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!
It’s strange to think that it’s been seven years since that sticky, sweltering August day when I began my journey as a PhD student at the University of Florida. The sun was relentless for those first few weeks of the semester during the 15 minute walk from the former-pony barn-turned-laboratory to the shiny new health sciences buildings where my molecular biology class was held. My first few weeks of bumbling around in my new lab home, the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, felt as relentless as that boiling summer heat, and I had this undying sense that I had no idea what I was doing.
Between the molecular biology class that kicked my ass and the lab rotations, which I spent attempting to learn how to culture cells for the first time, I was relieved when the first semester of grad school was over—and thankful that I had survived it. The whole ordeal was an endless mix of gaining confidence when something went right and feeling incredibly ignorant when things went wrong (which, in my world of cell culture, was more often than not). I had spent my undergraduate career feeling pretty smart and sure of myself, and all of a sudden found myself 1300 miles from home and feeling like the dumbest person in the entire world.
But this lack of confidence didn’t last forever. With the first semester under my belt, things soon started to click. I was learning how to think about experiments in a clearer, more scientific way, instead of just doing whatever came to mind. I had a great working relationship with my advisor and found a strong support group in my office mates. I even started to jog on a regular basis for the first time in my life—there was something about those pastel dusk colors on Lake Alice that seemed to call to me. I had had a bit of a rough start, but in the end I found my footing and was able to hit the ground running (both figuratively and literally).
With the undergrads here at Liverpool well underway in their studies, our institute and other research groups here on campus are now in the process of formally welcoming new PGR students. After seeing all the new PhD and MSc students start to flood our labs and institute hallways, I found myself reflecting on the patchy start to my own PhD career and wondering if there could be a better way that I, or anyone coming into this new chapter of their lives, can start things off on the right foot.
Starting anything new isn’t easy, be it a semester, a job, or even just a new hobby. The start of your graduate career might come with more changes than you initially expect. As a student you’re used to going to class, studying, and staying focused on your grades, assignments, and exams—but being a PGR is a whole different ball game. Even if you have done some lab work before, there’s a big difference between a summer research project and a PhD project that spans 3-5 years. The stakes are higher, the experiments are more complicated, and (especially if you’re in the UK), you’ve got a very limited time in which to make it all come together. Especially if you’ve come directly from a Bachelor’s or MSc program and only did a little bit of lab work, you’ll find the transition to a 40 hour-per-week research gig to be a challenging one.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are a few suggestions on what you as a new graduate student can do during your first semester to get your post-graduate career started off in the best way possible:
- Take time and make time to read. Reading papers isn’t just something you do to pass the time while not working in the lab or as a means of torture by your PI when you’d rather be getting new results. Reading as well as critically evaluating the literature in your field is absolutely crucial for both understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. These papers are the foundations of your project and how results previously generated led to where your project stands now and where it will go in 3-5 years’ time. The way these experiments were done, the caveats of each conclusion, and the scientific logic that led from one paper to the next are key for you and your project. Your goal as a PGR is to now fill in a gap within the knowledge base of your field.
You might spent your first month or two reading a lot of papers, but remember that reading the literature isn’t just something you do in the first semester and the last semester (while you’re frantically writing your thesis). While you’re in the early stages of your PhD, make it a habit to read papers on a regular basis. In your first semester, figure out a way to keep yourself motivated, whether it be by hosting a journal club, buying a fleet of colored pens, highlighters, and post-it tabs, or writing a summary abstract of each paper that you can keep on the side until you’re ready for putting it in your dissertation. Making this a habit now will keep you on top of things and will keep you from feeling like you’re drowning in information when you get close to the end of your project.
- Get into a rhythm with your PI. Some PIs are active in the lab and will meet with you and other group members on a weekly basis, others will be tied up between coursework and conference travel and you might not see them for weeks at a time. Regardless of who your PI is, take the initiative in your first few weeks as his/her student to get into a habit of making contact with her/him on a regular basis. For PIs who are around regularly, this can be through a weekly lab meeting that keeps you on task. If your meetings tend to happen in groups but you like one-on-one feedback, feel free to ask for a separate time to talk to your PI about your project. If you have an on-the-go PI, get in the habit of sending an update email once every week, regardless of what country or conference room they’re in, to let them know what you did that week and what you plan on the next. By taking the initiative early on to establish regular communications between you and your PI, you can prevent belated surprises from popping up in your advisor-advisee relationship.
In the early stage of your PhD, you should also talk with your PI about the expectations from the project. You’ll want to find out things like How much do they expect to hear updates from you? How many conferences do they want you to attend? How many papers do they expect? From your perspective, be sure to find out How will she/he stay in touch with you while travelling? How will he/she help you find a job when you’re finished? Will he/she be flexible if you have to travel home to see family or need to take a holiday? These conversations early on in a PhD program might seem unnecessary or too serious, but making sure expectations are clear and up front can prevent stress or strain in your relationship by ensuring that there are no surprises on either side.
(A tweeted suggestion from the Liverpool PGR development committee) Review your skills and ambitions and use them to make a plan for your own professional development. It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do after your PhD—most of us don’t, and those of us that think they know (like I did) might change their mind a year or two into the program. But you don’t need to know your precise career path to have a few big picture ambitions in mind. Think about what’s inspired you towards a career in science. Would you like to teach? Do applied research? Organize research groups and manage projects? Work with data? Work with animals? Work with patients? Thinking of your big picture goals early on can help you find new career options as you go along, jobs that you might not have initially envisioned but that actually fit in perfectly with your goals and ambitions.
While reflecting on your big picture ambitions, use your first semester to think about what skillsets you currently have and where you could use some additional support. If you really want to teach but have only been involved with courses and teaching on a small scale, ask your PI to help you find some additional teaching experience. If you want to work with data but aren’t familiar with programming or computers, work with your PI to set aside time in your PhD program to get the in-depth training that you’ll need for the next stage of your career. Picturing your ambitions and visualizing what would be best for your professional development will help you get through your PhD and out to the other side with a good job in hand.
Strike a balance between perfectionism and sloppiness. Especially if you’re coming from program where coursework and assessments were the focus, you might still be in a mindset of making things perfect. From pristine essays to using a ruler to underline words in your textbook (incredibly, I have met people who actually do this), many who are attracted to sciences are Type A personalities: we tend to thrive on organization and perfection. But as you’ll soon find out, you can waste a lot of your precious PhD time trying to make a figure look just right or obsessing over minimizing the variation for some experimental parameter to a level not needed for good results.
But there is a need for balance: not being perfect is not an excuse to be lazy, and if you forget this fact you’ll soon find yourself on the receiving end of a discussion about the importance of graph quality when you show up to a lab meeting where your axes aren’t labeled. This first semester can be a time for you to learn how to strike the delicate balance between caring too much versus not putting enough effort into something. You might have to learn this the hard way the first time around (as I did when given a lecture about axis labels) but this is best to learn sooner rather than later during your PhD.
Enjoy it! Your PhD is the time in your career when you get to focus on your science, your research, and your own professional development. Any job you do after this one, be it in an industry lab, an aspiring academic, or someplace not even on your radar screen yet, will have less of a focus on you than your PhD. You’ll be juggling multiple projects, working on getting results for your boss/company/organization, or applying for grants and describing your research and aspirations in a way that will appease funding agencies and collaborators.
Your post-graduate career is also a time when one of your primary goals is to learn. Use that time to go to seminars outside of your department, attend conferences for the sole purpose of listening to presentations, and take a course on something just because you’re interested in it. Work hard, but make sure you take time to learn, explore, and enjoy the journey!
One last point of advice: be sure to check out the resources available from your post-graduate department/graduate school at your University. This group will be able to help you get the best out of your experience as a graduate student. You can also check out our previous posts focused on professional development. Best of luck to all of those starting out this semester. Remember to work hard when you need to and enjoy a 3:30pm pint on a Friday when you need (and deserve) a break!
Since the next semester is fast-approaching, the editors of Science with Style and the University of Landau’s EcotoxBlog are collaborating on a guide to help students find their own style of studying. Enjoy!
As Ned Stark (or maybe it was actually your professor) once wisely said: Autumn is coming. Do you find yourself still in relaxation mode after a leisurely summer, or can you already sense that calm before the storm? We’re already well into September, with the next semester looming ahead of us in UK, Germany, and many other parts of the world. Regardless of what mindset you’re in, you’ll soon find that the rigors of the upcoming busy semester of exams and assignments are soon to come.
