunities and found a great place to work that brings their skills and passions together every day.
No matter whose stories you consider inspiring, or what your own path looks like, remember that you can also be your own hero. Whether you’re working hard to find a career that’s the best fit for you, or you simply find yourself on an unexpected detour, your origin story can become one that’s worth telling. No armor or capes required!
Are you up to the challenge?
If you’ve seen any advertisements for martial arts schools, you’ve likely noticed how the various forms of martial arts are all touted as ways for a person to gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Given the fact that I already have a black belt and am now approximately one year away from earning a second, you would think that confidence would be no problem, that I’ve already gained perfect self-esteem from earning a black belt. How could I ever lack confidence?
After nearly three years of tae kwon do training in Liverpool, I now have a new club and a new coach. Stepping into an unknown dojo where the warm-ups, stretches, and drills are all new is a humbling experience when you get to a moment where you feel like you can’t keep up with everyone who knows the routine already. It’s left me feeling less confident in my abilities than the month before and more frustrated when I got things wrong. Even with three years of training and a red belt, I still suffer from waivers in my own self-confidence in the sport.
There are many experiences as a PhD student or early career researcher that can cause our confidence to waiver: a rejected grant, a scathing comment on a manuscript review, or a failed experiment. We all face challenging moments that shake our beliefs in our own value or skills. Having strong self-confidence is one of the ways that we can work through challenging moments as we keep our head held high and our mind in a positive place. In this week’s post we’ll discuss the importance of self-confidence and the steps you can take to unveil your own inner champion.
The basics of confidence
Confidence is touted as one of these all-important facets of life, as something that we all need to have. But does anyone really know how to get it? Is it learned or inherited? How does one learn to be confident? Similar to the concept of networking, confidence is a nebulous concept that feels difficult to acquire.
The Oxford dictionary lists the first definition of confidence as: “The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” For this post, we’re more interested in the secondary definition: “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities.”
In other words, confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this” and when you hear that voice, you believe it.
But let’s approach this more scientifically. We shouldn’t believe that voice without empirical evidence—we need proof of our own abilities, not just belief in them. Thankfully in academic research, empirical metrics are everywhere. It’s why we care about endpoints like the number of papers we published, how many citations those papers have, who comes to our talks, how many grants/awards we receive, etc. We put value on our tangible accomplishments, all listed out conveniently on our CV. So if they’re all listed out and we can count them and read them, it should be easy to gain confidence from them, right?
This is only true if we appreciate our achievements, our abilities, and who we are as people and as researchers. We can have a CV filled with papers, book chapters, and awards yet can still feel like we are not good enough. This is evident when talking about imposter syndrome, a situation where regardless of the number of achievements or accolades, you discredit yourself and your work entirely. The trick is that confidence cannot be imparted on you externally—no number of papers or awards will make you more confident. Confidence has to come from within.
How do you gain confidence?
Building confidence cannot done in a single day of soul-searching, but it’s something that you have to work on continually. Confidence is also ephemeral; it can wash over you and make you feel as if you’re invincible, or it can quickly recede and leave you feeling vulnerable, just like I experience in own waivers of confidence associated with tae kwon do.
Martial arts emphasize the importance of the mental components of the sport, such as meditation, courtesy, and respect, at the same time as teaching you physical skills. But the key to finding confidence in a sport, or any activity, and even in your own career, is you. Anytime I go to a tournament or test for a new belt, I get nervous. I see the other people I will fight against or the high-ranking black belts who will judge my performance. It’s not enough to look down at my red belt and see my achievements with my own eyes—I have to feel them, too.
Your own path to self-confidence will be very personal, but if you’re looking to make steps in a positive direction, here are some ways that you can work towards breaking down the barrier between seeing and believing in yourself:
Find your passion.
In your own career, you will find that a love of science or research doesn’t necessarily translate into a passion for every aspect of the job. You also won’t be naturally gifted at every part of your work. To help build confidence in the early stages of your career, find and focus on the part of your work that you love the most and use this as a central focus of your confidence-building activities.
For me this focus was (and still is) writing. I used writing as a way to gain confidence in the rest of my project. It was a way for me to collate thoughts and ideas before taking them to a place where I had less confidence, like a platform presentation or a committee meeting. Writing helped me realize that I did know what I was talking about and gave me an opportunity to do something I liked while also improving on the other parts of my work, like public speaking.
Keep your level of confidence steady through both ups and downs.
Although your confidence will inevitably shift when faced with the positive and negative events of your situation or career path, work to avoid the extreme ends of the spectrum (either a complete lack of confidence or over-inflated self-worth) by finding your center ground.
From this position, you can use positive situations to propel you further, but be sure to stay within reasonable bounds. One published paper won’t lead to a Nobel prize, but it is a worthwhile achievement and worthy of celebration. On the other hand, one rejected paper is not a complete step down from your center ground, but rather a chance to take the positive part of a negative situation and to learn from what went wrong the first time. Failures are one of the best ways we can gain fresh perspectives and to improve our work for the next submission.
Practice positive thinking.
In science we are surrounded by critiques and reviews of our work, and many of us will internalize these messages as well as adding a few negative ones of our own. Being self-assured in your own qualities and abilities involves injecting optimism into your internal dialogue to help offset the critiques that come with a high-achieving career.
