BuzzFeed, Swear Trek, and almost my entire Facebook/Twitter news feed all have one thing in common: a somewhat grim (yet still humorous) perspective looking back on 2017. In a year of political turmoil, fake news, and twitter storms, many scientists felt the need to take a stand.
I also have a habit of looking back on years past with a similar perspective—I have a tendency to see the challenges, both personal and professional, and frame my perspective on the year prior around those challenges. But the problem with this self-critical approach is that it can make it more difficult to see the accomplishments or to remember the joyful moments that brightened the year.
With the New Year finally at hand, there is a general sense of relief, of finally getting to jump into a year that feels fresh and full of potential. One of my resolutions is to develop a more positive outlook on things, to transform my upcoming year of work, deadlines, and uncertainties into a year of open ambitions, flexibility, and opportunity. In short, I’m focusing on making 2018 my Year of Empowerment.
Regardless of what your New Year’s resolutions are, or if you have any at all, here at Science with Style we’d like to challenge you to also make 2018 your Year of Empowerment. And to get you started on your self-empowerment journey, here’s our handy three step guide:
Step 1: Focus on yourself
In the annual reflection post from 2016, we talked about the importance of core strength for early career scientists. Before you can start dreaming about that tenure-track job, winning a Nobel prize, or whatever research/science-oriented ‘moonshot’ dream you have, you first need to cover the basics of establishing your self-confidence and knowing your self-worth. Taking care of yourself is essential for your career, your work-life balance, your relationships, and your future.
It’s tempting to want to put a large number of resolutions onto your 2018 to do list, but avoid commiting yourself to anything that’s not feasible or achievable—otherwise, you’ll set yourself up to finish the year exhausted and feeling like you didn’t achieve enough. Instead, focus on developing resolutions that will strengthen you in each of the following ways:
- Professional and tangible: Add one item to your to do list that will further your career. It shouldn’t be something for your mentor, your academic program, or the nagging voice in the back of your head that’s telling you to get back in the lab, but something that you know will set you up for a successful future.
Possible ideas include writing a manuscript, expanding your professional network, or rocking your first scientific conference
- Personal and quantifiable: Before you make a general goal like ‘become healthier’, work on setting an objective that’s quantifiable so it’s easy to track your progress.
Ideas include: reading two books every month, taking a week’s long holiday during the summer, disconnecting from your devices at 9pm every night, drinking 8 glasses of water every day, etc.
- Personal and intangible: Make a goal that might appear nebulous to some but is clear to you what you need to do in order to follow through. This should be something that you can work towards on a slower paced but more regular basis.
Ideas include: reconnecting with friends/family you’ve fallen out of touch with, keeping your schedule clear, letting go of a challenging/toxic relationship, striving for inner peace or happiness
Keep a focus on these three resolutions even as you take on more goals and objectives—feeling good about what you’re achieving for them can help empower your year.
… then, if you’re still feeling ambitious and want to do something professional and intangible, you can work on becoming better at failing, developing better research habits, improving your work-life balance or your strategic mindset, or learning how to deal with symptoms of imposter syndrome.
Worried about what you can do to keep your goals on track? Be sure to check out our previous post on how to keep up with your resolutions and goals for the new year.
Step 2: Get outside of your comfort zone
One of the purposes of making a New Year’s resolution is to challenge ourselves—if we make a resolution to do things the exact same way as we did before, do we really gain anything?
Any year, be it good or bad, will have its challenges. By learning to embrace and accept challenge at points in our lives where things are progressing normally, we can better adapt to stressful or unexpected situations. It doesn’t have to be a huge challenge, and it shouldn’t be a challenge that’s not feasible, like learning to speak Mandarin fluently. It can be anything that keeps you engaged, keeps you on your toes, and shows you capabilities which you might not have even knew you had.
Choose a tangible goal, either professional or personal, that puts you outside of your comfort zone. It can be trying a new class or sport at the gym, attending social events on a regular basis that put you in contact with new people, learning how to use a new machine in the lab, or volunteering to help someone who works on a project that’s completely different from your own.
Step 3: Learn to empower others
Part of the frustration of last year’s March for Science movement stemmed from scientists feeling like they weren’t being listened to. From climate change to vaccines, and everything in between, we work on things that not only matter to us as researchers, they also impact the lives and futures of many people across the world. The concept of fake news and alternative facts is scary because it feels like our perspectives as scientists are being discarded at a time when they need to be heard loud and clear.
If we want to change the dialogue between science and the rest of the world, we as scientists can start by empowering others. We can prepare and guide the next generation of scientists and science-minded individuals by starting small: volunteering at a museum, mentoring science fair students, or talking about our work and our careers to students who are getting ready to embark on careers of their own. The focus of this goal should be something tangible and measurable—don’t just commit to ‘doing more scicomm’ without having a clear goal or objective in mind.
This step should also challenge you not just to share your science with others but to think about how you can engage and empower them from their perspective. What can you say that show the world that you are listening to its concerns? What drives people in making decisions? What do you have in common with someone who has a vastly different opinion about something than you do?
We all have a large number of things we cherish and care about, from our family, our health (both mental and physical), our livelihoods, and the cities and countries we live in. By focusing on enabling people to live their lives more happily and effectively with science, you’ll be able to make 2018 a great year for someone else, too.
If you’ve got an idea (or two) but don’t know where to get started, check out our previous posts about science communication and outreach or check out this Public Engagement starter guide from Sense about Science.
The Year of the Empowered You
Let’s conclude this post with some contrast and visit a topic that’s completely unscientific: astrology. I am looking forward to the colourful Chinese New Year celebrations—a chance to see the gray winter-time streets of Chinatowns in North West England adorned in bright red banners and lanterns to ring in the New Year with luck and prosperity.
According to Chinese astrology, February 16th will be the beginning of the Year of the Dog under the element of Earth. The Earth Dog is, apparently, ‘kind, efficient, and skilled in communication’ and ‘2018 is expected to bring prosperity, particularly to those who, like the dog, are proactive, work hard, and communicate well.’
It’s probably not the most scientific prediction for the year to come, but it sounds like a good one to me—certainly better than the two previous years of the Fire Monkey (2016) and the Fire Rooster (2017), which apparently “brought some disharmony”…well, that’s certainly one way to put it, at least!
Regardless of whether you were born in a Year of the Dog or not, we know that 2018 will be a great year. If you focus on empowering yourself, challenging your personal limits, and reaching out to others, you can look back on 2018 and see your year in a whole new light.
After a time for self-reflection at the end of 2016 and a re-energizing holiday break, many of us have optimistic ideas for what we want to achieve in the next 365 days. It can feel like nothing will stand in the way of us achieving the goals that we set at the start of a new year. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions have a tendency to quickly fall to the wayside after those first few weeks of post-Christmas energy start to wear off. That elated, fresh-start feeling we have on January 1st feels all-too-quickly dispersed by the time we arrive at those gloomy and gray days of February, when over half of us will have already given up on our resolution. This can leave us wondering if there’s really any point in making a resolution each and every new year given that so many of us fail to follow through.
Here at Science with Style, we believe that any time of the year is an opportunity for a fresh start, for self-reflection, and for setting goals. Any goal that’s made with your professional or personal growth in mind is never a waste of time, especially if the end result is something of importance for you or your future career. It’s easy to sit on your couch (or, if you’re the more adventurous type, out on the town) watching the lights drop on New Year’s Eve and dream of things you want to achieve but can be difficult when you don’t really know how you’ll get there.