Everyone has a different way of engaging in coursework: some of us take a lot of notes, others listen, and others, well, don’t really do the whole going-to-class thing. But at some point at the end of the course, we all have to take an exam, write a term paper, or in some other way show the professor that we learned something.
Your professors will spend a lot of time teaching new concepts, explaining complicated subjects, and trying to inspire some interest in a favorite topic of theirs. But one thing a professor can’t do is to teach you how to study in a way that you can retain and reuse knowledge while being examined. Therefore, we here at the Ecotox Blog and Science with Style have collated a few tips that will make the use of your valuable time more effective:
First: Check out this video from Vox, who provide the following tips on their YouTube channel:
Don’t just re-read your notes and class readings. Re-reading isn’t helpful for retaining information. Another downside to re-reading is that the process can make you feel like you’re learning when you are really not. Reading in itself is a passive activity, but when you’re taking an exam and need to recall information, you’ll be doing something much more active. You’ll need to practice active learning if you want to be able to remember a concept thoroughly while being tested on it.
Quiz yourself. Flash cards are an easy way to do this, and depending on your own style there are lots of ways to go about making and using flashcards. You can make card-stock notecards on your own, but if you prefer a more tech-savvy approach you can make your own cards to read from your computer or smartphone. Flash cards provide that active component of studying that your brain needs in order to be able to recall information and facts on demand—just like you’ll have to do during an exam. An important suggestion in the video is to put cards that you get wrong back in the deck, which forces you to review the concept again and again until you get it right.
Visualize concepts. Create a new analogy for a complex reaction or process. Creating this analogy forces your brain to actively process the information, as you need to really understand the concept before you can explain it in a new way. You can also come up with personal connections to help you remember how things connect, such as aligning concepts to characters or a plot from your favorite TV show, game, or movie.
Avoid cramming! Cramming usually doesn’t work well, and even if you pass the exam the information will only stay in your brain for a short while. Especially if the course covers concepts that you’ll use throughout your time in university, it’s worthwhile to invest that extra study time. With better study approaches, you’ll be able to better remember a concept for a longer duration of time, not just to regurgitate it during one afternoon.
Some more tips that helped us and our colleagues during our own student times
Explain an idea back in your own words. Test to make sure you’ve got a concept down by trying to explain or teach it to someone else. You can work with classmates by organizing “explaining sessions” with each other to see if your explanations are on par with how the system actually works. This practice will also help you prepare for exams where you’ll have essay portions, as it forces you to practice how to explain something before you’re given the task on paper.
If you’re not good at staying on-task or studying independently, find an accountability buddy. Some of us find it easy to stay on task with independent assignments like studying or writing, and others might feel the need for an external or firmer deadline. The problem with exams is that there’s no deadline until you get to the exam-which is not when you want to start studying. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, find a study partner in your class and schedule regular sessions to study together and hold each other accountable for keeping up with your study materials.
Use a study group if you need one, but be sure to stay on target. If working with groups helps you study and keep on track, then forming a study group can be a good solution. But be sure that for each group meeting you have a plan of what you want to achieve and a deadline for how long you’ll work on something. Unstructured group work can quickly fall off track or get sidelined, but having a game plan before you start and a clear objective of what the group wants to achieve will make your get-togethers more productive.
Have dedicated breaks. It’s exhausting to think of having to study “all day” and can also lead to unproductive minutes and hours if you drag things out for too long. Have a set start and stop time for when you’ll focus on studying or writing a paper. It can also help to have a dedicated study space, whether it be a corner desk in your apartment or your favorite spot in the library. Then when you’re done or need a break, you can physically leave the space and let your mind relax. If you’re worried of taking too long of a break, set a timer and allow yourself to do whatever you’d like in that set amount of time before getting back to work.
Find your incentive. Speaking of breaks, we all know that learning or writing the whole day can be very frustrating and that doing something which makes you happy during a break can help you get through a hard day’s work. Just be sure to make your breaks more rewarding by ensuring that they stay limited in size and don’t become as long as a study session. Play one campaign of your favorite online game, watch one episode of your favorite TV show, or do a particular hobby you have for a preset period of time. We promise that this will cheer you up and that you will survive until the next break!
If you’re frustrated or feel like you’re not getting something, ask for help. Even if you study independently, you don’t have to go through the learning process alone. If something isn’t sticking or you’re not sure you’re understanding a concept correctly, talk to your professor or a class tutor and get yourself on track sooner rather than later. If you miss out on understanding the basics at the beginning of the semester, you’ll be much more likely to miss out on understanding the important concepts that will build off of the basics. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if you don’t figure things out the first or second time around—TAs and professors are there to help you (they are even paid to help you do this!).
So what now?
Truth be told, studying for an exam or writing an exam paper will never be anyone’s favorite activities. But if you invest your time wisely and give some of these tips a try, you can work on finding your own style of studying and become a much more effective student. Being more effective will mean more successes for the amount of time you invest, and this will allow you to achieve what any student aims for: getting good grades while still having enough time for the nice things in life :)
We hope guide had some helpful hints for you to study with style. Wishing you a successful start into the new semester!
- Erica & Jochen
PS: We are interested in what works best for you! Any other tips on mastering exams or term papers? Let us know by contacting us at Science with Style or the EcotoxBlog and we’ll spread the word. Any advice from those who already successfully completed their studies is also highly appreciated.
PPS: Want to read more about their Master’s program in Ecotoxicology and their research? Be sure to check out Landau’s EcotoxBlog.
My husband and I spent last bank holiday weekend exploring the gorgeous scenery in and around Bergen, Norway. The weather on that late August weekend was what can only be described as distinctively Scandinavian. It’s a mix of gorgeous, sunny moments that reveal postcard-worthy scenes of rolling hills and fjords along with the constant threat of clouds and rain. The pictures taken during our hikes fail to capture the time we spent walking in the pouring rain and the ones from our incredible ferry ride through the fjords north of the city don’t show my husband and I in nearly full winter regalia, with hoods and hats to protect our heads from the intense winds.
Norwegians have a saying (which rhymes in Norwegian) about the weather: “Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” which translates to “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” It’s a phrase that captures two aspects of the Norwegian culture: their love of being appropriately outfitted and their disdain for making an excuse not to do something. On the first day of our trip we did a long 22 km hike from Ulriken to Fløyen, and during our rainy ascent we were passed by numerous groups of fast-paced Norwegians. Whether they were big families or solo hikers, all of them seemed completely unphased by the wet and slippery rocks or their (likely) wet and uncomfortable socks.
Coming back to the UK after the long weekend, it only took one rainy day to see the contrast between Scandinavia and the UK. An afternoon shower found numerous people caught in the rain without umbrella or jackets, wearing canvas-side shoes on a day forecast to be wet, followed by a general clearing out of the city center as soon as the wet weather came. Seeing this contrast between how two rainy countries deal with wet weather also brought forth another realization: when looking for a career as a scientific researcher, the forecast seems to always call for rain. The market is competitive, research budgets are tight, and a long-term contract might not always be easily in easy reach. Given that the forecast might not change in the near future, the question then becomes: what can you do to weather-proof your career?
If you’re in the midst of a PhD, your main focus will generally be your own project. You’re thinking about lab work, papers, committee meetings, and all the other things you need to do just to get done. It’s exhausting to think about both finishing and what you’ll do after you finish. Post-docs and early career researchers might have a focus which is more ‘career’-oriented, but in the midst of the pressures of our own projects, grant proposals, and trying to figure out what comes next, the thought of actually getting there feels scary. But just as you wouldn’t go on a trip or on an errand run without checking the weather and bringing your sunglasses or umbrella or jacket as needed, you shouldn’t charge on ahead through a job without being ready for what happens when you step outside into the real world.
The good news is that hauling some extra gear in your bag isn’t as exhausting as you think it is, since a lot of these ‘weatherproof’ skills are becoming more easy to find and more packable than ever before. Regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, here are a few things that will make your career ready for whatever weather lies ahead:
Take a skills inventory. Before you run off to the outfitter store to buy one of everything, start off by figuring out what you already have. Review your current CV and give it a critical read-over, as if you were reviewing the CV of someone applying for a job in your lab. Think about the skills that you have or what you do every day, be it emails or coordinating lab meetings or multi-tasking in the lab and office. Is your CV up-to-date and does it capture all your skills? Are there courses or training programs that you completed outside of your standard curriculum that might be useful later on? Is there an activity you did as volunteer work or as the leader of a group that’s relevant and can be highlighted?