Positive thinking doesn’t have to be cheesy or fake, and you don’t need a pair of pompoms to be your own cheerleader. For example, positive thinking can provide a positive spin to negative situations (“The rejection was pretty tough, but the reviewer makes good points that I can incorporate into the next draft”) or can help you envision a positive outcome instead of dwelling on a negative one (“I’m nervous for the talk, but I’ve practiced it enough now that I know I’ll do a great job once I get on the stage!”).
I am not a naturally optimistic person, especially when I get nervous. One approach that I use is to change the situation when I’m surrounded by my own negative thoughts. I text a friend or call my husband to vent my nerves to someone else or to simply change the topic. Even turning on some upbeat music can help shift your mindset when you find yourself in a funk. If I am nervous for a talk, a meeting, or a tournament, I turn on some Sia or Madonna to put my mind in a better place. Shifting your situation can help improve your mood and broaden your perspective, opening up your mind to positive thoughts instead of negative ones.
Remember that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Failing is an essential part of any career and is also a facet of becoming an expert in any sport, skill, trade, or activity. Unless you are a prodigy, trying something new or beyond your current skill level will involve various degrees of failure. Becoming self-confident means facing a potential failure with cautious optimism: cautious in that you know you need to try your best, but optimistic in that you believe you can succeed, even if you fail the first time around.
Another important thing to remember is that coaches and mentors give critiques specifically because they want to see you improve. In general, people who seek out careers as professor want to see their students and their mentees succeed. Your mentors know that you are the next generation of scientists, and their critiques are there to help you, even if they are offered in a rather blunt or direct manner. You should also recognize that when people criticize your work, they are critiquing your output, not you as a person.
Confidence is not an easy thing to obtain. The keys to building confidence are to stay grounded, explore new skills and tasks while highlighting on your passions and abilities, and work to maintain a positive outlook. When good things happen, maintain a steady disposition and find productive ways to cope with failure, even if it means a short change of perspective or distraction from the situation. Once you begin living life with confidence, it will be difficult for any challenge to dislodge you completely. You’ll find that the challenges don’t last forever and the critiques only serve to fuel your internal flame.
“So, what are your plans for after you finish?”
It’s no secret that being a PhD student is stressful. Thankfully the process of earning a PhD doesn’t last forever, but because of its finite nature, any conversations with friends or colleagues will lead to the inevitable question of “So, what’s next?.” My group of colleagues includes some final year PhD students, all of whom are facing a not-too-distant future of writing and defending their dissertations. On top of this pressure, they are also worried about their job prospects and transition from student to employee.
When I finished my PhD, I was fortunate enough to have a prospective post-doc offer not long after finishing my dissertation. I managed to pass the time between submitting my dissertation and graduation without any additional job search stress. But I didn’t escape the job search stress for very long—last spring, and after many months of uncertainty about extending my post-doc contract, I found myself scrambling for what to do next. I applied for 9 jobs, and even landed an interview for one of them, but nothing fruitful came out of my search. I took a deep breath of relief when my contract was officially extended, but the experience left me with two realizations: 1) I was very lucky to still have a job, and 2) I would be in the exact same position again in 10 months’ time if I didn’t do something differently.
The importance of a professional network
Part of the reason for my struggle during my initial job search was that I only sort of knew what I wanted to do, which at the time included anything related to science communication, publications, public engagement, and so on. I knew that I didn’t want a career as a researcher, but I didn’t know what my exact options were or how to get there. What would an application reviewer be looking for on my resume? What sorts of skills did I need to highlight that were not on my academic CV? What types of positions could I realistically aim for with my skills and experience?
I had a lack of understanding since I had only recently decided what I wanted to do after my research post, and because I was new to the area I also lacked an existing network of colleagues and potential mentors working in the field that I wanted to enter. From my time as a researcher, I had a vast network of academics as well as industry and government researchers, but I didn’t know anyone doing science communication or writing. I had a broad understanding of where I wanted to go, but I was walking there blindfolded.
We discussed in a previous post about the nebulous nature of networking and some approaches you can use to make connections. Before we go further in this post, it would be good to revisit the definition of a network once more. Simply put, your network is the set of connections you have to colleagues, friends, and family members. These are connections you’ve made on a personal level: it’s not just shaking someone’s hand at a conference but means having a working relationship with them. They know who you are, what you can do, and your passions and area of expertise.
Networking may not seem that important if you are in the midst of lab work or writing your dissertation. But a solid network with more than one branch can take you places that wouldn’t be possible by simply sending in job applications and hoping for the best. Networking can show you hidden opportunities that won’t always be advertised and your mentors and connections can help you figure out how to enter into a new area by helping you to highlight your relevant skills or lay out a job-specific resume.
But there’s a trick to networking: because your network represents your relationships with other people, it’s not something you can put together on a short notice. You need to establish your network early on in your career so you have time to work with and establish trust between you and your connections. The key is to build trust with others before you need something from the other person—like a job, for example.
Where should I start?
1) Identify your skills, professional interests, and your long-term career goals
After going through contract extension panic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in science communication. But my short stint of job applications made me realize that this was a very broad ambition, and I felt like I was spreading myself very thin trying to cover every aspect of what this type of career could entail.
One of the ways I narrowed my career target was by reading Born for This and going through the book’s exercises. Perhaps the most powerful exercise in the book was when the author told us to think about what other people ask us to help with the most. This is a way of showing us what we’re good at because it’s something that others ask us to do for them. I realized that over the course of my time as both a PhD student and post-doc, I helped others the most with writing. Sometimes it was reviewing articles or manuscripts, other times it was in taking the lead on a paper that had been sitting unwritten for too many months. This exercise helped me realize something that was both a passion and a skill, which then helped me focus on careers related to writing.