To help you stay on track with achieving your resolutions, not just until January but for the rest of 2017, here are our recommendations for what you can do to truly make this year a great one:
- Be precise. Develop a clear vision of what you want to achieve and make a target. Instead of saying “I want to write a paper” or “I want to have a better work-life balance”, set a specific goal. Maybe it’s writing 200 words a day of your thesis/manuscript, a dedicated amount of time each week for writing, or a set time during the week when you chat with friends over coffee instead of writing emails. Being clear and precise prevents you from making a nebulous goal that is hard to keep. A clear goal also gives you a road map on how to start with a resolution.
Along with a short-term goal (like something you achieve on a daily or weekly basis), set intermediate targets for yourself to help keep track of your progress throughout the year. If your goal is to write and you aim for 200 words a day, you’ll have made it to over 3,000 by the end of the month—that’s over half of a paper already done! Set small targets on a day-by-day basis that you’re not going to feel intimidated by. These specific targets can help you see how much time it will take you to finish intermediate goals, like completing the literature review section of a thesis, and you can also work with your mentor or advisor to keep track of your work progress on a more regular basis.
- Be realistic. As much as I hate to admit it, there are really only so many hours in a day and only so much time outside of lab hours that we can devote to our personal goals. It’s good to stay busy but you also want to avoid overloading yourself to the point that you no longer have any time to relax. Stretching yourself too thin will only lead to you feeling more burned out and more likely to give up on a new year’s resolution that’s taking too much of your free time.
As you’re setting your specific goals, think of the other needs you have during the week apart from lab work. It could be a weekly racquetball game with a colleague or a recurring Saturday brunch with your friends. Don’t double-book yourself against your time that you normally use for recreation or socialization and instead find time in the remaining part of your week. Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes, a set amount of time devoted to a task can quickly add up without interfering with the rest of your like. If you do something for your career for just 10 minutes every day, it adds up to over 60 hours of time that you’ve devoted to a personal goal over the entire year. That’s over a full week’s worth of work!
- Be accountable. Some people are very good at staying self-motivated while others find it difficult to meet goals without an external deadline or other source of accountability. If you have trouble keeping goals on your own, find a friend, colleague, or mentor who’s also making resolutions at work together to hold each other accountable on your milestones. Meet with your accountability buddy on a regular basis and talk about your progress. If you’re not making progress or are struggling with something, you can talk to your buddy about it and avoid waiting until it’s too late to figure out how to change your strategy.
- Be flexible. An item on your to do list that you put there on a Monday can frequently end up still sitting on your list on that Friday afternoon. Sometimes our weeks and days are busier than we anticipate, last-minute things pop up that take more time than we planned, or something comes up that distracts us from other tasks at hand. Not achieving everything you set out to do doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fall behind or eventually fail at your goal, so don’t beat yourself up about it.
Rank your goals ahead of time so you know which ones are more important and deserve nmore of your focus. Then you can let the less important ones fall aside during busier times, such as getting ready for a conference or a big experiment. This can help keep you from over-extending yourself while still enabling you to achieve the most important items in your to do list and also lets you be flexible when busier times arise, as they inevitably do.
- Be optimistic. Maybe it’s the post-holiday crash of going back to work/school after a nice break or the nasty winter weather—whatever the reason, you tend to see a lot of negativity and general grumbling this time of year. Even if you’re a positive person, being surrounded by negativity can work its way into your head, and it make it tempting to leave your goals behind.
As difficult as it is, especially during this post-holiday malaise, try to keep yourself in positive spirits during these weeks of the winter season. Start your year off with simple goals before you jump into the more heavy duty to do’s, like cleaning up your desk or lab bench or catching up with a friend or colleague you haven’t seen in a while. Use these small achievements to give you some initial momentum for the rest of the year as you tackle your larger goals. Take time to find enjoyment outside of work and you resolutions by doing things that keep gloominess at bay: see a film with friends, try a new recipe, or visit an art exhibit. There are lots of ways to stay optimistic and inspired even during the colder and drearier months of the year.
The New Year can always be an opportunity for making a fresh start, and I hope this list will help you in your goals for an excellent 2017. In terms of my own resolutions, my primary goal is to write outside of my comfort zone. I’ve gotten into the habit of the weekly Science with Style posts but am now looking to challenge myself beyond the weekly long-form blog. This means I’ll be trying out my hand at some short freelance pieces, news-oriented writing, and even some fiction. I’ll be scaling down the SwS posts to twice a month to help me keep up with my resolution—but have no fear: there’s lots to see in our archives and I’ll still be posting articles and discussions on twitter on a regular basis.
I hope you all are having a wonderful, inspiring, and also relaxing start to your 2017. We’ll see you again in two weeks’ time—hopefully you’re more than ready for another year of doing science with style!
With the closing of the year come the inevitable “year in review” articles and social media reminders of the year you’re just about to finish. I’ve been thinking about how to summarize a year’s worth of posts on of Science with Style and searching for a coherent theme that connects everything from 2016 together. After writing over 40 blog posts this year, oddly enough the unifying topic that comes to mind is core strength.
Those of you who have been regular members of a gym will know about the importance of core strength. It’s not one of the more obvious parts of your body to work out at first thought, as a lot of equipment and space will be set aside for cardio or weightlifting in a typical gym. But core strength is crucial for any physical activity: it gives you balance and stability when you start to do more difficult routines and a core that’s not strong enough won’t be able to keep you steady, no matter how strong your biceps or calf muscles are.
As a scientist, having core strength is all about building yourself up in order to prepare you for whatever you encounter moving forward. Here are a few tips that we’ve collated over the year to help you build better core strength in your professional life and how you can prepare yourself for whatever 2017 throws at you.
- Know yourself. We all have natural strengths and weaknesses, habits and tendencies, and different ambitions and goals. Regardless of what stage you’re at, it’s crucial to know yourself, your skills, and your goals as a scientist before getting too far along in your career. Many of us likely embarked into a PhD or post-doc thinking that academic research was really what we wanted to do, only later to find that other facets of a career in science were more satisfying and could lead to a full-time post other than research. Use career-oriented typology tools and soul-searching guides to help you find the best type of career for the skills and interests you have.
- Build yourself up. Once you know what drives you and what abilities you already have, you can hone your professional skillset to put you at a competitive advantage. Make sure that you have all the supplies you need to get the job you want by planning ahead. Find places in your work where you can challenge yourself while still maintaining a high level of confidence, and recognize that trying new things and failing the first (or fifth) time around is just part of the process.
- Get inspired. It isn’t all about work: we need to balance hard work with rest and relaxation in order to clear our minds and make greater strides ahead. Know how to find and enjoy your own work-life balance no matter the season. Don’t forget the importance of taking care of yourself. Be confident in yourself and don’t rely on external metrics alone to validate your self-worth and strive to find the balance between doing hard work and knowing when to take a step back.
- Have a support team. We all get by with a little help from our friends. In our research entourage series we talked about the important roles your support team has in your professional development. Having a strong working relationship with someone who acts as a coach, a dreamer & a doer, a sensei, and a group of allies will make all the difference in your success and your motivation to keep going. Your entourage is there to support your progress, but remember that like with any sport or personal training session, the hard work and strength has to come from you.
- Develop your own style. As you progress through you career, the experiences you have and the roles you play will become more unique. Take these opportunities to define your own sense of style. Emulate a style icon and embrace your own definition of comfort and style when you’re showing off your work at a research conference.
- Sharpen your skillset. We discussed a number of skills this year, including how to get through meetings, deadlines, and studying. We also discussed approaches for writing manuscripts and will soon be putting this and our presentation guidelines together into a short course-more details coming in 2017!
- Above all, remember that you can do it! There will be times that challenge you and times when you feel absolutely stuck, which is why core strength is so important. Core strength keeps your center resilient even if your biceps and calves are sore or worn out. It means that you can face challenges (and even failures) while knowing that any set-backs you face don’t mean that you’re bad at what you’re doing or that you can’t get somewhere beyond where you are now.