Doing a skills inventory involves thinking critically about all the work you’ve done, both in and outside of the lab, and how your skillset can be presented in a way that shows its relevance to a potential employer. Especially if you haven’t thought about your CV for a while (or since you first made it), going through your extracurricular activities and professional skillsets might help you realize there are skills you didn’t know you had-just like how digging through your closet at the start of a new season reminds you or a few pieces of clothing you forgot about since you didn’t wear them for a whole year.
Check the forecast. A forecast is rarely perfect, but it can help you figure out existing weather patterns and to get a sense of what might lay ahead. In your career, you won’t be able to get a 100% accurate prediction of what the field will look like once you’re actually ready for a job, and you might not even know exactly where you want to go next. But at any stage, you will have some amount of an idea of what or where you want to be, whether it’s a city, region, sector, or field.
Regardless of where you want to go, check the forecast by scoping out the job market well in advance. Find a few job websites or email listservs to be a part of and take a look at what the jobs are looking for. Since you’ve already done your inventory and you know what gear you have, you can figure out if you have all the gear you need. If you’re missing something, you can decide what you need to pick up before you hit the road.
Read some travel reviews to find out what it’s really like. You probably already have an impression of what your ideal career and your dream job will look like. You know that all you need to do is get the post and you’ll love it! It’s similar to getting a postcard in the mail of some picture-perfect exotic scenery that makes you instantly say I wish I was there…But before you fall in love with something you’ve never seen first-hand, read the reviews.
It’s here that your professional network can help set you up for success. Connect with your colleagues and mentors and reach out to new contacts who work directly in the field you’re interested in joining. Arrange an informational interview over skype, ask to see their CV and/or have them look at yours, and see if their experience matches up with your preconceived impression. A 5-star review can be just the thing you need to give you the inspiration and confidence you need to set forth, and a less-than-stellar review can show you that there might be a better destination on your horizon.
Have one of everything in your bag. It’s tempting to only bring flip-flops and shorts on your tropical vacation, but the Caribbean islands can still get hurricanes. Just as it’s good to have an extra rain jacket, it’s also a good idea to keep your own portfolio of skills diverse. Your time as a PhD student and ECR is perfect for this, as it’s the stage in your career when your time can be a bit more flexible. You can use a wide assortment of techniques and should feel encouraged to try new things on a frequent basis instead of doing the same thing every time you’re in the lab. If your work is computer-focused, be sure to get try programs or languages that others may use. That way if you end up with an employer that prefers one of the other, you’ll be able to say that you at least have some familiarity with the one they’ll use. Once you arrive at your destination and know you’ll stay there for a while, you can stock up on things you’ll need more of. But until you get there and know for sure what you’ll need in your bag, play it safe and keep a little bit of everything on hand.
Adopt a Norwegian attitude to bad weather. The job market is a rainy place to visit, and it’s tempting to want to stay inside the warmth of your current job or project when you can hear the sounds of the downpour outside. But that doesn’t give you an excuse for staying inside: at some point you have to suit up with the best outfit and equipment you have and give the day all you’ve got, even though you might get your boots wet or your hat blown off. The best way to get through the downpour is to approach it as optimistically Scandinavian as possible and remind yourself “There is no bad job market, only bad cover letters.”
There won’t ever be a “Five easy steps to your dream career” post here on Science with Style, since finding a job is as much of its own journey (with the occasional bit of rain and thunder). Preparing yourself now by making a thorough inventory, picking up some tips from colleagues, and adding some new skills to your pack, you can gain the confidence and the preparedness to be able to go for it, regardless of what’s waiting for you. Walking through a rain storms is certainly not an enjoyable feeling, but occasionally a rainy day will bring a nice reward when the clouds clear. All it takes to find your job at the end of the rainbow is to take the first step outside and get out there!
Every Monday and Thursday night, I take a 15 minute train ride on the Northern Line from Liverpool Central for my biweekly tae kwon do lessons. The classes vary throughout the week: sometimes we focus on technique, sometimes we focus on strength and endurance exercises, and some weeks we do so much kicking and sparring that I can barely manage the walk back to the train station. Last week we had our last two lessons before a summer break, starting with a seemingly relaxed warm-up that led into an intense 30 minute sparring session.
During our sparring prelude, someone asked about a former class attendee who hadn’t been around for a while. Our black belt instructor Paul said that he didn’t think the student in question would ever return, and wasn’t too surprised about it, commenting that the current number of students who had taken his class versus those who had completed their black belt was similar to what he had seen at other schools, including when he earned his black belt. The black belt ‘graduation’ rate according to Paul is around 1 in 35, so of 35 students that start tae kwon do training, only one will actually earn a black belt.
Call it tae kwon do attrition or just the fact that not everyone’s cut out for the sport, but it’s no surprise that not everyone makes it to black belt stage. It’s a tough sport, as my legs can attest to after our final lesson of the summer last Thursday. But Paul’s comment also brought to mind thoughts of the parallels between training in martial arts and going for a PhD and career in research. The completion rates are a quite a bit higher for those going for a PhD (50-60% in the US and closer to 70% if you’re here in the UK), but the processes have a lot of overlap. It’s not that people going for a PhD or black belt who don’t finish are lacking in intelligence or athleticism, it’s that both processes require more than you expect at first glance. To succeed at both, you can’t just be intelligent or be physically fit: it takes additional dimensions of mental strength in order to succeed.
After writing two previous posts that focused on the connections between scientific research and tae kwon do, namely in learning how to fail and the balance between rubber and steel, I was inspired to revisit the topic and delve more deeply into the parallels between these two seemingly different activities and to focus on the aspects of both that might not be as readily apparent as the kicks and punches of tae kwon do and the papers and grants of a life as a career researcher.
Both require you to humble yourself. Regardless of how flexible, strong, or fast you are, everyone in tae kwon do starts with a white belt. The color white symbolizes a person having purity due to their lack of knowledge of the martial art, and as you progress through the colored belts towards black you gain knowledge of new techniques as well as some much-needed control of your abilities.
As you go from white belt to yellow belt to green belt, you’ll feel pretty confident. You’ll feel like you can take on anyone. But as you progress further and further, inching your way towards black belt status, you soon come to recognize how little you actually know and how much of an expert you are not. There is always a move whose execution can be further perfected, a stance that can be stronger or more elegant, and regardless of what level you’re at there will be someone in your class who’s above you in some way.
Training to become a scientist is very much the same: we start off in undergrad learning so much all at once, progressing in our classes and lessons, maybe even getting a bit of lab work under our belt. But at some point we dive into the big pond of scientific research, where we find that the world is so much bigger and that what we know is so much smaller than what we thought. We gain knowledge through school and in our research, but part of learning how to be a scientist comes from recognizing how little we know and what we can do to get to the next step.
…but both also require you to have a thick skin. Feeling like you don’t know very much is a humbling experience, but it’s also one that you have to know how to counter with confidence. In both martial arts and research, you have to balance the humbleness of recognizing your place in the world with the confidence of knowing where you stand. It’s easy to let feeling like you don’t know anything or aren’t good at something turn into you thinking that your lack of knowledge or skills will set you back permanently. Those who find success in both research and marital arts are able to walk this careful balance between humility and confidence, able to recognize where they can improve but to stand firm in the place that they are strong.
Both require good senseis. A mentor or coach is crucial for success in both martial arts and in doing a PhD because both of these processes are not easy. It’s not as simple as just progressing from white belt to black belt or from undergrad to professor: you need time and a structured environment for reflection, assessment, and a critical eye to see the flaws and strengths that you can’t. And even though both endeavors are seemingly independent activities in that it’s your belt and your research, you still need a good mentor to show you the way and to encourage you to work and learn from others in the process.
Both will help you find confidence but won’t automatically give it to you. I’ve heard a lot of parents say that they want their kids to get into martial arts because it’s an activity that builds confidence. But as someone who started white belt training as a 14 year-old shy kid who grew up to be red tag and slightly more outgoing and gregarious 28 year-old, it’s not just the sport that makes you who you are. Confidence is one of those personality traits that function best when they come from within. I greatly enjoyed tae kwon do as a kid, but found that I find the sport more enjoyable and more relaxing now that I’m more confident in myself than I was back in high school.