2) Rework your brand
Knowing that I wanted to look for writing jobs, I sought out more opportunities to write. I participated in writing contests and guest posts for blogs and University websites. I then restructured my CV to highlight my written work more strongly. I also took part in writing classes (Coursera has some fantastic online courses if you’re looking for something free) and made sure that my social media profiles were up-to-date and reflected my career goals.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I did spend a good deal of time working on this outside of my normal post-doc hours. But it was also very enjoyable—I enjoyed learning about new topics and I got to meet other like-minded people in the process. This should also be a part of your re-branding process; if you’re not having a good time being the person you’re working hard to become, you should reconsider the path you’re walking on.
3) Look for opportunities that fit your style and your needs
Once you have your career goal and your brand figured out, start looking for what options you have based on your current/future limitations. For me, I knew that my husband had a job offer in Manchester for two years, so I wanted to look for science writing/communication jobs in that area. While looking at jobs on LinkedIn I found several posts for medical writers, and there were a lot of entry-level positions in the Manchester area.
I soon discovered a field, of which I had never heard, that was looking for PhD-trained researchers right in my back yard! I followed up by looking in more detail at the job advertisements, finding some resources about the field online, and sent off my resume for a couple of posts even though I didn’t need a job at the time. I felt that I had struck gold, but knew that it would take more than a good looking CV to get me my first job in a new area.
4) Look for connections that can help you reach those opportunities
Last autumn I was busy trying to get lab work finished so I could make more progress on the final manuscript for my project. One afternoon I found myself chatting with a PI in the physiology department whose lab space I used for some of my experiments. He knew that I was getting towards the end of my post-doc contract and asked if I had plans to stay in research and I told him I was looking to make a transition into the medical communications industry. As it turned out, the PI had a friend who was working at a medical writing firm near Manchester. He offered to pass me along his contact details and even to put in a good word with me at the pub when he met his friend for a drink later that week.
This conversation was a lucky exchange but one that highlights the importance of having trusted connections in all parts of your work. I was only working in this lab part-time and had no interest in continuing that facet of my work, but the PI knew I was hard-working, organized, and creative. He soon passed along his friend’s contact details and I made the all-important initial contact: a request for an informational interview.
I didn’t ask this new contact for a job or to look at my CV, since at the time he was only a colleague of a colleague. In my initial exchange I asked if we could meet informally to discuss more about medical communications in general. My goal was to meet someone in the field and hear from them what the work was like, then later on to expand this relationship and work towards getting help structuring my CV or even hints on potential job posts. This was all starting to happen close to six months before my contract would finished, so I also didn’t need anything explicit during our initial contact.
PS: If you’re looking for tips on what to ask during an information interview, be sure to check out Alaina Levine’s “Networking for Nerds book-it’s a great read!
5) Pursue opportunities as they come
The informational interview that I proposed never actually happened. As it turned out, the company was recruiting for an associate medical writer, and my new contact asked for my CV right away. I was nervous to send off my CV, but the work I had done restructuring my resume and highlighting my writing-oriented skills paid off. I was then given a writing test and made sure to not take the effort lightly even though I didn’t need a job at that time. I learned more about what was expected and dedicated a set amount of time to working on the test. One successful writing test and one in-person interview later (with my new contact at the other side of the table), I found myself celebrating the new year with a job offer to my name—months ahead of schedule!
Writing your own career story
My own career story was the result of yet another stroke of luck. But sometimes luck isn’t just a random coincidence: luck is something you can make for yourself. Sometimes luck is a product of the time and place you’re in. Sometimes luck is an opportunity you didn’t plan for that ends up directing your life’s story. Luck, timing, and the ability to find and seize opportunities leads us to many paths in our careers, and it’s often on these unplanned roads that we find the way through our own career journey.
But in order to take advantage of the hidden opportunities that can lead to game-changing moments, we need to network. This involves having strong personal connections with a wide range of colleagues as well as a solid and trusted reputation that connects to your name. Networking might seem like something nebulous or far-off while you’re knee deep in your own research, but thinking about your own career path as well as what connections you need to get there can take away part of the stress and uncertainty of your job search. You might not instantly have an answer for the question “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” but at least you’ll be able to say with confidence: “I’m exploring my options.”
Last week I attended a seminar about new advances in clinical trials for cancer treatments. The seminar started off with one of the research leads from the University of Liverpool clinical trials research center introducing the topic and the upcoming speakers. The introduction emphasized the importance of research with impact and that knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone isn’t useful. Based on the number of problems that scientific research is needed to solve, the organizer reasoned, we simply can’t do research that doesn’t have a direct application.
I didn’t fully disagree with the cancer research group lead, but his statement did catch me off-guard. There’s certainly a lot of research that seems to go nowhere or that leaves us asking “Why did tax money go to this study?” Having a vision of what the research can lead to is a way to ensure that the work we do as researchers has meaning. But at the same time, it’s unfair to say that knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn’t necessarily useful.
This also presents a challenge for science communication, since one of the ways that we engage with an audience is to try to connect them to a story by sharing its impact. The lack of an immediate impact is not necessarily a failure of science, but it is a potential barrier for effective science communication. Not everything that scientists do will be relevant, interesting, or meaningful for the everyday person—but does that mean we can’t communicate this kind of science effectively?