I like to draw inspiration from characters in fictional stories and history when I’m feeling down. Whatever it is that inspires and motivates you, focus on having positive and uplifting reminders in your life about your own importance and self-worth.
It’s tempting to categorize a year as “good” or “bad” year. A year doesn’t have to be defined by the challenges we faced or negative events, but instead can be defined in how we face and learn from the challenges we’ve encountered and how we learned to find the balance between work, life, and everything in between. Developing internal strength and confidence can make all the difference in helping you keep your balance and maintain your posture while you work on finding and obtaining the job you really want and in getting through any less pleasant times that life throws at us.
I wish you all a relaxing and refreshing conclusion to your 2016 and will see you again next year with more stylish tips and tricks to come in 2017!
On Sunday night my husband and I returned home after a 10-day trip across South Korea and Japan. At just under one thousand pictures across six cities and two countries, the trip was incredible—but also exhausting. With an itinerary full of hikes, sightseeing, early train rides, and the inevitable jet lag, we arrived back home more or less worn out. There were times on the trip, especially our long 21-hour travel day back home on Sunday, when I thought to myself “Why don’t I take more relaxing holidays?”
Halfway through our trip, we flew from Busan at the very southern tip of South Korea to Kansai airport in central Japan. A 6am taxi pick-up, followed by a 1 hour drive across town, followed by queueing for check-in, security, the border control, and finally the plane ride, left us feeling a bit exhausted by the time we made it to Osaka. But a comfortable express train brought us to one of my favorite places in the world: Kyoto. The soft October sun and the touch of red in the maple trees greeted us to the city and I soon forgot the exhaustion required to get there.
Our first stop was Kennin-ji, my favorite temple in Kyoto. It’s a large complex that sits in the middle of the city. Despite a busy day with swarms of tourists wandering all over, the temple itself was rather quiet. It felt like we had the 800 year-old wooden hallways and painted panels all to ourselves. My husband and I scuttled around in shoeless feet with the scent of incense and a warm autumn day surrounding us.
The temple was in itself another moment to reflect on the trip so far, of the incredible moments instead of the exhaustion or the travel details. The breathtaking mountainside temples just outside of Seoul, the relics of the Silla dynasty in the 1500 year-old capital Gyeongju, and the sunny beach-side breezes while walking in Busan. And of course all of our adventures (and misadventures) were followed by warm nights spent outside while enjoying spicy soups and delicious barbeque to refuel after long days of walking.
Many of the places we visited on the trip were Buddhist temples. Buddhism includes a range of sects and branches, many of which were hard for me to keep track of after the numerous temples and shrines we encountered. Zen Buddhism was popular in both Korea and Japan and emphasizes the importance of hard work to its followers. They see hard work as a path towards enlightenment, and had the foresight to bring over tea from China to help give their followers the energy they needed.
A job as a researcher involves a lot of work, and at times a lot of stress, but it also brings great reward. The elation we feel when our work is finally published comes from the knowledge of what it took to get to that point in the first place. The joy we share with our colleagues when we get a significant result after weeks of troubleshooting comes from the journey we took to get that result, not just the result itself. And as much as I enjoy the more relaxing parts of a holiday or the end of a long a work day, I can see where those Zen monks are coming from—there’s a lot of joy to be had from knowing a good day’s work has been done.
I’m certainly not yet a Zen Researcher and am still looking for ways to achieve Research Nirvana instead of feeling weighed down by the long days or the stressful moments. I’m also certainly not a Zen Traveler either, as I still get stressed out by early morning train rides and rainy days on my holiday. But what I do try to do in both my career and my life is to enjoy the rewarding moments as they come, to focus on them instead of the stress that led you to them. Let the joy of a well-earned view on a hike, a hidden mountainside temple, or an accepted paper provide the fuel you need to keep working towards the next milestone.
For me, achieving Zen as a researcher is a constant effort to find the balance between work, life, and everything in between. Since finding a balance requires knowing how much weight to put on either side, I encourage you to weigh the rewards and the challenges of your own hard work, however large or small they might be. And just as the monks saw the value of tea for their efforts, don’t forget to include a bit of caffeinated assistance as you continue on your own journey towards achieving your goals—although we might recommend coffee over tea for a stronger effect!
Some Mondays end up being more Monday-ish than others. This week started with a particularly Monday-ish Monday, not in that any one thing was extremely challenging or upsetting but that it felt like things kept piling on. I woke up reading the commentary on the previous night’s dreadful excuse for a US Presidential debate, which itself came after a weekend of voiced concerns on Facebook and Twitter about brushing off comments made about women as “locker room talk” or “alpha-male banter.” Not to be one-upped by America, of course, the UK decided to fan the Brexit furor, this time discussing how to “name and shame” companies that hire non-British talent. In theory, companies would have to disclose how many expats (like me) they hired in the thought that sharing this information would be a disincentive. This would in theory include almost every university here in the UK, not to mention countless other research institutions here. The combination of this acrid news from both of the places I consider home, combined with work deadlines related to collating comments on a manuscript and dealing with freezer repair logistics, turned the start of this week into the epitome of a Monday.
Stressful situations, even if they are just another Monday sort of Monday, can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. They can bring out frustrations or worries that in a normal day might go unnoticed. It’s for this reason that World Mental Health Day is such a crucial day to remember, especially for those of us in the academic and research sectors. We are constantly being judged by our results, critiqued by our reviewers, and wondering if and when the next job, grant, or statistically significant result will finally arrive. These may all reflect the reality of just another day in the office of an academic researcher, but when this day is compounded by either external stresses from outside of work or internal pressures that you set on yourself, stress can become a real problem.
I am fortunate enough to not have experienced many significant external stressors in my life. Apart from the occasionally Monday-ish Mondays, my life treats me very well. I have a wonderful husband who supports me every day, friends and family who look out for me on a regular basis, and I’m in good health with some savings in my pocket. I know this is not the case for many people and I won’t pretend that “I know your pain” or try to convince you that this blog post can make everything better. But what I do struggle with, and what I imagine other researchers might also empathize with, is a large amount of internal pressure that I put on myself, pressure that can occasionally build up to unhealthy levels.
I’ve seen a lot of PhD students and aspiring academics/researchers who have similar personality traits. In general we tend to be organized, Type-A individuals, the ones who sit in the front of the classroom with a fleet of colored pens for taking notes and who already know the answers to every question. Because of the nature of our work, we also tend to be very independently driven. We’re the ones that don’t have to be told to do something in order to do it. It’s the reason we publish without submission deadlines and finish lab work without a boss telling us exactly what to do. This is a great trait to have as an academic, but feeling like you’ve always got to do something can leave you with a classic case of academic guilt: no deadlines or bosses, but always something you just have to do.
As an undergraduate student, I was the one who made her own color-coded flashcards and began essays as soon as they were assigned. In graduate school I published two first-author papers, won numerous presentation awards, and was the ‘golden child’ of my lab, one who could never seem to do wrong. I was driven, always busy during the day while keeping up with emails and volunteer work in the evenings. I felt like I had a decent work-life balance, I didn’t go to lab every weekend and I took time off to visit family and to travel. But even with breaks, I’m a person that is almost always on. There’s always something to do, something to do better than before, something to think about, something to get ready for.