Both martial arts and science are great at building up the confidence in those that already have it, but you can’t start from nothing. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and then fail at something, you won’t get that boost of additional confidence you’re looking for and will find you less likely to try again, whether it’s a new sparring move or a complicated experiment. A good sensei will work on developing your confidence from within, finding where you’re most comfortable, and figuring out how to help you shine without having to rely on your results to give you the boost you need. The positive side is that if your own confidence has been boosted, you’ll feel good enough to try new things, to explore new ideas, and you won’t be as afraid to fail the next time around.
Both require you to take a lot of hits before you learn how to fight back. I spent 8 years on hiatus from tae kwon do and I came back into the sport only as a post-doc during the past two of years. Some of my muscle memories for techniques and forms stayed in place, and I’m also in better physical strength than when I started 14 years ago. But it didn’t mean that I was ready to jump back into being a black belt, since there were still quite a few places where my lack of practice and instincts were apparent. As an example, in free sparring I’ve become much better at attacking than when I first started, in conjunction with the downside that I’m still getting hit quite a lot since I didn’t build up my defenses to the same level as my attacks.
In science, there are numerous occasions when your strengths and instincts will be tested. Hard-line questions and critiques by your graduate committee, advisor, conference audience, and lab mates, and you’ll essentially be dealing with an onslaught right from the get-go. It can leave you reeling and hurt, as if you were in your own intense sparring session. But the thing I’ve learned about sparring is that even if you’re not perfect, the next time you fight you won’t get hit in the same place again. You learn (even if it has to be the hard way) what parts of your work are the weak points and what you can do to make the weak points stronger. A career in research isn’t about putting up a good fight 100% of the time or only retreating from others: it’s about knowing how to move forward but also to protect yourself and foster your ideas and work at the same time.
Both can be used to let your strengths shine, whatever they might be. One of my favorite things about martial arts is that it’s a sport that can be done by more than one type of person. Regardless of your body type, natural strength/flexibility, height, or weight, you can be good at martial arts and can get your black belt. In my class I’ve met other students who are extremely fast, flexible, strong, or just plain fearless. I’ve seen people who are good at sparring, who excel at forms and technique, or who are just brave enough to try anything crazy-and to me, they are all amazing martial artists.
I also love that in science, despite being thought of as a place where only geniuses and nerds can succeed, you meet so many kinds of people. Some are great writers, others give amazing conference presentations, and others are wonderful group leaders or efficient lab managers. You don’t have to fit a cookie cutter ideal of what a scientist is in order to be a good one. In science as in the martial arts, what’s important is fostering the strengths you have and recognizing what you need to work on and how you can better complement your skillset.
In both martial arts and in research, I somehow ended up becoming something of a jack-of-all-trades. I enjoy all aspects of both martial arts (forms, technique, flexibility, strength, sparring, and ferocity) and science (lab work, data analysis, reading, writing, meetings, and tweeting) without really excelling at one aspect or another. Sometimes I feel like I’m less skilled than others who have a more obvious specialty, whether it’s while sparring with someone who is faster than I am or when asking my lab mates to help me troubleshoot R code. But thanks to my own confidence in both parts of my life, I’ve been able to recognize that that’s just who I am and I value the way I work and live, even on the days when I come home exhausted from an intense work-out or a long day in labs. I’m thankful for the life lessons provided by both of my primary activities, and in the tough times I look ahead to days when my bruises are few and my manuscripts are many!
“When it rains it pours” is not just the motto for Morton’s salt, it’s also a good analogy for a researcher’s to do list. More often than not, it feels like deadlines all come at once. But working in an academic research environment doesn’t have the same kind of pressures that a traditional office setting does. Researchers have an immense pressure to get things done, but when there’s no project deadline or a looming submission deadline, there really isn’t a solid reason that something has to get done at that moment in time. Deadlines are the way that most companies stay working on schedule, but in the world of academic research, how do we get things done?
Let’s start with a typical example of research output: a manuscript. Unless you’re sending an article to be part of a special issue or when you’re doing a resubmission, you probably won’t have a hard-and-fast-deadline for submitting a manuscript: you can send in a paper any day, be it next week, next month, or next year. Academia then becomes this blend of feeling like we need to get something done but accompanied by a deadline that’s more fluid, depending on when you feel like you need to get it done, or when your boss or PI wants you to finish it. But even amidst the pressures your PI might put you under, the fact remains that you can still submit your manuscript at any given time. And while you might have a PI that gives some hard deadlines on projects, papers, or analyses such as “Have this done by your next committee meeting”, it may not come in the form of “Have this done by midnight on October 3rd,” as you would have had for classroom assignments and homework.
And that’s not the only place that academic deadlines show their more fluid side. I found myself laughing out loud by this recent tweet by @ithinkwellHugh:
If you’re still at the stage in your career where you’re working more independently, the last point might seem a bit daunting. “Ten times? Really? Surely that’s an exaggeration.” But anyone that’s worked on a large group project before knows that this multiplier factor is spot-on. Collaborating with other researchers on big group projects, projects that might not have a solid deliverable deadline akin to submitting a manuscript, means that the pace of the work is inevitably much, much slower. This initially might be a welcome pace, especially if this work not crucial to your out research output, but after weeks or months of inactivity from all parties due to a lack of central oversight, someone will realize that something needs to get done and it needs to be finished right now. And depending on your specific role in the project, the bulk of this last-minute, needs-to-be-done work could easily end up falling on you.
The way that academic research and collaborations work is not likely to change anytime soon, but it doesn’t mean that all your work has to pour down on you all at once. You can develop a working strategy that helps you set yourself apart by learning how to become your own boss and track your own productivity. As independent researchers in the making, learning how to be in charge of setting your own deadlines and keeping other collaborators and colleagues working within a deadline-less world is an essential task. Here are a few ways to work towards a more productive working schedule even amidst a deadline-less working environment:
Figure out your tendency. We reviewed Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies in a previous post, and if you haven’t already checked out the quiz and read about the typologies, be sure to give her books and website a look. Especially if you struggle with stress at work or with staying on task, Rubin’s approaches for developing productive habits and working styles that align with each tendency are a great starting point. It’s much easier to figure out what strategies will and won’t for you in a research environment if you can better understand how you work and how you relate to expectations and deadlines, and you can use these approaches to make sure you don’t over-work yourself or under-deliver on your research outputs.
Be realistic. For each of your big-picture, major tasks that you need to finish for your project, think in detail about all the components. If it’s lab work, how much prep time will you need for a single experiment? If you’ve done something similar before or are scaling up a smaller part of your work, how long exactly did it take and was there any troubleshooting involved? If it’s computer-based, how much of the work can be streamlined and how much time will it take for programming, formatting data, etc? It’s easy in research to trivialize tasks, especially ones we do on a regular basis, only to realize while doing something on a larger scale or on a short deadline how long it actually takes to double the number of replicates or to run code on a dataset that’s ten times the size.
As with Hugh’s tweeted recommendations, give yourself some breathing room, especially if it’s something you never did before. Once you have an estimate that will give yourself a little bit of breathing room, double the time, since a dropped test tube or a computer freezing up can still set you back. Setting yourself up for success can be linked in part to knowing what’s feasible in a given amount of time, which can help reduce your stress levels by knowing what needs to get done but at the same time taking a breather in knowing that it will get done.
Make daily and weekly goals. It’s easy to get stressed while thinking solely in the long-term months and years of all the work you have to do. Instead, put more of your focus on what you need to do that day and that week, and keep your big picture to-do’s in you peripheral vision. Given your realistic timelines, what should you work on today? What lab or computer work can you fit in together to give yourself a break from one or the other while still staying productive? If you keep your appointments and meetings in an online calendar, also include a place where you can list your daily to do’s, and check things off as you finish them. If you still enjoy keeping an analog version of a day planner and to do lists, write down what you need to get done that day and that week and check them off when each one is done. Doing this also helps you feel like you achieved something, especially if there may not be a ‘real’ deadline involved with the daily tasks or if the big picture to do, like publishing a paper, is a bit further ahead in the future.
On a weekly level, have a few bigger picture goals in mind that are distinct from your day-to-day tasks and that can help you further your longer-term goals. Are you working on a manuscript and need to sort out your outlines or figures? Do you want to get in touch with a potential collaborator about an idea you have but always seem to forget to do it? Have these written off to the side of your daily to-do’s, and when you find yourself with 20-30 minutes to kill, take a look at your weekly goals and see what can be done in that period of time. You may not get everything done that you set out to do for your weekly goals, but keeping some bigger picture to do’s in your periphery can help you from being blindsided by big tasks like submitting a paper or writing a grant proposal.