The comments made at the seminar came at a time when I was halfway through reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I found myself deeply intrigued by Robert Pirsig’s discussion on the infinite nature of hypothesis testing. Will science inevitably continue to answer one hypothesis at a time only to have five more hypotheses appear once that one has been addressed? Will we ever have data that’s solid enough to support or refute a hypothesis, or will there always be an infinite number of counter-explanations for a given observation?
Pirsig’s book wasn’t what exactly light evening reading, and maybe not the way to get people interested in science, but I did enjoy his discussions and spend some time pondering both his book and one of my previous posts on the philosophical foundation of scientific research. PhD students and early career researchers know all too well how new results often lead us to more burning questions as opposed to solid answers. As scientists, we slowly work towards conclusions about how the world works and gain, piece-by-piece, a better understanding of our world.
But the progress of science isn’t always as tedious as it may feel when we’re in the middle of it. My own enthusiasm for science was ignited last week with the news from NASA about the TRAPPIST-1 system. And with global threats like climate change, freak asteroids, and American politics, it seems like a good time to get excited about potentially habitable planets that are 40 light years away!
NASA news is broadly exciting for many of us, but it’s also the type of news that reflects this idea that not all science will impact our day-to-day lives. This work is science for the sake of science, for a better understanding of our universe, and quite unlikely to directly affect anyone in this lifetime. It’s the kind of story that makes for great science news, but doesn’t necessarily answer the question of “Why should I care about science?” for people who are living their own lives and who aren’t necessarily interested in the mysteries of the universe.
Two weeks ago I talked about the upcoming March for Science and the goal of getting people on the side of science. While engagement is essential for the future of science, we should also recognize that not everyone will be as enthusiastic about science as we are. A recent survey from voters in the 2016 election asked people what they consider “very important” for their voting decisions. While the economy and terrorism are broadly important to most voters, only 52% of voters surveyed considered the environment influential in their voting decision.
It sounds like an uphill battle at first, but with these things in mind we can come up with a strategy for the future of science communication:
- Part of our message needs to reflect science as a methodology, not just a field of study. To improve science literacy, we can’t simply report more scientific discoveries but should instead emphasize the scientific discovery and hypothesis validation process.
- We should write science communication stories as if we were journalists and not public relations officers. Journalists write stories that discuss a topic from as many sides as possible. If you’re promoting science as a means of reaching a universal truth, you should present the story in a way that allows people to draw their own conclusions or alternative hypothesis about a topic’s worth.
- We should not be shy about the fact that not all research will be directly relevant for people’s lives. We can emphasize that scientists may need to ask “How does this work?” while holding back on the inevitable question of “Why should I care?” right away.
- Scientists and science communicators can also think about how they can meet people where they are. As an example, an EPA scientist from Louisiana recently attended a town hall meeting, where her statements were met with enthusiastic support. People who are already interested in science might meet us on twitter, come to our seminars, or meet us at a museum, but what about people who might not have a weekend trip to the Natural history museum on the top of their to do list? You can also think about what science stories you connect with: Do you like all fields of science? What drives your interest in a topic? Why do you click on a news headline?
There are numerous topics in science and research that are relevant for people who aren’t scientists, ranging from cancer drug trials to global warming. The stories we tell about these topics will make their strongest impacts when they are focused on the impacts to people over the science itself. But as scientists, we shouldn’t neglect the utility of knowledge for the sake of knowledge or consider people as scientifically illiterate/unengaged just because they don’t share the same curiosities as we do.
Part of the goal of science communication can be in sharing science for what it is: as a way of reaching the truth that can be slow, monotonous, and mysterious—but it’s a way that we can reach incredible findings that have impact beyond our own lives. As the saying goes: sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
After a time for self-reflection at the end of 2016 and a re-energizing holiday break, many of us have optimistic ideas for what we want to achieve in the next 365 days. It can feel like nothing will stand in the way of us achieving the goals that we set at the start of a new year. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions have a tendency to quickly fall to the wayside after those first few weeks of post-Christmas energy start to wear off. That elated, fresh-start feeling we have on January 1st feels all-too-quickly dispersed by the time we arrive at those gloomy and gray days of February, when over half of us will have already given up on our resolution. This can leave us wondering if there’s really any point in making a resolution each and every new year given that so many of us fail to follow through.
Here at Science with Style, we believe that any time of the year is an opportunity for a fresh start, for self-reflection, and for setting goals. Any goal that’s made with your professional or personal growth in mind is never a waste of time, especially if the end result is something of importance for you or your future career. It’s easy to sit on your couch (or, if you’re the more adventurous type, out on the town) watching the lights drop on New Year’s Eve and dream of things you want to achieve but can be difficult when you don’t really know how you’ll get there.
To help you stay on track with achieving your resolutions, not just until January but for the rest of 2017, here are our recommendations for what you can do to truly make this year a great one:
- Be precise. Develop a clear vision of what you want to achieve and make a target. Instead of saying “I want to write a paper” or “I want to have a better work-life balance”, set a specific goal. Maybe it’s writing 200 words a day of your thesis/manuscript, a dedicated amount of time each week for writing, or a set time during the week when you chat with friends over coffee instead of writing emails. Being clear and precise prevents you from making a nebulous goal that is hard to keep. A clear goal also gives you a road map on how to start with a resolution.