This mindset has been useful in keeping me on top of my work and my career as a graduate student and now as a post-doc. It works when everything around me is going well, but when something cracks on the other side of my internal pressure gauge, I burst. When I was faced with uncertainty in extending my post-doc contract, I found myself torn down by panic attacks and overwhelming feelings of despair and self-doubt. When I was struggling with conflicts or loss among family and friends, I found myself unable to relax or enjoy life. When I was stressed about an upcoming deadline or meeting, I found myself stuck in an endless loop of working on a problem for so long that at some point I’d realize that I had just been staring off into space for several minutes not really working on anything.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has run into problems with anxiety and stress, especially when work and life gets confounded or when they become out of balance. It’s hard being self-motivated when our way of working through problems is to keep working -- even when it’s detrimental to our work, our lives, and our mental state. While there’s no simple solution to the problem of how we deal with stress and work-life balance, here are a few pointers which have helped me face the past few months with a bit more calm and resolve:
Let yourself disconnect and refocus. It’s hard to disconnect when email comes to your phone and the problems of your day seem to sit in your mind all evening long. One way to help this is to find a place in your day or in your week when you allow (or force) yourself to disconnect. My favorite part of the week for refocusing is tae kwon do class. It’s an hour-long session twice a week where my phone is off and my mind is set at the task at hand, which is no longer emails or data analysis but stretching and sprinting. I get to take all of my frustrations and channel them into punches and kicks, and at the end of the class I feel refreshed and refocused (also sweaty and exhausted). Martial arts aren’t for everyone, but seek an activity that suits your style that lets your mind do the same, be it a yoga class or a glass of wine in your bathtub.
Mourn or get mad, and then try to move on. Let yourself be sad or upset when things are tough instead of trying to convince yourself that everything is OK. Listen to your favorite angry song when you have a bad day or cry out your story over the phone with your best friend. It’s healthy to let yourself be upset by things that are upsetting. But a key point in picking yourself back up again is to try to move on from the situation. Listen to your angry song and then pick a motivating/upbeat song to help switch your mood to something more positive. Cry out your story to a friend and then watch a dumb video on Youtube that makes you laugh. These moments of transitioning between emotions can help give us perspective: yes, life is upsetting, but it also moves on, and so can we.
Have a network of people looking after you. Regardless of what sector you work in, you’ll meet a lot of types of people. Unfortunately one of those types of people will be jerks. People who are only looking after their own interests alone or who are mean, rude, or otherwise unsavory to be around and to work with. I get really frustrated by jerks, to the point that it can bring out my anxiety and stress as much as a hard day at work can. Because of this, I take comfort in having non-jerks by my side with whom I can talk to when I feel like the jerks are taking over the world. Especially as a PhD student and early career researcher, having a network of positive people around you, people who support you and value your career/professional development, can make all the difference.
Treat yo(ur)self! In a career that’s full of critiques and judgements about your work, learn how to be your own cheerleader. It’s good to stay motivated to keep working hard, but not at the expense of your own self-confidence. An easy way to do this is to learn how to celebrate the good, no matter how big or small it is. Did you finish editing a paragraph of a boring manuscript? Congrats! Make a second coffee and scroll on twitter for 10 minutes. Did you finally submit your dissertation? Congrats! Tell all your friends and coordinate a time for drinks. Part of finding a good balance with mental health is to learn how to reward yourself instead of always looking for things to be done, fixed, or improved upon.
Don't weigh your self-worth on external metrics. It’s easy to spend time comparing ourselves to others or getting into the mindset that we just need another paper or award and we’ll finally feel good about are accomplishments. Rewards won’t always come and it’s easy to look at someone else’s life on a piece of paper or online and think that they’re much better than we are. Put value in yourself by things that don’t have an external measure to them. Don’t rely on citations, Twitter followers, or the job you have right now to be the only things that define you. Your skills, your passions, your experiences, and most importantly you as a person have self-worth on their own.
I’m happy to have ended this week’s Monday on a good note, thanks to a good tae kwon do class followed by a session of night-writing. While I write this blog for graduate student and early career researchers primarily, in a way it’s also a place for me to speak to myself and to try to reconcile my own frustrations and stresses. But hopefully this blog isn’t just me talking to myself but can also help you find your own way forward through the rigors of an academic life!
It’s finally the end of the semester! Time to put your textbooks away, apply some sunscreen, and get ready for a summer of…science? Your summers spent as an undergrad and your summers as a grad student (and all the subsequent summers you’ll spend as a researcher) will look very different from one another. Even though it’s been 7 years since I finished my undergraduate studies, I still feel nostalgic and a bit jealous when I see droves of undergrads heading home after finishing their spring term exams, off for that blissful time when you’ve accomplished another year of studies and have an entire summer ahead to enjoy life before it all begins again in the fall.
Life as a researcher can certainly leave you feeling like you need your own summer vacation. It’s additionally difficult when working in an academic setting, where you witness the happy undergrads set off on summer adventures while you’re stuck in the lab. Regardless of whatever stage in your career you’re in, summer can still be a great time in the year of a researcher. Summer provides us a bit of warm air to freshen our spirits and plenty of sunshine to brighten and motivate us. It’s also generally a less busy time of the year regardless of what field or what sector you’re in, as most folks will head off on vacation when kids are out of school or to take advantage of the nicer weather for some needed rest and relaxation.
As with most things in life, having a good plan is a great way to make the most of it. Summer can be a great chance to unwind and relax after a busy academic year, but it’s also an opportunity to re-focus and re-assess where you are and what you need to do to make progress in your own project, while also thinking about where you and your career will go next. Especially for those of you who are just starting grad school and experiencing your first ‘academic’ summer, it’s important to see how this part of the year will look like, what you can expect from the people you’ll work with, and how to make the most of your summer months. Summers are a great time to explore some ideas of your own and to develop your skills of working more independently. And while summer is a good opportunity for you to take your own summer vacation, be careful not to use it as an excuse to do no work at all. Remember that part of the training in grad school is to become an independent researcher, so just because your advisor’s not around doesn’t mean you necessarily should take off, too!
Plan ahead for the summer. Whether you’re at a university or an industry research lab, people tend to disappear over the summer. Between school vacation for kids, fieldwork, conferences, and the fact that everyone else is on vacation, you may soon find yourself in an empty lab. If you have things you need done by other people during the summer months, or need to get feedback on something from a committee member, professor, or collaborator, be sure to keep in touch with them early on in the start of summer and find out when they’ll be out of town. Don’t put yourself in a position to be set back in your own project just because one of your collaborators is spending 2 weeks away!
Spend some time on your own projects or goals. Summer is a great time to focus on the things that you haven’t managed to get done or that might not have been a priority during the regular academic year. Have a small side project or experiment that you’ve been dying to try but haven’t had the time? Set aside some time in the summer months to focus on getting it done. Doing these smaller projects can also keep you motivated during the quieter part of the year, especially if you are the type of person that thrives on always having something to do.
You can also expand your idea of a ‘side project’ to include new activities like outreach, volunteering, and mentoring. Want to get involved in some public engagement? There are always ample opportunities for activities with schools and summer programs, and it’s a great time to try something new like talking to 7th graders about science. Has your PI talked about setting up a lab twitter or Facebook page but never got around to it? Sign up for an account and work on developing your group’s social media presence over the summer, then come the start of the semester you’ll have a fully up-and-running platform to build from. These activities can also bolster your CV and give some breadth to your current work and research perspectives.