Recognize when you’re not being productive and step back. There is such a thing as trying too hard: sometimes when trying to get or stay motivated or focused, we just end up worn out and opening yet another tab on the internet (or, nowadays, checking our phone to see if any pokémon showed up nearby). Academic guilt has a way of making you feel like you should work all the time, but this is never a good strategy. Focus on getting your daily and weekly to do’s done, and if you find that you get to the end of one task and are not quite ready to start another, take a walk around the lab or make a coffee and give yourself time to digest before jumping in feet first to the next thing on your list.
In big projects, make tasks and objectives clear. The first step in successful group work is being clear on who’s doing what. Make sure that the tasks and deliverables for the project are clearly delineated, and if something belongs to you then do your best to finish that part of the project on time. If things that you’re doing hinge on what people will do after you, keep them informed of your progress and any blocks you run into. If someone has given a deadline for a project, then treat it as such, even if there may not be a company or boss who’s breathing down your neck about it. Remember that even in research, your time is money, so take the time you need to complete a task for another project and allow the project to move forward instead of making it drag on.
In group work, you may end up with someone who isn’t pulling their weight on their part of the work. It’s frustrating and will more often than not make you upset, especially if you’re in charge of the project. Instead of getting mad right away, ask them what you can help with and if they need an extension due to some issues on their side. If all else fails, be ready to take over the and consider this in the planning stages of the project by budgeting in some time for the possibility of having to do the work of someone else.
Not everything has to be done in research, but there’s still a lot of things that should be done. In academia and in scientific research, you set yourself apart not by doing what you’re told but by doing something more. Bosses and deadlines will always be a factor in motivating us to finish a boring task or assignment, but for a successful career in research you’ll need to develop a strategy for working and figuring out how to inspire yourself to work when no one is looking. You can’t see everything as just a list of of things you have to do but should instead see a collection of ideas that are so great that they should be done.
Research is a tough gig, but it doesn’t have to feel like your life is an endless stream of tasks and deadlines. Developing your motivation and time management skillset can keep you from being bogged down by deadlines (or a lack thereof) and can keep your work progressing on a regular basis instead of having everything fall on you at once. If you’re motivated to keep pursuing a career in research, find a way to let your work be moved by your passions instead of your have-to-do’s, and then even amidst the downpours you can find some comfort in knowing that you’re doing the best you can to make the world a better place.
We’re once again visiting our ‘Heroes of Science’ series with a portrait of the great chemist and electrical scientist Michael Faraday. I wanted to delve back into this series (you can read the previous posts on Galileo and Marie Curie in our archives) while also touching on a topic that’s come to mind after the recent fall-out of the Brexit vote. In the flurry of news articles coming out after the vote last month, there has been a lot of material in regards to the impact on science. This material has also brought to attention the notion that scientists are seen as a group of elitist experts, out of touch with the common people.
As it turns out, that sentiment is not entirely misplaced: in the UK, only 15% of scientists come from a working-class family background, and there are lower rates of progression from bachelor’s to PhD-level studies for students in the UK who attend a state high school or come from a working-class family. In the US, an undergraduate from a working-class family is six times less likely to study at an elite university than their more privileged peers, and numerous cultural and financial difficulties will also stand in the way for those who want to break into professional science. But there are examples of students from working class families breaking through and becoming successful science, and one of them is the focus of this week’s Heroes of Science series: Michael Faraday.
Our coverage of Faraday’s life and is not meant to be an over-arching review but rather a glimpse into his life and why we consider him a hero of science. All our information comes from these websites and resources, and there’s plenty more about his life for those who are interested in delving deeper.
Faraday was born in 1791, his father was a blacksmith and his mother a former maidservant. He and his three brothers lived close to the poverty line, and Faraday was only able to attend school until he was 13 years old. After finishing a very basic level of education, Faraday got an apprenticeship as a book binder in a bookshop. During his 7 years at the shop, he made a meager salary but was able to pass his time reading the books that he bound. He greatly enjoyed science books, especially chemistry and electricity, and found himself coming back time and time again to the Encyclopedia Britannia as well as Conversations on Chemistry, the latter of which was a 600 page book about chemistry written for non-scientists. Even though he had a small salary, his interest in science led him to spending part of his wages on chemistry lab equipment so he could verify first-hand what the books were describing.
Towards the end of his time as a bookbinding apprentice, Faraday attended a lecture on chemistry at the Royal Institution, thanks in no small part to his blacksmith brother who gave him a schilling so he could attend the lecture. Faraday was enthralled by the lectures, and thanks to a friendly bookshop patron, the musician William Dance, Faraday was able to get tickets to see more lectures from other famous English chemists at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society. One of the lectures that most impressed Faraday was by Sir Humphry Davy, a Cornish chemist who Faraday was able to watch perform some experiments at his lecture first-hand. To show his appreciation for Davy’s work, Faraday collected notes from the lecture in a 300-page bound book and sent it to Davy as a gift. Davy was impressed by the thorough note-taking and after a lab accident that made it difficult for Davy to write, he offered to bring Faraday to the Royal Institution as his personal note-taker. Another turn of events ended with Faraday gaining a job as a lab assistant, when one technician was fired due to misconduct which had caused a separate accident. In 1813 and at the age of 21, Faraday found himself working at the very place that he had saved up his schillings just to visit.
But while Faraday was enthusiastic about his work, he was made to feel set apart due to his lower background as a blacksmith’s son. While touring the continent with Davy soon after being hired, Davy was not treated as an equal in the group. Davy’s wife made Faraday travel outside the main coach and eat with the servants. He thought about quitting science as he went through this two-year tour of misery and mistreatment, but thanks to his time spent around science and getting new ideas from the scientists he met, he decided to persevere.
Faraday’s achievements in the lab are numerous: in chemistry, he is credited with discovering benzene and working on a better understanding of the properties of chlorine and carbon. Through his early work on gas diffusion, he discovered that some gases were able to be liquefied in the lab, including chlorine. He even invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, a piece of equipment you’ll see in labs to this day as a safe tool for having benchtop heat and flame. Faraday was even considered an early founder of the concept of nanomaterials, after seeing that gold colloids had vastly different properties when compared to their bulk metal material. As nanoscience is a driving force in modern chemistry and toxicology to this day, Faraday has shown himself to be a truly enterprising and forward-thinking scientist.
Faraday is better known for his work on electricity and magnetism. In 1820, Danish scientist Oersted discovered electromagnetism, demonstrating that the intrinsic energy underlying both electricity and magnetism is two sides of the same coin. Faraday was able to construct devices to perform induction, which is the transfer electromagnetic energy from one object to another. With induction, you can apply an electric current and create a magnetic field and likewise create an electric current by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. He was able to create steady-state currents and even designed the first-ever generator. His work formed the basis of studies on electromagnetic fields in physics for years to come, and his early designs are still on display at the Royal Institution. Faraday was also involved in work which linked the concepts in chemistry and electricity together, and is credited with discovering the laws of electrolysis as well as popularizing terms like electrode and ion.
But Faraday wasn’t content on keeping his work to himself: he was also a fervent scientific communicator. At the age of 24 he gave his first lecture and published his first academic paper. While living and working at the Royal Institution, he was elected to the Royal Society at the young age of 32 and became a Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the age of 41. He was known as one of the best lecturers of his time and was especially known for his Christmas lectures, a forum for public presentations on science. He described the method giving a lecture as the following: "A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end." Faraday greatly enjoyed doing these lectures, complete with lab demonstrations, and considered it a vital part of the work of a scientist to educate the public. He was also a strong advocate against pseudo-science and gave lectures to promote the importance of public education. Outside of his time as a scientist and lecturer, Faraday also collaborated on projects with the British government, including coal mine investigations, constructing light houses, and protecting ships from corrosion. He was even involved in early work on environmental pollution prevention. He did all of this without any formal education, apart from his honorary doctorate from Oxford.
So what can we take from Faraday’s story? Despite coming from a modest background, Faraday let his passions lead him, both in the effort he spent in learning on his own and in taking ideas and concepts in new, uncharted directions. He ended up with his career thanks to a good deal of hard work and study, as well as a bit of luck and help from friends and family. Even when meeting with adversity in how he was treated as a lower-class member of society, he kept persevering and stayed focused on the science that was important to him. He was also a great science communicator and believed heartily in teaching science to everyone, always remembering where he came from and the importance of science lectures in his own adolescence. He will certainly continue to be remembered as one of the great scientists of the 19th century.