Along with a short-term goal (like something you achieve on a daily or weekly basis), set intermediate targets for yourself to help keep track of your progress throughout the year. If your goal is to write and you aim for 200 words a day, you’ll have made it to over 3,000 by the end of the month—that’s over half of a paper already done! Set small targets on a day-by-day basis that you’re not going to feel intimidated by. These specific targets can help you see how much time it will take you to finish intermediate goals, like completing the literature review section of a thesis, and you can also work with your mentor or advisor to keep track of your work progress on a more regular basis.
- Be realistic. As much as I hate to admit it, there are really only so many hours in a day and only so much time outside of lab hours that we can devote to our personal goals. It’s good to stay busy but you also want to avoid overloading yourself to the point that you no longer have any time to relax. Stretching yourself too thin will only lead to you feeling more burned out and more likely to give up on a new year’s resolution that’s taking too much of your free time.
As you’re setting your specific goals, think of the other needs you have during the week apart from lab work. It could be a weekly racquetball game with a colleague or a recurring Saturday brunch with your friends. Don’t double-book yourself against your time that you normally use for recreation or socialization and instead find time in the remaining part of your week. Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes, a set amount of time devoted to a task can quickly add up without interfering with the rest of your like. If you do something for your career for just 10 minutes every day, it adds up to over 60 hours of time that you’ve devoted to a personal goal over the entire year. That’s over a full week’s worth of work!
- Be accountable. Some people are very good at staying self-motivated while others find it difficult to meet goals without an external deadline or other source of accountability. If you have trouble keeping goals on your own, find a friend, colleague, or mentor who’s also making resolutions at work together to hold each other accountable on your milestones. Meet with your accountability buddy on a regular basis and talk about your progress. If you’re not making progress or are struggling with something, you can talk to your buddy about it and avoid waiting until it’s too late to figure out how to change your strategy.
- Be flexible. An item on your to do list that you put there on a Monday can frequently end up still sitting on your list on that Friday afternoon. Sometimes our weeks and days are busier than we anticipate, last-minute things pop up that take more time than we planned, or something comes up that distracts us from other tasks at hand. Not achieving everything you set out to do doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fall behind or eventually fail at your goal, so don’t beat yourself up about it.
Rank your goals ahead of time so you know which ones are more important and deserve nmore of your focus. Then you can let the less important ones fall aside during busier times, such as getting ready for a conference or a big experiment. This can help keep you from over-extending yourself while still enabling you to achieve the most important items in your to do list and also lets you be flexible when busier times arise, as they inevitably do.
- Be optimistic. Maybe it’s the post-holiday crash of going back to work/school after a nice break or the nasty winter weather—whatever the reason, you tend to see a lot of negativity and general grumbling this time of year. Even if you’re a positive person, being surrounded by negativity can work its way into your head, and it make it tempting to leave your goals behind.
As difficult as it is, especially during this post-holiday malaise, try to keep yourself in positive spirits during these weeks of the winter season. Start your year off with simple goals before you jump into the more heavy duty to do’s, like cleaning up your desk or lab bench or catching up with a friend or colleague you haven’t seen in a while. Use these small achievements to give you some initial momentum for the rest of the year as you tackle your larger goals. Take time to find enjoyment outside of work and you resolutions by doing things that keep gloominess at bay: see a film with friends, try a new recipe, or visit an art exhibit. There are lots of ways to stay optimistic and inspired even during the colder and drearier months of the year.
The New Year can always be an opportunity for making a fresh start, and I hope this list will help you in your goals for an excellent 2017. In terms of my own resolutions, my primary goal is to write outside of my comfort zone. I’ve gotten into the habit of the weekly Science with Style posts but am now looking to challenge myself beyond the weekly long-form blog. This means I’ll be trying out my hand at some short freelance pieces, news-oriented writing, and even some fiction. I’ll be scaling down the SwS posts to twice a month to help me keep up with my resolution—but have no fear: there’s lots to see in our archives and I’ll still be posting articles and discussions on twitter on a regular basis.
I hope you all are having a wonderful, inspiring, and also relaxing start to your 2017. We’ll see you again in two weeks’ time—hopefully you’re more than ready for another year of doing science with style!
I attended the #scidata16 meeting last week as an amateur reporter and as part of an award for being selected as a finalist for the SciData writing contest. After the conference I returned to my own office and my own project, searching for the code and datasets I needed to re-make some figures from some data analysis months prior, with the discussions of the previous day all of a sudden feeling even more relevant. I thought it would be worthwhile for our Science with Style readers to provide some highlights from the conference and some tips and tricks for data management and sharing. You’ll be able to read my upcoming report on one of the keynote presentations in a future post on the Nature Jobs blog.
Early career researchers, especially PhD students, tend to focus on their own work and their own project. But as you progress through a career in research, the projects you’ll be involved in will become much larger efforts, with not as much of the project that’s yours and yours alone. Anyone who’s dug through a freezer full of boxes to find some crucial samples that a student who graduated 3 years ago left in a box labelled “E. coli samples” will know the struggles facing those of us in lab management.
But for researchers who are working on large datasets or large collaborative projects, the concepts and importance of data management might not be as evident. As science students we learn how to keep lab notebooks organized and in graduate school we learn how to organize our samples and important reagents, but when your entire project is stored digitally, how should it be organized? When do we learn as Phd students or early career researchers how to manage digital information?
While the conference was focused on quite a few topics related to data science, management, and open data, I’ll focus on just a few of the highlights from the keynotes. You can read more in-depth about the meeting in upcoming posts by myself and other #scidata16 contest winners in the coming weeks.