Practice becoming an independent researcher. It may be easy to lose sight of goals when there is no one around to witness your hard work or tell you what to do. Regardless of what sector you end up in, though, you’ll be required to work independently as a part of it, and you’ll be expected to take initiative instead of always waiting to be told what to do next. If your PI or other collaborators are gone for some time, use the opportunity to work things out on your own and to try out some new approaches to answering a problem. It will show your PI that you’re working on developing your own independent research skillset and will also give you some hands-on experience in how to manage your own time and efforts. While doing so, keep tabs on yourself and your productivity levels during a day. Be sure to also keep in touch and report back to your PI on a regular basis when possible, which will allow you to get feedback on your independent research endeavors and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Think about what you want the rest of the year to look like. One way that you can work on becoming a better independent researcher is to do some long-range planning of your own. It can be hard to think of what the next year or two will look like when you’re busy trying to get things done during the busy academic year, and the summer can offer a brief respite for your schedule to think about where you are and where you want to (and need to) go next. Take some time to think about what data you have, what questions you’ve addressed, which ones have arisen because of your work, and what you need to do to have a complete story by the end of your project. Doing this thinking exercise can give you some perspective on what you’ve done already and can put you in a better position to do great work during the next year to be in a position where you’ll have a lot to show, be it a manuscript, a dissertation, or a job!
Do some summer reading. Whether you get something off the summer best-seller’s list or something that’s been sitting on your shelf for a year, grab a book and make your own summer reading club. Reading something that’s not a scientific paper can be a good break and refresher for your own mind and can offer some perspectives that you don’t as easily get from a TV show or a movie. Added bonus: you can enjoy them outside without worrying about screen glare! On the more scientific side, you can also use the summer to read a few papers that go outside the scope of your normal reading list. Just as picking up a new book can expand your mind and introduce you to new places, reading a paper from another field is a good way to get a fresh look at science as a whole, and it may even bring a few ideas to bring back to your own project.
Make some excursions…for writing. Nice weather and relaxed academic schedules are a great opportunity for some excursions from the lab to a new working environment. Take advantage of shorter lines and less noise at your favorite coffee shop to watch the world go by while you work on emails or a manuscript from outside your normal work setting. Summer is a great time of the year to get some writing done and to take some time ‘off’ from the lab and other obligations you have during the regular academic year to work on a paper or make some progress on your dissertation. Summer is also a great time for your advisor to be able to read your work more thoroughly, as fewer obligations for faculty meetings and teaching means they’ll have some time on their hands to help you with a manuscript.
Enjoy the sun while it’s there. Remember that not every excursion has to be for work! Take advantage of a sunny afternoon for an afternoon drink with a colleague or a brainstorming/sunbathing session outside. While you should work on not making these excursions too much of a habit, take advantage of a more relaxed working pace and don’t feel guilty for taking some time to recharge and relax. Summer is a great reminder to take life at a slower pace and to enjoy life and work outside of the constant rushing around and fast-pace of the academic year and of research as a whole. There is always plenty of work to do in the lab and for your project, so be sure to enjoy the sun and the slower pace while it lasts.
Take your own vacation! There’s a reason that a lot of your colleagues, advisors, and collaborators will take a vacation in the summer: because they need one. We all need a break sometimes, and the hard part about research is that you always feel like there’s something that needs to be done or a pang of guilt when you’re not dedicating all of your time for scientific progress. The fact is that life as a researcher is busy, with months full of grant writing, lab work, classes, conferences, and everything in between. Regardless of whether you did 100% of the things on your to do list, a break in the summer will do you some good. It doesn’t have to be a long vacation, as even a couple of days to get out of town or a day at home to enjoy the sun from the comfort of your own balcony can do wonders to refresh your mind and get your brain re-oriented for the next round of research. Be sure to check out our archives for ways to make the most out of your break time.
Regardless of where your summer is spent, be it out in the field counting bugs or in the cool air conditioning debugging code, there’s a lot you can do to make your summer productive and relaxing at the same time. Taking some time to focus on your own interests and professional development, taking the initiative to become more independent, and working on the loose ends on your to do list can set you up for a great summer that will leave you poised for the start of another academic year. At the same time, remember that even though you’re not an undergrad anymore, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to enjoy some much-needed R&R in the summer months.
In terms of our own Science with Style summer itinerary: We are currently getting ready for our first-ever Science with Style seminar this week at the University of Liverpool as part of Post-graduate researcher week! If your UK-based institute or research group is interested in hosting a one-hour seminar on giving scientific presentations, please get in touch and we’d be happy to work with you.
We’ve also got quite a long reading list of our own, with a couple of these to be featured in an upcoming book review later on in the summer, in addition to some new posts for our Heroes of Science series. In the meantime, I’m also ready for my own summer break, currently listening to Andalusian music while dreaming of the Moroccan food I’ll get to enjoy in less than a week while I’m sipping mint tea in Marrakech.
- Modern Poisons, a contemporary book on toxicology written by my honors thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok
- Seven brief lessons on physics, because I need a good lesson in physics, be it one or seven of them!
- Born for this: How to find the work you were meant to do, intrigued after taking this quiz
- Aleph, because it's been sitting on my bedside table since March and because I loved The Alchemist
This weekend in the UK we had our first Monday holiday of the summer season, festively named ‘Early May Bank Holiday’. Being the travel-loving person I am, I decided to head out of town for the weekend. My husband and I greatly enjoyed the weekend hiking along the Pembrokeshire coast in southern Wales. In true Bank Holiday fashion, it was an equal mix of splendid, sunny days and miserably windy and rainy ones. It was a great break after a busy week and a chance to celebrate my contract extension and new UK work permit, which finally just came through about a week ago.
As exciting and relaxing as the weekend was, I knew that after heading home from the holiday weekend, I had a lot of work on my plate, and only 11 months more to get it all done. While having a job is always a reason to celebrate, the fact that my job was still a temporary one made the reality of my career sink in: I got my post-doc contract extension, finally! So…now what? What comes after April 2017?
There are numerous parts of research and graduate school that are stressful, but the uncertainty, transitions, and transient status that define the early stages of a career most definitely add to the stress. There is always uncertainty in the sense that you have ideas of what you want to do, but can’t ever be 100% sure you’ll get there until you do. Your career transitions include going from student to trainee to expert, all in a relatively short yet intense period of time. And the transient status is part of the process, since once you graduate or your contract ends, you need to move on to the next stage.
In grad school you likely oftentimes feel like you just can’t wait to get to the next stage, since no one wants to be in school forever. You might find yourself intensely focused on the goals at hand, such as finishing crucial experiments or writing before you get close to the submission deadline. You might also spend time daydreaming of how great it will be to graduate, to be Dr. So-And-So, and to propel yourself off into the real world. But then, oftentimes, as you get closer to becoming Dr. So-And-So, you realize the reality of the situation: graduation is not an end-all to your journey, and things are only going to become a different type of complex at the next stage, whether it’s an uncertain job market or just feeling like you’re not cut out to do what you initially dreamed of doing.
For those of you with goals of staying in academia, a post-doc is obviously a logical option, but here the waters certainly feel choppy at their best. With only temporary roles and positions to get more training and write good papers, it can leave even the calmest of people feeling stressed when getting close to the end of your funding. Then once you get your dream job, you’re still in a similar boat, with a different set of waves: there are more grants you need to get to keep your lab running, a tenure review board to keep you on your toes, and don’t forget that your primary job title is to still actually do research!
An industry job can offer some solace in terms of more job security and less abrupt transitions, but in return you may jump from project/department/boss more often than you want. And the path up the career ladder might not look the same as you might expect—it could even differ from company to company, and office politics will come more into play than just your work alone. And while job security is certainly not an issue in the regulatory/government sectors, getting one of these jobs is definitely half, or even 3/4th, of the battle.
It can be a difficult thing to feel like you can relax regardless of where you end up, but that’s not to say that relaxing isn’t possible, or that whatever position you end up in will have some doom-and-gloom aspect of it. All it means is that while you’re in the transitional parts of your career, you should think about where you want to go next and how you can get there. It’s a tempting question to try to avoid, or to try to delay making a decision by taking endless odd jobs and temporary roles, but if you use these transitions to your advantage, you can end up exactly where you want to be:
Don’t avoid thinking about the question of ‘what next?’