But Faraday’s story is potentially a unique one, and it’s not very easy to find similar stories in the realm of modern science. Is science doomed to be a primarily elitist organization, or is there a way to bring other working class students into the fold? While current legislation in the UK and the US is working to develop federal programs to bridge the gap between undergraduate and PhD-level studies for students of working class families, students outside of the ‘normal’ elite groups do have certain advantages:
“The most powerful advantage for students from working-class backgrounds is the resilience and “enormous fortitude” they have already demonstrated in getting where they are." (Quote from 'Breaking the Class Ceiling')
Faraday is certainly a testament to this, and through his inspiring story we hope to see more similarly-minded students break through their current place in the world in order to make their mark on the scientific community.
It’s never a good sign when your day starts with over 200 unread Whatsapp messages. Last Friday (June 24th), I woke up to news that I and my friends on the Liverpool Whatsapp group had thought would never happen: the UK had voted to leave the EU. Even after the initial whirwind round of messages sent in the early morning hours, the rest of the day was spent reading news articles and seeing the shock and disappointment from UK and European friends on Facebook and Twitter. With the flood of posts swirling around in the past few days, I wanted to take the time and think about what Brexit will mean in the context of the type of work that binds me and many of my UK and European friends together: science.
There will be numerous direct effects of leaving the EU on science here in the UK, on everything from the availability of grants, the mobility of professional researchers, and the scientific infrastructure that’s been set up within the EU. As I read these articles and numerous other ones like them, I empathize with my friends who are in the process of developing their own careers in science here. How can you manage additional uncertainties in a field where you already have to spend so much time worrying about grants, short-term contracts, and competitive jobs?
The flood of news articles and opinions continued to pour in over the weekend from experts and scientists, but after being drained of my productivity on Friday and worrying about the implications of Brexit on my own future, I took a break from reading the news this weekend. Even so, one of the article subtitles kept me pondering the rest of the weekend: ‘What has the EU ever done for us?’ This question brought me back to the Life of Brian scene, where while planning an uprising against the oppressive Roman regime, the question is brought up of what, exactly, the Romans ever did for us.
“... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?”
Romans have now come to mind a second time on our blog and for good reason. During my travels around Europe, I’ve been able to visit 16 of the other 27 EU countries, and only 9 of the 28 EU countries (still counting the UK) were never a part of the Roman Empire. In the many places I’ve visited around Europe, I’ve seen enduring remnants of Roman building projects. From the state history museum in Budapest, full of Roman artifacts found across the Hungarian plains, to the impressive and fully intact aqueduct of Segovia, and Hadrian’s Wall just a couple of hour’s drive from Liverpool, stretching across Northern England and still marking the boundary between what was Rome and what was the rest of the world.
Rome was certainly not a perfect empire, but it was one that lasted for over 300 years. This is impressive for a relatively unconnected world as compared to ours, in a time without telecommunications or any transport more rapid than the horse. Even still, Rome was connected across the vast amount of land between its borders, and people were Roman despite where they had been born, what language they spoke, or how exactly they came to be incorporated into the Empire. While I’m sure not everyone had a fantastic life under Roman rule, and there were certainly a fair share of bad emperors throughout the history of the Empire, Rome as a unified concept did mean something important. As a person living in the classical period and regardless of your income or your social status, you would have been able to see the positive impact that a road or clean water had on your life. You would have enjoyed plays in the local amphitheater or the wines and exotic foods more easily available to you and your family from across the empire. You would have felt some protection at being part of a bigger unified nation than when isolated to just your village or your tribe. Being Roman 2000 years ago would have meant being part of something powerful, something beneficial, and something enduring.
But as we already know, Rome didn’t last forever. The empire fell and the Western world left with warring neighbors, short-lived empires, and a period in history that came to be known as the Dark Ages. I don’t believe we’re headed for another dark age, but as history shows us we do need to recognize that history involves cycles of uprisings. But unlike the Dark Ages, we have countless sources of news nowadays, we can get facts and figures from reputable sources, and we can hear directly from experts in order to get a better understanding of the problem using sound logic and reason. Right?
As we discussed in our storytelling post two weeks ago people tend to rely on emotions when making decisions. With money, a family, and a future on the line, people are not always driven by logic, facts, and figures. We are driven by emotions, by stories, and by selfish needs. Unfortunately, the Leave campaign made good use emotions and fed off the enthusiasm of an uprising, bringing together a rousing rally against ‘the man’ (e.g., the EU) that’s apparently holding us back. This line of campaigning is evident from the tweets on their twitter account and you can see a few of the tweets below:
Oddly enough, there’s no equivalent @Vote_Remain Twitter account, and while there are a flurry of #Remain tweets (especially now after the vote is over), it seems that the question of ‘What did the EU ever do for us?’ wasn’t as enthusiastically addressed by the Remain campaign.
But what does this all mean for scientists? In the midst of worrying about the future of our research contracts, the prospects of losing future EU grants, and thinking our colleagues who come from every side of the world to work in the UK, we also have to recognize that in this day in age, scientists are considered ‘the man’. In a campaign that has won by fueling disregard and mistrust in ‘experts’, is it any surprise that people started to go against the recommendations of said experts?
Scientists are not considered to be of a trustworthy profession, and we come off as competent but not very warm. In a recent study conducted in the UK, one person relayed this comment on why they had no interest in science: “Snobs, know it all! Better than others just because they are intelligent, boring and thinking everyone should know what they know!”. Is it then any wonder that in an age where people are taking a stand against the status quo and ‘the man’ that this also means a stand against science?
If scientists want to stop being ‘the man’ that the rest of the world is up against, we need to think about and engage in the communication streams that people get. While most of the other respondents did have a general interest in science, many felt that scientists were hard to access. Events like science fairs and festivals look great on paper or on a resume, but many folks are limited in their ability or interest to take time from their own lives on a busy weekend to go and do such an activity. Many are engaged with science news in the media, but since the media also has the potential to get something wrong or to over-sensationalize something, how can we as scientists do better to share our science? If people feel like we are hard to communicate with unless we come to them in a science fair, why should we expect them to trust us as the experts when we say to them from afar ‘if you do X then Y will happen, so you shouldn’t do X’.
Now is a good time to reflect on how we as scientists can do a better job at not being seen as ‘the man’ but as a member of this team, of the metaphorical Rome that is our world. Based on the results of this survey, it’s not that people have no interest in science or don’t see value in what we do, but that we’re not meeting people where they are, that we’re still stuck in ivory towers pondering all our expert opinions instead of meeting them face to face. We can spend our days post-Brexit worrying about our own grants and jobs, or blaming the other side for whatever happens next, but in a few years’ time the dust will settle on the UK’s exit from the EU, and we’ll still be ‘the man’. If we focus on getting people on our side by talking with them eye-to-eye and making them part of a two-way discussion, we can make sure that we narrow the gap between The People and The Experts. If we meet with and have discussions with people outside the ivory tower, if we engage in listening instead of lectures, we can make connections and we can build trust.
Regardless of the future of the EU, the UK, and everywhere in between, we as scientists still continue to have the power to make great and positive changes in our world. Just because history tends to repeat itself, it doesn’t mean we have to repeat it completely. We can learn from how to connect with people by listening to what fuels their interests and where they want to engage with us. We can change the personal of scientists from being cold-hearted and nerdy towards a more accurate depiction: we are hard-working, motivated, and we are here to make the world a better place for everyone.
Despite the turbulent times that we find ourselves in, I am encouraged by the fact that people do have an interest and are looking for information when they make decisions about their lives. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that even though Rome eventually fell, after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. After having seen first-hand the relics of Rome spread across so many countries, I’m encouraged and hopeful that the relics of a united Europe and a united world will last well beyond our lifetimes. SPQR!
I landed in Marrakech last Tuesday an hour late due to delays in Manchester, and even though I was a bit tired, I was excited to start exploring a new city. After an interesting taxi ride through narrow streets full of vendors, donkeys, and an endless flow of mopeds, I made it to my Airbnb riad (the term for a traditional Moroccan house). I was given a map and some instructions about the best way to get to the city center, just 15 minutes away. I set out into the warm Moroccan evening and soon ended up going the completely wrong way, not even sure which street was mine when I tried to retrace my steps. After accidentally running into the friend of my host who’d helped me get to the riad from the taxi drop-off in the first place, we walked together to the city center, with my enthusiasm for exploring soon turning into embarrassment at getting lost.