Reproducibility: When comparing data science with wet lab science, there are more overlaps than you think in how both are conducted and managed. One overlapping concept is that both types of data need to be reproducible. The first keynote speaker, Dr Florian Markowetz of the University of Cambridge, gave an example of a paper which was later retracted after two bioinformaticians noticed that the incredible findings they discovered were only due to Excel copy-paste errors. And those incredible figures you made once but now can’t find the original code? You need to have the data and the plan in order to make them again, or else it’s not a trustworthy result. My favorite quote from this talk was “A project is more than a beautiful result.”
Dr. Markowetz also gave the audience 5 things that data reproducibility can do for you. It can 1) help you avoid disaster, like having a retracted paper, 2) help you write a paper since it’s easier to look up numbers and be confident in your figures, 3) help you during peer-review since you can share your data and let the reviewer take a look for themselves, 4) help you achieve continuity in your work so you can come back to a problem later and you don’t have to start all over again, and 5) it will help you build a better reputation, which will allow you to submit your work to better journals and can establish yourself as a solid scientist.
Dr. Markowetz gave a great talk and emphasized that reproducibility is not a waste of time but is a part of science—think if your lab mate or a future student in your lab could repeat the ground-breaking results you generate in your thesis. The big take-home message here is to make reproducibility a part of your work flow early on in your career.
Data sharing: We started off the second keynote by Dr. Jenny Molloy (also from the University of Cambridge) with an answer to the seemingly apparently question of ‘What is Data?’, which she defined as collected observations and tabular calculations. Explaining what data you have is the first step for data sharing. It’s also important to understand that you can retain ownership and restrict how other uses and reuse data you share, similar to copyright on images and written works.
In another series of 5 items, we also learned the 5 steps for data sharing: 1) get motivated and start early, 2) stay on top of your data, 3) share the way you want to, 4) make the most of your sharing experience, and 5) set an example to your colleagues. If you ask why sharing is important, Dr. Molloy emphasized how open data can lead to better career recognition, connections to new collaborators and employers, and even gave some examples of how open science is creating new jobs for researchers with experience in data management. Other presentations on open data also highlighted tools available to researchers—if you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the Open Knowledge Framework website for examples and data management training.
Data management: Dr. Kevin Ashley from the University of Edinburgh discussed tools and infrastructure already in place for data management. He first emphasized that data management is not something that happens at the end of a project but something that begins when you conceptualize an idea and think about what data might look like in the end. The importance of good data collection and management was also highlighted in discussions on astronomy data and their use in research today. Measurements from 8th century astronomers are still being used by researchers today, although for purposes not connected to what the observers originally intended. Dr. Ashley also mentioned the volume of data collection efforts from the Hubble telescope, where numerous publications and observations were made not on data collected by the researcher who wrote the paper. This keynote highlighted the importance of clear and open data management policies that allow researchers to tap into their own ideas without even having collected the data themselves.
Dr. Ashley also mentioned that we’ll be running out of storage space in the long term, based on how quickly storage capacities and the number of datasets are both increasing. Because of that, it’s important for ECRs to consider what needs to be kept and for how long. And for curious ECRs wondering about the details of data management, recommendations for project budgets (5%) as well as the role of institutional infrastructure for data storage were also discussed.
The future of data science: Dr. Andrew Hufton, the editor of Scientific Data, talked about the role of data journals as well as the importance of meeting journal requirements for open data sharing. Data journals are one way to get credit for reproducibility of your results and to have your data cited even when you’re not involved with the new paper itself. Data should also be seen before it can be believed, and it needs to be able to be shared or it’s not science. Dr. Hufton also emphasized how data sharing drives the impact of your work, especially for researchers working in emerging or timely fields (such as zika virus research).
Dr. Hufton also presented an acronym for good data sharing, the type of sharing that allows other authors to replicate and build off of the author’s claims. This includes making data FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable (i.e. in the right format), and reusable (i.e. having really good descriptors for each header). Dr. Hufton also emphasized that while supplementary materials are great, they are not curate and machine-readable and should not be the only place you put your results.
What’s next? One of the last points discussed really hit home for me: when it comes to being a scientist, we need to take time to remember the reason that we do research: we are tackling the problems facing our world and need to remember that people’s lives can be directly impacted by our work. Any work we do that’s not open, repeatable, or manage properly can negatively impact others, not just our own career, and work poorly done work can be harmful to people who rely on our work for bettering their lives. A recent article about incentives in science highlighted this concept, which again brings up the need for incentivizing well-done, repeated studies instead of just more publications.
While it will take some time for the research culture to change, you can already find Open Science peers through the OSF network as well as reaching out to your institution for support in terms of data management and open data platforms available. With just a few of the potential benefits to your career laid out in this post, there are certainly a number of reasons for having open, repetitive, and well-managed datasets—and if I didn’t manage to convince you in this post, you can catch up on the #scidata16 tweets or see the presentations posted later on the Nature Jobs website.
I greatly enjoyed #scidata16 not only for the experiences as a reporter-in-training but also as a bioinformatician and as a person who is interested in finding ways to improve the research experiences of PhD students and ECRs. The conference had a great set of speakers as well as tips and tricks for researchers at all stages in their careers and across a range of fields. Whether it’s a big or small dataset, making it readable, available, and interpretable by others in the long run is a more powerful tool than I would have thought before attending this conference. Who knows—it could even get you a publication in a Nature journal!