Maybe the #1 reason that this question is scary to think about is because there’s always some fear or some chance that you won’t be able to get there. While that may or may not be the case, simply not talking about it won’t solve the problem. Even if you tell yourself that you’re just leaving your options open, going blindly down a path to something that you don’t actually want can make things more difficult when you do get to that transition point. Figuring out what you want to do and where you want to go next is a difficult question, but the bright side is that there’s always a way forward, regardless of what stage you’re at now. The key is to really, really know what you want to do, and once you do then identify a mentor or set of people in your professional network that can help you understand what it will take to get there.
Think about what’s driving your career choice.
Many of us will walk into graduate school with different expectations of what we want from a career. Science is attractive to all of us when we begin school, and a research professor job can seem like the ideal career choice for someone in the sciences. But there aren’t enough professor jobs out there for all of us, and oftentimes the things we value can be met in other positions outside of academia. As you think about what comes next, focus on what’s fundamentally driving your career forward and what you value from a vocation. Is it independence of ideas? Doing impactful work? Being actively involved in lab work and experiments? Working with students?
There are a lot of ways to make an impactful career in research, and you don’t have to be a university professor to make a big impact. When looking at what you value, think about what excites you or drives you the most about science. If you like solving real-world problems and working in a fast-paced environment, then industry could be a good fit. If you like what you do being connected to national policies, then a government role could be a glimpse into doing work that can get that done. If you’re a creative type, then there are jobs in writing, communication, and outreach that can keep you working alongside science from a different angle than research. If you think about what you want the most and it’s the scientific method and research that drives you, then you should certainly go for it-just be ready and willing to give the time and energy to get there, because there are other researchers out there with a lot of drive to get to the same place as you want to be.
Do what you can with where you are right now.
It’s one thing to daydream of graduating or thinking about how easy things will be when you get a permanent job and quite another to get out and do the work that can get you there. On the flip side, there’s a tendency for us to think back on our work or decisions that led to a certain point in our careers. To see the positive of both sides of these two opposing perspectives, focus your thoughts instead about what you can do now in order to set yourself up for something better. This can include networking, identifying a mentor or someone with your dream job, getting some specific technical training, seeing if a short-term internship at a company is right for you, and a myriad of other things that you as a scientist-in-training should see as valuable uses of your time. Whatever it is that you think can help you at the next stage of your career, go for it! Remember to do the best with whatever place you end up in and at whatever stage you find yourself. Even if you don’t like your current post, give yourself some time and energy to invest in your own professional development that can help you get somewhere else.
Remember to make time for yourself.
It’s good to have time for some personal professional development, but remember too that we all need a break in the day or a bit of a holiday to step back from work and stress. Recognize when you feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of a day’s productivity or are dragging after a busy few weeks or months of hard work. It may feel counter-intuitive to take a break when you feel like you’re not quite there yet, but these breaks can help re-inspire and unwind your mind, making your thoughts and goals more clear for the next push ahead.
It’s not just about where you make it but also in how you get there.
I’ve been to a few career panels and seminars, usually of researchers who talk about their career from the beginning, how they ended up in their current role, and what working for their organization/institution is like. My favorite career talks have been from people whose path to where they are now was anything but pre-planned, smooth, and without some unexpected twists and turns. One of the themes I take home from these types of talks is that often times we end up where we are not just because of our career plans, but from all sorts of other factors known as life and luck: being married, having a family, knowing someone who knew someone who had a job, and a lot of times just chance or luck come into where we end up in life. In these career talks, it’s clear that while the person may not have ended up where they thought they would originally, they loved where they ended up nonetheless, bumps along the road and all.
Life certainly won’t always be a smooth journey, especially when you’re in a research-oriented career. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the absolute best of it or that you can’t enjoy the turns and face the trials that come. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy the weekend breaks and summer holidays as they come, knowing that when I’m home I have a lot of work to do both in the lab and a lot of mental musings on where I go after April 2017. Thankfully I already have some ideas for both!
Some of my recurring blog themes include topics such as knowing yourself, your working style, and your strengths and weaknesses. By knowing yourself and your tendencies, you can better figure out how to get yourself out of ruts, how to ask for help, or how to make it through a difficult situation in the lab or in the office. As part of my interest in scientific ‘self-help’, I love reading about personality assessments and combing through the theories about my own or my colleagues’ ‘types’. I use the information to think about how to communicate with other people better and also how to recognize my own shortfalls and to work to correct them.
My mother and I share the same interest in observing people and their personalities. Recently she talked to me about Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies, a personality test that distinguishes people by the way respond to internal and external expectations. I enjoyed the simple and clear presentation, and, while I was initially skeptical of its applicability (probably due to the type of tendency I fall into), I feel it’s relevant for understanding how we work in the lab and in a research setting.
You can read all about the theory behind Rubin’s tendencies on her website, but in a nutshell a person’s tendency boils down to how he or she follows instructions. In her book ‘Better than Before’, Rubin focuses on applying this theory towards changing habits, whether it be to exercise three times a week or to call your mom more often so you can discuss your entire family’s Rubin tendency distribution. It’s probably not initially clear what relevance this personality test could have in your scientific career, but as with most jobs, you spend a good portion of your day handling a lot of instructions: what your principal investigator wants, what your company/university wants, what you want, and at some point you’ll also be the one giving out instructions to others. At the same time that we receive information and instruction from various sources, we also make decisions on when do we decide to take breaks and how we decide which tasks to prioritize.
I’ll leave the details of the theory and the typologies to Rubin to describe in detail, but let’s get some context for what these four tendencies are, how they may manifest given that you work in a research-type setting, and what the potential strengths and weaknesses are in the lab for each type. But first thing’s first: take the test. No, really, it’s crucial for the rest of this post! It’s a short questionnaire and only a few questions long. And as with any personality test: be sure to answer truthfully to yourself. Respond as you would respond in that situation, and try to really picture yourself in the setting for each question.
Assuming that you have now taken the quiz and have been assigned your personality, we can discuss its implications. Rubin’s four personality types first came to be in 2013 and have now grown in detail and structure. The tendencies are also part of Rubin’s The Happiness Project, where she goes into detail of strategies for changing habits based on what types of expectations you follow the most. These descriptions come directly from her website and are referred to as either the Rubin Personality Index or the Rubin Tendencies. We like Rubin Tendencies, so we’ll stick with that one. The four tendencies are obligers, upholders, questioners, and REBELS. In the quote below, ‘rules’ also refer to instruction, or really any type of expectation.
“Upholders respond to both inner and outer rules; Questioners question all rules, but can follow rules they endorse (effectively making all rules into inner rules); REBELS resist all rules; Obligers respond to outer rules but not to inner rules.
- Upholders wake up and think, “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?” They’re very motivated by execution, getting things accomplished. They really don’t like making mistakes, getting blamed, or failing to follow through (including doing so to themselves).
- Questioners wake up and think, “What needs to get done today?” They’re very motivated by seeing good reasons for a particular course of action. They really don’t like spending time and effort on activities they don’t agree with.
- REBELS wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. They really don’t like being told what to do.
- Obligers wake up and think, “What must I do today?” They’re very motivated by accountability. They really don’t like being reprimanded or letting others down. “
Quoted from Gretchen Rubin blog, 27 March 2013
So now that you’ve done the quiz, what do you think of this short assessment of yourself? Do you wake up every morning thinking about what your Rubin tendency says you do? You can read in more detail about your own Rubin Tendency if you’re interested. After reading the detailed reports for the four Rubin tendencies, here’s our own shortened interpretation of them:
- Upholders are great doers and achievers, but may struggle if there’s no clarity or no plan.
- Questioners are very internally motivated, but may run into issues if they can’t accept worthwhile direction or advice from others.