With my friends arriving in the morning, I wondered how the rest of the trip would go from here. Would I keep getting lost, and this time run into someone less friendly than the friend of our host? How would the rest of the trip go if we couldn’t even find our way around town? After that initial bump in the road that left me feeling anxious for the rest of the trip, I’m glad that the rest of my time in Marrakech was amazing. I soon found that the best way to get around wasn’t to have a precise plan as to what cross-streets you were going to take, but it was simply to wander through souks and side streets with a vague impression of the cardinal direction you wanted to get to. This approach led to more than a few wrong turns, but it also led to less crowded streets and shops, beautiful street art and wall decorations, and the feeling like you were really getting to see the heart of the city.
The trip to Marrakech was a great experience for many reasons, not because everything went to plan, but because it was an adventure in itself: a chance to try new foods and experience new smells, to be a bit unsure of what exactly you were walking into, a time to wander and find things you never expected, and even at times a chance to fail. Whether it was museums that were closed due to Ramadan or dead ends or a store owner rather aggressively trying to sell you a henna tattoos, there were certainly things on the trip that didn’t go all the way according to plan. In the end, we found out things that work and things that don’t and kept going past the small missteps as they came.
Throughout our time studying, from primary school to our undergraduate careers, we are taught how to achieve and how to succeed, and we are encouraged to do so. We get rewards for performing above the mark, we get grades and rankings based on our achievements in classes and on exams, and we’re measured on a regular basis in terms of how we succeed and how much we know. Then when you get to graduate school and find yourself in a research-oriented career, the game changes. There are no more exams, grades, or rewards of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Grad school and life as a researcher is more about producing reliable data, generating results related to a question, and making sense of new information and putting abstract concepts together. It requires a different mindset from the one that gets you success in school: a mindset that includes being ready to fail.
If you’re a PI in the US, the success rate for applications on research grants hovers around 20%, and here in the UK it’s closer to 30%. That means on average you’ve got a higher percentage chance of failing for every grant you apply for-and if you’ve never applied for a grant, it’s definitely not a small endeavor. In addition to the task of securing research funds, as scientists we’re also met with experiments that fail, manuscripts that get rejected, uncertainty in terms of a job market or a long-term contract, and criticism everywhere from your PI to people who come to your conference presentations. It’s a really difficult transition, especially for those of you for whom primary school and/or undergrad came easy, who might be naturally good at memorizing facts or taking tests but who find research more of a challenge than initially expected.
But this post isn’t meant to paint research as a life of doom and gloom, of spending your days steeped in failure. I’ve met lots of colleagues who’ve been turned down for grants, but because they knew the idea was a good one and believed in the value of the project, they learned from the first round reviews and had a revised application accepted in a second or third submission. I’ve seen friends struggle in the lab for weeks or months on end, then followed by strings of incredible results that just keep rolling in. I’ve read about the hurdles that world-famous scientists had to go through or the challenges they faced in their ideas or in their careers, only to come back from a challenge with more vigor and an even better understanding of the problem than before.
In one of our previous posts from last year we talked about the importance of not being afraid to fail, a post inspired from my time spent in martial arts. But it’s one thing to say ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ and another to actually follow through with putting yourself at risk for failure. How can we become better at taking that first step, knowing that after a few more steps we might easily fail at our task?
As a child and through my studies as an undergraduate, I seemed to be good at all the things I participated in. But it wasn’t because I was good at everything; in fact, I was very bad at trying new things, because I was afraid of failing. I was good at the things I did because I avoided things I was bad at, whether it be team sports, dating, socializing, or getting lost. In graduate school, I learned how to fail the hard way: I took failed experiments and rejected papers really hard, but at the same time grad school became one of the most enlightening times in my life. While I was learning how to fail the hard way, I also figured out how to be braver at venturing out into unknown territories of research and of life, and I learned how to fail in a way that didn’t make me feel like I had done something wrong. But how exactly does one become good at failing?
Remember that failure is part of the process. Research is difficult because you are working on the cutting edge that divides what’s known and what’s yet to be discovered. You’re not repeating the same thing that any one person has done before, so because you’re in uncharted territory there will inevitably be wrinkles to sort out and things that don’t pan out the first or fifth time around. The famous scientists that came before us also made mistakes, sometimes even a lot of mistakes, but they also know that it’s all a part of the scientific method: you have an idea, you test it, and then you figure out whether it’s right or wrong. Science isn’t about always being right, it’s about figuring out the answer, whatever that answer might be.
Work on achieving a balance of optimism and pessimism. Being too much of an optimist can leave you feeling like you’ve taken a hard hit when something doesn’t work, because you’ll have gotten yourself excited about an idea or an experiment. In contrast, being too much of a pessimist and thinking that every upcoming experiment will fail can leave you feeling too unmotivated to even try. A good scientist is a balance between the two: you recognize that not everything will be sunshine and roses the first time around, but you also are inspired and hopeful for good results to come down the line. As with other times in our career when we need to achieve a balance between two sides of a coin, you can also work on achieving this balance by surrounding yourself with colleagues who might lean more towards one side of the optimism/pessimism spectrum than you do.
Lower your expectations. This sounds like a terrible piece of advice, but especially if you’ve achieved a good balance between optimism and pessimism, having lowered expectations can come in handy. If you over-exert yourself by trying to get everything to work all at once or are relying on one success to raise you to another, one failure can knock you over. Take your research one step at a time and leave a buffer in terms of time and energy by taking into account that some things might not succeed. Don’t expect that something will work the first time around, and if instead you expect that you won’t get perfect results right away then you’ll know to leave some time to repeat things as needed. On the other side of the coin, lowering your expectations also means you have an excuse to celebrate the small successes. In grad school especially, it’s these small victories that can help keep you going. Had a PCR reaction work? Drinks with your lab! Got a paper that wasn’t rejected outright? Drinks with your lab! Celebrating these smaller, perhaps ‘lesser’ victories will make the bigger ones seem even more incredible and will keep you going until things start to go your way more consistently.
Come at a problem with confidence, even if you don’t feel confident. This week in tae kwon do, a few other students are getting ready for testing. Our instructor was giving all of us a pep talk after one prospective red tag to red belt was clearly uncertain and nervous during practice, saying that we needed to be confident and ready even when we didn’t know everything 100%. Even the most veteran black belt will get nervous when faced with a belt testing, and it’s easy to believe we’re not doing everything perfectly, that we’ll make a mistake, or that we’ll forget something.
In a recent seminar I gave on the five easy steps for a perfect presentation strategy, I asked the participants what they were afraid of the most while giving a talk, and most said they were afraid of doing something wrong. I thought back to those replies during tae kwon do class this week, and realized again just how much martial arts can teach us about being a scientist: it inspires us to live a life of confidence even in the face of punches and stern instructors (or professors) grading our every move. When faced with fear, you meet it with ferocity. When afraid of failure, you hold yourself with the confidence of a person who knows everything like the back of your hand. It’s about being ready to face a potential for failure in the same way you face the potential to succeed. Envisioning success is half of the battle, and by facing potential failures with confidence you can increase your chances of success.
Don’t let a failure (or two) define you. I still get nervous for talks, tae kwon do testings, even conference calls. Before anything that makes me feel nervous, I always end up giving myself the same pep talk. I tell myself that no matter what the results are, it doesn’t change who I am. Just like the two failed black belt pre-testings that didn’t keep me from getting a black belt later on, or the many failed experiments or rejected papers that didn’t keep me from getting great data or publishing my results. What’s more important than not failing is to learn something from the moments when we fail, to celebrate when we succeed, and to not be afraid to let a couple of mistakes hold us back from getting where we want to be. Whether that’s a government lab researcher, a university professor, or the CEO of a company, the failures we have along the way won’t define how we get to the end result, and won’t solidify our fate or who we are as people.
Failure is an option in science-and more than that, it’s a way that we make progress. It doesn’t have to feel like banging your head against a wall if you look at failure as part of the process instead of blaming your own faults. By approaching problems with confidence, holding back from becoming too over-zealous when it comes to thinking what might work or not, and by not letting each wrong turns define who we are and where we go, we can learn how to use failure to our advantage, and to become better scientists and people in the process.
Last week I heard a great podcast news report about the way we talk about scientists and how that can inspire (or intimidate) those in the next generation and affect their desire to become scientists. In the US, we tend to talk about scientists as being geniuses, as having brilliant ideas and doing groundbreaking work that’s changed the course of our lives. But apparently that’s not a good way to motivate children to pursue science as a career path. Talking about scientists like they are super-human geniuses causes children to believe that since they aren’t geniuses, they’re not cut out for science. This is in contrast to how the stories of scientists are told in China, where the focus is on hard work. The podcast also describes a study in which kids were told stories about scientists in the context of being geniuses, in the context of personal struggle/hard work, and even in the context of having to ask colleagues for help when they were stuck. The kids who were told the ‘struggle’ stories were not only more engaged with science activities in the classroom, they even performed better on science tests.