On Sunday night my husband and I returned home after a 10-day trip across South Korea and Japan. At just under one thousand pictures across six cities and two countries, the trip was incredible—but also exhausting. With an itinerary full of hikes, sightseeing, early train rides, and the inevitable jet lag, we arrived back home more or less worn out. There were times on the trip, especially our long 21-hour travel day back home on Sunday, when I thought to myself “Why don’t I take more relaxing holidays?”
Halfway through our trip, we flew from Busan at the very southern tip of South Korea to Kansai airport in central Japan. A 6am taxi pick-up, followed by a 1 hour drive across town, followed by queueing for check-in, security, the border control, and finally the plane ride, left us feeling a bit exhausted by the time we made it to Osaka. But a comfortable express train brought us to one of my favorite places in the world: Kyoto. The soft October sun and the touch of red in the maple trees greeted us to the city and I soon forgot the exhaustion required to get there.
Our first stop was Kennin-ji, my favorite temple in Kyoto. It’s a large complex that sits in the middle of the city. Despite a busy day with swarms of tourists wandering all over, the temple itself was rather quiet. It felt like we had the 800 year-old wooden hallways and painted panels all to ourselves. My husband and I scuttled around in shoeless feet with the scent of incense and a warm autumn day surrounding us.
The temple was in itself another moment to reflect on the trip so far, of the incredible moments instead of the exhaustion or the travel details. The breathtaking mountainside temples just outside of Seoul, the relics of the Silla dynasty in the 1500 year-old capital Gyeongju, and the sunny beach-side breezes while walking in Busan. And of course all of our adventures (and misadventures) were followed by warm nights spent outside while enjoying spicy soups and delicious barbeque to refuel after long days of walking.
Many of the places we visited on the trip were Buddhist temples. Buddhism includes a range of sects and branches, many of which were hard for me to keep track of after the numerous temples and shrines we encountered. Zen Buddhism was popular in both Korea and Japan and emphasizes the importance of hard work to its followers. They see hard work as a path towards enlightenment, and had the foresight to bring over tea from China to help give their followers the energy they needed.
A job as a researcher involves a lot of work, and at times a lot of stress, but it also brings great reward. The elation we feel when our work is finally published comes from the knowledge of what it took to get to that point in the first place. The joy we share with our colleagues when we get a significant result after weeks of troubleshooting comes from the journey we took to get that result, not just the result itself. And as much as I enjoy the more relaxing parts of a holiday or the end of a long a work day, I can see where those Zen monks are coming from—there’s a lot of joy to be had from knowing a good day’s work has been done.
I’m certainly not yet a Zen Researcher and am still looking for ways to achieve Research Nirvana instead of feeling weighed down by the long days or the stressful moments. I’m also certainly not a Zen Traveler either, as I still get stressed out by early morning train rides and rainy days on my holiday. But what I do try to do in both my career and my life is to enjoy the rewarding moments as they come, to focus on them instead of the stress that led you to them. Let the joy of a well-earned view on a hike, a hidden mountainside temple, or an accepted paper provide the fuel you need to keep working towards the next milestone.
For me, achieving Zen as a researcher is a constant effort to find the balance between work, life, and everything in between. Since finding a balance requires knowing how much weight to put on either side, I encourage you to weigh the rewards and the challenges of your own hard work, however large or small they might be. And just as the monks saw the value of tea for their efforts, don’t forget to include a bit of caffeinated assistance as you continue on your own journey towards achieving your goals—although we might recommend coffee over tea for a stronger effect!
Some Mondays end up being more Monday-ish than others. This week started with a particularly Monday-ish Monday, not in that any one thing was extremely challenging or upsetting but that it felt like things kept piling on. I woke up reading the commentary on the previous night’s dreadful excuse for a US Presidential debate, which itself came after a weekend of voiced concerns on Facebook and Twitter about brushing off comments made about women as “locker room talk” or “alpha-male banter.” Not to be one-upped by America, of course, the UK decided to fan the Brexit furor, this time discussing how to “name and shame” companies that hire non-British talent. In theory, companies would have to disclose how many expats (like me) they hired in the thought that sharing this information would be a disincentive. This would in theory include almost every university here in the UK, not to mention countless other research institutions here. The combination of this acrid news from both of the places I consider home, combined with work deadlines related to collating comments on a manuscript and dealing with freezer repair logistics, turned the start of this week into the epitome of a Monday.
Stressful situations, even if they are just another Monday sort of Monday, can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. They can bring out frustrations or worries that in a normal day might go unnoticed. It’s for this reason that World Mental Health Day is such a crucial day to remember, especially for those of us in the academic and research sectors. We are constantly being judged by our results, critiqued by our reviewers, and wondering if and when the next job, grant, or statistically significant result will finally arrive. These may all reflect the reality of just another day in the office of an academic researcher, but when this day is compounded by either external stresses from outside of work or internal pressures that you set on yourself, stress can become a real problem.
I am fortunate enough to not have experienced many significant external stressors in my life. Apart from the occasionally Monday-ish Mondays, my life treats me very well. I have a wonderful husband who supports me every day, friends and family who look out for me on a regular basis, and I’m in good health with some savings in my pocket. I know this is not the case for many people and I won’t pretend that “I know your pain” or try to convince you that this blog post can make everything better. But what I do struggle with, and what I imagine other researchers might also empathize with, is a large amount of internal pressure that I put on myself, pressure that can occasionally build up to unhealthy levels.