- REBELS have great ambition and creativity, but may resist following direction if they don’t feel like they can do what they want on their own time.
- Obligers are reliable and dependable, but may have issues with being too self-sacrificing and spend time building up others before themselves.
While Rubin focuses on how types related to habits and her books show you how to create good habits based on what your type is, in this post I instead wanted to highlight some common scenarios that can come up in research and how each type might get caught up with and a potential solution/approach.
Upholders: The to-do list masters who may run into progress speed bumps with things like:
What can upholders do? You’ve already got a great work ethic, now you just need to figure out how to think on your feet and think outside the box:
Questioners: Good at critically evaluating everything…except sometimes themselves! Here are the issues that these constant wonderers of ‘why’ can fall into:
What can questioners do? Asking a lot of questions is a good tendency in science, as long as that critical evaluation is evenly distributed and fair. To give yourself a fair assessment, work on the following:
REBELS: Will challenge ideas and reach for the skies…but may have a hard time getting there if they don’t listen to others. Here’s what trouble REBELS can run into in the lab:
What can REBELS do? It may sound like a hard sell to be a good REBEL scientist at first, but one of the things that makes rebels great is that they go against the grain-think of all the great paradigm shifts in science that came from looking at the status quo and saying ‘no’! Nonetheless, you do have to play by the book, at least a little bit:
Obligers: You’re everyone’s favorite, most helpful lab mate, but your own work will go un-worked on if you have a job to do for someone else. Here are some other situations that an obliger may run into:
What can obligers do? It’s hard to put yourself first, so here’s some tips on how you can look at your internal obligations with an external focus:
The thing I like about the Rubin tendencies in the context of research is that it highlights the need for teamwork. There is no one perfect personality type for academic research: we all have to challenge currently held perceptions, knowledge, and ideas, but also have to know when to follow the rules and respect the knowledge already in play. We have to strike a balance between working towards our own goals and recognizing the value of working with others. The key with integrating the tendencies in your own research career is first to recognize which tendency you follow the most and to work towards ensuring that you stay on task for your own career goals. Additional life hack: find friends and collaborators who exhibit different tendencies than you have to balance out the scales. Whoever said that psycho-analyzing your friends and co-workers couldn't be fun or useful!!
We previously discussed the first four members of your research entourage, the people who are there to offer guidance, support, encouragement, and alternative perspectives: your coach, your dreamer, your doer, and your ally. To finish out the series, we’ll be shifting focus to a different type of person, one who may not always offer practical words or advice, emotional comfort, or one who knows the ins and outs of how to get a task done. Instead, this person is here to provide you guidance not on the doing side of a career in research, but on the thinking side: your sensei.
From Japanese, the literal translation of ‘sensei’ (先生) is ‘a person born before another’. In Japan, it is a formal form of address used in the context of referring to a person in a teaching role. At first glance, a teacher and a coach may not seem that different from one another. Both of them tell you what to do in order to grow or succeed, both of them give you instructions to follow, and both of them have expectations of what you should be able to achieve. However, the role played by your coach and your sensei is different, and can be summed up shortly as that the coach is there to push you to do, while the sensei is there to get you to think.
One of the crucial parts of success in graduate school or scientific research is knowing your limits and working to get past them, which is what a coach is there to do. A sensei, on the other hand, helps you work ahead to your future career by helping you learn what you don’t know you even need to learn yet. In essence, they are helping you go forward when you still don’t know where forward is. Your sensei should be a person who helps you not in doing the task at hand but in asking the good questions that will help you develop your skillset for any task ahead, and will prepare you for your future career and not just your present to do list.
Sounds like a rather nebulous type of role, doesn’t it? Your sensei has a more philosophical role in your entourage as the person who is teaching you how to think like a scientist, not just act like one. In one of our early posts, we discussed the philosophy side of your PhD. All of the science that you see, from papers to presentations to news headlines, is usually the result of a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, the whole lot. But the idea or the insights from which the work initially spurred from came from knowing how to ask good questions and from recognizing that science has a deeply intellectual and philosophical side that goes with the ‘publish or perish’ side. And the ‘common sense’ part of science, how to think about what you should do, is where your sensei can help.
Part of obtaining a PhD is through getting things Done, but if you want to get good things done then you need to Philosophize about them first. A sensei in your entourage can inspire you to ponder the tasks at hand and why they need doing, where the ideas came from, and where the results can take you. The sensei is there to remind you of the philosophy side of science, to show you how science should work, and to help you learn the process of thinking of new hypotheses and knowing how to address them.
Think of your favorite martial arts movie—maybe you’re inspired by the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi’s lessons or wish you could train under Kill Bill’s Pai Mei. Whoever your favorite fictional sensei is, you can get a sense of their style as how they differ from a more traditional type of coach. A sensei is not just there to teach you how to punch and kick, and they often times convey lessons in a way that don’t make sense on the surface (e.g., ‘wax on, wax off’). But the benefit of their style is that the lessons they teach go deeper and can resonate beyond the simple or the practical and can be incorporated into a way of living.
What makes a good sensei?
They don’t need to talk in riddles, only eat rice and fish heads, or make you wax their entire floor, but you should look for the following type of characteristics in a potential sensei for your entourage:
- Always asking ‘why’. This will always be the question they ask, and there’s a reason for it. In anything you do, whether it’s a quick experiment or how you decide to analyze data, you should always have an answer and you should always know the answer (without relying on repeating back what your advisor/PI said about it in the first place). A sensei knows the importance of asking ‘why’ in order to better understand the reasons and motivations for working on a certain task, and can help see what sorts of things are important and which are superfluous.
- Tend to give more nebulous or open-ended suggestions. They won’t always be straightforward in their replies, and may not even give clear advice (or any advice at all). As portrayed in movies, a sensei wants you to work towards the solution on your own instead of being told the answer right away, because working towards it on your own is part of how you obtaining a more complete understanding.
- Provide insights from past experiences. As sensei literally means ‘person born before another’, and as such your sensei has been through the process of a career in research already and knows what it’s like. They offer guidance from their experiences, but appreciate that you will need to figure out some things for yourself, and in these cases will simply encourage you to keep learning.
- They want to see you learn more than succeed. This is different than the coaching relationship. A sensei cares less about the win and more about making sure you grow and learn from a situation. A coach might push you to do something before you’re ready to test your limits, but a sensei would rather hold you back than push you forward, making sure that you’re ready before going to the next step. A sensei would see it as a greater failure to let you move to another threshold or milestone without having achieved what you need to at the current one, and will encourage you to stay where you are until you’re really, really ready for the next phase.
- They know how to take time away from work or from a specific problem. A coach is more likely to have you work through a difficult situation, whereas a sensei will have you walk away from it and come back again with new eyes. This is because the sensei knows the importance of having a fresh perspective, and likely themselves can be seen taking a lot of breaks or doing things not related to work, with people maybe thinking they’re more on the lazy side. It’s not due to being lazy or unmotivated, but rather because a good sensei knows that you can’t always figure something out by staring at it.
Fostering the sensei-student relationship
One of the fundamental parts of any relationship (and as we mentioned before while discussing the coach member of your entourage) is having clear expectations of what you and your sensei expect from one another. Ask what they want to see you achieve and have them tell you what their working style is like and what they want you to learn from them. At the same time, keep these points in mind when working with your sensei:
- Respect their perspective and their method. You might find them too slow for your tastes or giving you too many questions and not enough answers, but if they are in the scope of your relationship expectations then work towards meeting them at their level. To keep a sensei on your side, you need to maintain respectfulness in terms of both who they are and the process they use to help you learn. A sensei will likely not respond keenly if not treated with respect—remember that their role is a voluntary one and if they think that you can’t learn or don’t respect how they’re trying to teach you, then they won’t keep working you.