The results of this study fascinated me throughout the week. Just by talking differently about scientists, about ourselves, we can motivate students not only to become more interested in science, but even to do better in exams. By relating how great scientists also faced challenges and persevered, children recognize the need for hard-work and determination and won’t give up if they find they are not as brilliant as Einstein. This study also got me thinking about stories as a whole. Science communication is essentially about telling a story with impact, to motivate and inspire…but as scientists, are we equipped to be able to tell these types of stories?
As an undergraduate in Environmental Studies, my formal training in writing was, well, very formal. We had a specialized course for students in the biological sciences, and if you were going to be an engineer or a banker you were in a different technical writing class. While these courses were clearly designed as an introduction to what writing would look like for the jobs we would end up in, I wonder in hindsight if this is the wrong way to go about a formalized training in how to write. Yes, as scientists we need to know how to talk about p-values, how to structure a manuscript, and how to write an abstract, but this type of knowledge seems to come as easily through practice as it does through formal, classroom-based training. What is more of a challenge is for us to figure out how to talk to people outside of science, given that we spend so much of our time since undergrad learning how to talk with ourselves. Could this be the block between science and the public: simply an issue of not knowing how to tell a story in the classic way because we’re only trained to talk to ourselves?
In contrast to being trained as a scientist, if you did your undergraduate in marketing you’d be thoroughly trained in how to tell a story, in this sense with the goal of leaving a lasting impression on someone, an impression so strong that they might even be biased towards buying the product or service you’re selling. One way that marketers do this is by using stories, and marketers do this for a reason: stories are a means to connect with emotions, and if you connect with the emotions of a person, you can create a more memorable connection. Whether it’s an ad about a horse and a dog who are best friends or a simple ‘We lived’ following a close-up of car crash wreckage, the ads with memorable content are the ones that impact our buying decisions, which are usually driven by emotion instead of logic. Another example of the impact of stories can be found in (name of teacher’s) marketing classroom. She asked each student to make a one-minute pitch for an imaginary product. Nine out of ten students presented facts and figures to make their case, but one student told a story about the product. When the audience was asked to remember things from the ten pitches, 5% could recall a specific figure or statistic, but 63% of them remembered the story.
When someone tells you a story, they are also directing your brain’s activity. If you read or listen to a story of someone running or jumping, versus just being read a list of words with no context, your brain visualizes the actions, and activates the same ‘motor planning’ brain regions that are used when you get ready to do a physical activity yourself. In comparison, the words in isolation or outside the context of a story simply activate the language processing center of a brain. Think for a moment about reading a scientific paper versus an action-adventure novel: in the novel you can empathize and represent the activity, but can you do the same thing when all you have are facts, figures, and abstract concepts?
So what do these examples from marketing and psychology mean for scientists? Early on in our careers, we’re trained to write very technically, to sound like a scientist, to talk about our work in the context of figures, error bars, statistical significance, and developing logical conclusions that fall within the bounds of our results. This is how science works: we’re presented with a hypothesis, we address that hypothesis with experiments, and we come to a conclusion about the state of the universe from those results. But at the same time, we are also human beings, as are our colleagues, our collaborators, and all the members of the public that fund our research in one way or another. Our brains are hard-wired to understand and be moved by stories, and while we’re trained to trust statistics and plots, we can still be swayed by the powerful emotions of empathy, joy, sadness, and fear.
But we can’t just tell scientists to go out there and tell stories, because science stories are not the same as the ones from marketing, literature, or art. Our stories aren’t here to entertain or to entertain or to sell a product, but are rather a means of working towards an understanding of how life, the universe, and everything in between works. It’s unfair to trivialize our hard-work using the foundations of the scientific method using sensationalism and fear-mongering, but it doesn’t mean that scientists can’t be storytellers, too.
In previous posts we’ve touched a bit on methods and approaches for writing and how you can frame your manuscript as a problem and solution approach. In the context of storytelling, you can think of your research as something akin to a mystery novel: you present some ‘case’ that needs to be solved, you describe your method for cracking the case, and present to the reader your conclusions as to who-done-it. Other options include presenting your science story with some relevant background (i.e. why the research happened) followed by the consequences of your work (why it matters). These approaches have also been formally adopted in materials developed for schools, with the aims of telling stories about scientists as a way to motivate and inspire them to get involved in science. A quote from one of this article: “Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible?" So while there is some dialogue about how to tell these stories, especially for educators, how can we as scientists, more fully embrace the power of storytelling in our own work?
Interestingly enough, if you search for ‘how to tell a story’ versus ‘how to write a scientific manuscript’, you’ll come up with very different results. This one from Forbes is a simple list of to do’s that also echoes what we’ve touched on in our Five Easy* Steps presentation posts. In contrast, the ‘scientific manuscript’ guidelines are more guidelines for structure and less for impact, for example in what order to write the introduction versus the materials and methods. These are helpful guidelines in the context of the science side, but what about the storytelling side? How can we connect storytelling to science? While there are a few websites with some pointers on how to tell stories, here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Don’t tell people something is important: make them believe it. Instead of telling your reader that your research is great and then give them a list of reasons why, describe for them the world in which your research sits. Paint the picture of what your field looks like and how your research fits into it. People, scientists included, will not instantly respond to being told that something is important, we need to realize for ourselves that it’s important and develop some connection to the problem. Hook your readers in with a story about what your world (of research) looks like. What are the mysteries still unsolved? What have people worked to figure out but in vain have yet to find an answer to? What will happen if nothing gets done? This isn’t about telling lies to make your work seem more important, or in foregoing facts for sensationalism, but focuses on presenting why people should care instead of just telling them to do so.
If people remember one thing, what should it be? Regardless of whether it’s a manuscript, a blog post, an email, or an oral presentation, people will forget things. Details will get lost in the numerous other details you present, they might lose attention, or you might just be giving them too much information at once. Think of what your big-picture take-home message is, and make sure that gets across. Put it in your abstract, at the end of your introduction, at the beginning of your discussion, and at the end of your conclusion. Tell your readers again and again what you want them to remember, and you’ll ensure that portion at least sticks with them.
Write what you want to read. As scientists we’ve been trained to write in a certain way-but that style is primarily focused on structure, not content. These are the sections you should include, these are how you transition from introduction to methods, etc. The structure is important and should be kept, but it’s not the only tool we can use as writers. Use the advice from writers and from advertisers in terms of crafting the story and the vocabulary you use. As long as the science is there, using approaches from other fields is a valid way of setting up your paragraphs and structuring your sentences. If you don’t like reading papers that drone on about ‘therefore, XYZ’ and ‘henceforth, ABC’, then don’t write those papers. Say what you found, what it means, and why it’s important in the context of your story, and be simple and clear about how you got to the conclusion you did.
Read stories by good writers. We’ve already touched on this recommendation in other posts, and there’s a reason we mention it again. We generate a lot of our vocabulary and the way we talk from the people around us. If you spend time with someone that says ‘like’ or ‘totally’ a lot, you’ll totally, like, pick up on it, too. The same goes for writing: if you read what good writers write, it helps you do the same. You pick up on examples of how to transition between ideas, what words or phrases are memorable, and what analogies are helpful for conveying a message. While there are examples of good writing in the scientific literature, take a break from science reading and explore some blogs, news articles, or books whose focus is a story in order to get some insights into how to tell your own.
Write something other than science. It’s hard to put into practice narrative or story-based writing if you keep writing using the same structure you’ve done before already. Try expanding your writing repertoire by penning a creative short story or a news article instead. See how it feels to write something when logic isn’t at the forefront. How do you convey a complex topic? How do you transition between complex ideas? Practice how you can connect words and ideas which aren’t driven by science and then take those lessons into your own science writing efforts.
Thankfully, we have a lot of great science storytellers to learn from. If you want to get inspired, be sure to check out the works of Carl Sagan and Steven Johnson. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing a book review on Modern Poisons, a lay person’s guide to toxicology, with some insights on how to write a science book for a non-scientific audience from the author (and my former undergrad honors thesis advisor) Alan Kolok.
And they communicated their science happily ever after.