I’ve seen a lot of PhD students and aspiring academics/researchers who have similar personality traits. In general we tend to be organized, Type-A individuals, the ones who sit in the front of the classroom with a fleet of colored pens for taking notes and who already know the answers to every question. Because of the nature of our work, we also tend to be very independently driven. We’re the ones that don’t have to be told to do something in order to do it. It’s the reason we publish without submission deadlines and finish lab work without a boss telling us exactly what to do. This is a great trait to have as an academic, but feeling like you’ve always got to do something can leave you with a classic case of academic guilt: no deadlines or bosses, but always something you just have to do.
As an undergraduate student, I was the one who made her own color-coded flashcards and began essays as soon as they were assigned. In graduate school I published two first-author papers, won numerous presentation awards, and was the ‘golden child’ of my lab, one who could never seem to do wrong. I was driven, always busy during the day while keeping up with emails and volunteer work in the evenings. I felt like I had a decent work-life balance, I didn’t go to lab every weekend and I took time off to visit family and to travel. But even with breaks, I’m a person that is almost always on. There’s always something to do, something to do better than before, something to think about, something to get ready for.
This mindset has been useful in keeping me on top of my work and my career as a graduate student and now as a post-doc. It works when everything around me is going well, but when something cracks on the other side of my internal pressure gauge, I burst. When I was faced with uncertainty in extending my post-doc contract, I found myself torn down by panic attacks and overwhelming feelings of despair and self-doubt. When I was struggling with conflicts or loss among family and friends, I found myself unable to relax or enjoy life. When I was stressed about an upcoming deadline or meeting, I found myself stuck in an endless loop of working on a problem for so long that at some point I’d realize that I had just been staring off into space for several minutes not really working on anything.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has run into problems with anxiety and stress, especially when work and life gets confounded or when they become out of balance. It’s hard being self-motivated when our way of working through problems is to keep working -- even when it’s detrimental to our work, our lives, and our mental state. While there’s no simple solution to the problem of how we deal with stress and work-life balance, here are a few pointers which have helped me face the past few months with a bit more calm and resolve:
Let yourself disconnect and refocus. It’s hard to disconnect when email comes to your phone and the problems of your day seem to sit in your mind all evening long. One way to help this is to find a place in your day or in your week when you allow (or force) yourself to disconnect. My favorite part of the week for refocusing is tae kwon do class. It’s an hour-long session twice a week where my phone is off and my mind is set at the task at hand, which is no longer emails or data analysis but stretching and sprinting. I get to take all of my frustrations and channel them into punches and kicks, and at the end of the class I feel refreshed and refocused (also sweaty and exhausted). Martial arts aren’t for everyone, but seek an activity that suits your style that lets your mind do the same, be it a yoga class or a glass of wine in your bathtub.
Mourn or get mad, and then try to move on. Let yourself be sad or upset when things are tough instead of trying to convince yourself that everything is OK. Listen to your favorite angry song when you have a bad day or cry out your story over the phone with your best friend. It’s healthy to let yourself be upset by things that are upsetting. But a key point in picking yourself back up again is to try to move on from the situation. Listen to your angry song and then pick a motivating/upbeat song to help switch your mood to something more positive. Cry out your story to a friend and then watch a dumb video on Youtube that makes you laugh. These moments of transitioning between emotions can help give us perspective: yes, life is upsetting, but it also moves on, and so can we.
Have a network of people looking after you. Regardless of what sector you work in, you’ll meet a lot of types of people. Unfortunately one of those types of people will be jerks. People who are only looking after their own interests alone or who are mean, rude, or otherwise unsavory to be around and to work with. I get really frustrated by jerks, to the point that it can bring out my anxiety and stress as much as a hard day at work can. Because of this, I take comfort in having non-jerks by my side with whom I can talk to when I feel like the jerks are taking over the world. Especially as a PhD student and early career researcher, having a network of positive people around you, people who support you and value your career/professional development, can make all the difference.
Treat yo(ur)self! In a career that’s full of critiques and judgements about your work, learn how to be your own cheerleader. It’s good to stay motivated to keep working hard, but not at the expense of your own self-confidence. An easy way to do this is to learn how to celebrate the good, no matter how big or small it is. Did you finish editing a paragraph of a boring manuscript? Congrats! Make a second coffee and scroll on twitter for 10 minutes. Did you finally submit your dissertation? Congrats! Tell all your friends and coordinate a time for drinks. Part of finding a good balance with mental health is to learn how to reward yourself instead of always looking for things to be done, fixed, or improved upon.
Don't weigh your self-worth on external metrics. It’s easy to spend time comparing ourselves to others or getting into the mindset that we just need another paper or award and we’ll finally feel good about are accomplishments. Rewards won’t always come and it’s easy to look at someone else’s life on a piece of paper or online and think that they’re much better than we are. Put value in yourself by things that don’t have an external measure to them. Don’t rely on citations, Twitter followers, or the job you have right now to be the only things that define you. Your skills, your passions, your experiences, and most importantly you as a person have self-worth on their own.
I’m happy to have ended this week’s Monday on a good note, thanks to a good tae kwon do class followed by a session of night-writing. While I write this blog for graduate student and early career researchers primarily, in a way it’s also a place for me to speak to myself and to try to reconcile my own frustrations and stresses. But hopefully this blog isn’t just me talking to myself but can also help you find your own way forward through the rigors of an academic life!