- Ask questions of your own. Part of learning how to be a good scientist is learning how to ask good questions, and part of learning comes from doing. Ask how something works, how they figured out an idea, how they brainstorm, how they unwind, why they do things in a certain way. Their exact style may not work for you, but it can help you figure out what types of approaches and methods you can use in your own career.
- Don’t get frustrated when you feel like you’re not moving fast enough. A sensei won’t let you move forward until you’re ready, which can make you feel frustrated or like you’re being held back unfairly. Relax and try to see their perspective, and see what gaps you need to fill before you can move forward. Pushing against their will can only lead to a falling out between the two of you, but listening and being patient can help you move further as a scientist (and as an added bonus, you might even learn the five point palm exploding heart technique!).
- Follow by example and take your own thinking breaks. If your sensei leaves the office for a swim workout every day at noon, try your own regularly scheduled activity that takes you away from work. Whether it is a coffee away from your desk, a lunch break at the gym, or just a walk around campus every afternoon, a regular time away from the bench or your computer screen can give you the perspective you need to see what was beyond your narrow focus before.
- Recognize that learning is part of success, whether it gets you 100 papers or 1. Learning won’t always come easy, and it may sometimes takes time away from tasks, which we feel are productive, but are not really clearly thought-out. Learning is something you take with you through every stage of your career and is something that additional replicates or new experiments won’t take away. Work with your sensei to ensure that your work has dedicated time for learning, not just doing.
So now with some advice and suggestions for finding and maintaining a sensei relationship, your research entourage is complete! And as with any relationship, communication and expectations are the key to having a relationship that’s mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Talk to your entourage members about what role they play in your life and your career, what you’d like to learn or experience from them, and ask how you can be better at being at the receiving end of their guidance, support, or philosophizing. We hope you enjoyed this series and that you make progress on establishing your own research entourage, whether it be the people that get you through grad school or the ones that help you build on your career in research. Science isn’t an easy role, but with a supporting crew like these you’re sure to go far!
We’ve already set up three members of your entourage: a coach, a dreamer, and a doer. These people are here to push you further as you build up your skills and expertise and are here to provide different perspectives on your work. But who is in your entourage who can see you as you are and be there for you no matter what you’re going through? Who’s first reaction won’t be to coach you through an obstacle but instead will listen to each aspect of your situation as it is? This person is the fourth member of your entourage, and is your ally: A person who is on your side, no matter what.
What exactly is an ally? The dictionary definition of ally (verb) is “to be united formally; to associate or connect by some mutual relationship,” and as a noun, simply “supporter”. Your relationship with your ally is founded on shared experiences, mutual support and understanding. While your other three entourage members provide new perspectives, your ally is someone who sees work, life, and a career in science in the same way you do. An ally is someone who shares your dreams, recognizes your anxieties, and understands your goals, and doesn’t always have advice or an opposing view point for each situation you face.
There are a lot of great examples of best friend/allies out there: Captain Kirk and Spock, Tyrion and Bronn, Spongebob and Patrick, Austria and Hungary. While allies do have complementary perspectives or skills, what’s key is that they are by your side through thick and thin. Why? Just because they’re your friend. While the goal of the coaching relationship should be clear in terms of what the expectations are from both parties, for an ally the relationship is simple: Just be there when your ally needs you, and they’ll be there for you in return. But ‘being there’ seems like a bit of a vague term: what is an ally’s actual job in your research entourage?
What makes a good ally?
- A person you can talk to and know you’ll get a straight answer from. A good ally is always on your side-but also knows the importance of talking straight. An ally is a person that you can trust to hear the truth from, a person that won’t pull punches, and one who will see things as they are. While the truth may not always be easy to take, having someone in your entourage who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is can help you see the truth in complex situations.
- A person who see the world through similar eyes as you. The best kind of ally is one who has a similar outlook on the world as you. Because your ally isn’t you, even though they are a lot like you, they can see a situation with a clearer perspective, and can offer advice as to what they would do in your shoes. This advice is generally well-given and thought out, because it comes from a person who knows you well, who sees your dreams and your worries, and who most importantly sees things from a similar viewpoint, but not the exact same one, thus providing a bit of neutrality in assessing the situation. A third party perspective from someone with a similar viewpoint can help you see a way forward when your own doubts or frustrations might be blocking the way.
- Laughs and celebrates with you during your good times and empathizes with your tough times. Allies are always the first ones to share good news with, the ones who will applaud the loudest at your presentations, and the ones who will be as excited for you as you are for yourself when you accomplish things. And when times aren’t as easy going or successful, your ally is there to listen to your story and to hear you out when you’re feeling down. No matter what, you’ve got someone at your back, good times or bad!
- The person that reminds you that your dreams are valid and you should go for them. Often times in grad school or research, it’s easy to get frustrated. Things won’t work the first time, we won’t make as much progress as we thought we would, we didn’t get enough papers, conference talks, grants, etc. It’s easy to tear yourself down in these situations and start to think that maybe you’re just not cut out for research, or wherever you wanted your own dreams of a career to take you. An ally reminds you that above everything else, you’re you, and that your dreams are never wrong if they’re truly your dreams.
- A person who listens and doesn’t always have a solution or advice, but sometimes just listens. Sometimes people can help us get out of a difficult situation, or know what to say to make us feel better, or know how to fix something, or even just make us smile. And sometimes those things are all hard to do. Sometimes all you can do for your ally, and them for you, is to hear the other person out. This is likely the hardest task for any ally relationship. It can be hard to feel like you can’t do anything, or to feel like you should say something or make a suggestion. A good ally recognizes that sometimes support sometimes comes just from being present, and nothing else.
Where do you find good allies?
Most often, your best allies are your lab mates, office mates, class mates, or colleagues met through other professional/outreach/extracurricular activities. While in the first week of work you may not have been sure if you’d get on well with your immediate lab mates, sometimes allies appear where you least expect them: perhaps you didn’t click with someone right away until you suffered through a really bad talk together, and spent the next hour chatting about all the same mistakes that annoyed you. While research tends to be a very independent day-to-day task, make an effort to step out of your own world and learn about someone else’s. If you don’t have an easily identifiable ally in your own research group, strike up a conversation with someone at seminar, or in the break room, a lunchtime seminar/workshop, or at the PCR machine you’re both waiting on. The key with finding good friends is being open to meeting them and not being overly drawn into your own world for the entire working day as you obsess over data, lab work, and other goings-on in your own little bubble.
I’m thankful for the many allies I’ve had in my graduate and post-doctoral careers who have become some of the best friends a person could ask for. Looking back on the good and bad moments of any career, my allies were the people who were there to listen, to laugh, to cry, and to complain with, and were the reasons that the day-to-day stresses of research felt manageable instead of insufferable. I’m happy for the people that I’ve shared cheeky Friday afternoon drinks with, espoused similar viewpoints on the mismanagement of scientific research, and most of all the people with a vision and drive to work for a world that is better in some (even small) way than the one we were currently in. As for my allies (both past and present), I can always trust in them to tell me what’s on their mind about an idea or a plan, to hold me back or to push me onward when needed, and to help me keep on dreaming big, no matter what challenges come about.
Research is not an easy gig, but the allies we have can make it seem like we’re not alone. They are there to support, understand, and listen, and should always serve as a reminder that what you’re doing is good and that there’s no reason that you can’t achieve what you set out to do. Now the entourage is almost complete, with only one member remaining: Your sensei. So until we finish our entourage series next week: be sure to tell your research ally thanks for what they’ve done for you, and go out and find some go-to friends if you don’t have one yet. Just be sure you don’t make the ally relationship too formal; if they ask for a signed treaty, retreat!