Facing the challenges of a career in STEM
Portions of this post were originally shared as part of a SETAC women’s workshop fundraiser
On the night before I started my post-doc, my mother sent me an email with her best career advice. It was my first job after graduate school, and her message was a way to wish me well and to help me start with my best foot forward. Her advice included Be present; Find meaning and happiness in what you do; Don’t sell yourself short; and Don’t look for others to validate what you’re doing.
During those first few months, I remembered her advice and did my best to embrace it. I faced challenges and issues in my post-doc, as expected in any new job , but overall I felt confident in what I was doing. I felt like I was placing myself in the right career trajectory. But a year and a half later into my post-doc, another piece of advice rang loudly in my ears. It wasn’t because I had followed my mom’s advice but rather because I had gone against it. I went home after having a complete crying break-down in my boss’s office, feeling horrible for not having followed my mother’s simple advice: Don’t cry at work.
As much as I tried to move on from what was a quintessentially bad day, I felt myself becoming increasingly distressed and anxious about my job and my career. I felt guilty about my break-down and worried that I would be seen as weak and overly emotional. I felt like I had gone from being an up-and-coming independent scientist to the girl who cried in the office. More than anything, I struggled with the feeling that I was no longer on the right career path. I wondered if I was not ‘cut out’ for life as a scientist or as a researcher.
Unique challenges for Women in STEM: Self-confidence in times of stress
I was fortunate that the stress that had taken over my day-to-day life eventually resolved itself. The months I had spent dealing with new and urgent tasks and the endless shifts in my project’s aims finally came to a resolution and I had a clear path ahead for what needed to be finished by the end of my post-doc. The fear of not having my contract extended was alleviated when the paperwork came through and I was relieved to find that my job would not end as abruptly as anticipated. But I still struggled with feeling like I was not a good scientist. If I had gotten to the point where I cried at lab, was I really cut out for life as a researcher?
It was at this point that I had to force myself to realize that I was not a bad scientist just because I had become frustrated. I was organized, hard-working, and forward-thinking. The thing I was lacking was the self-confidence. Confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this”—and when you hear that voice, you believe it. Confidence lets you see your positive attributes at difficult times, and also helps you recognize that the mistakes you make on one stressful afternoon don’t have to define you in the long term. We touched on this topic in a post earlier this year and discussed the importance of self-confidence for navigating through the numerous challenges you might face as an early career researcher.
A lack of self-confidence is not a unique challenge that early career researchers face, and I am certainly not the first person to wonder whether I was ‘cut out’ for something or not. In particular, women who embark on careers in science face unique challenges related to self-confidence, even from a young age. When children are told a story of a person who is described as “really, really smart” and are then asked to select a gender for the person in the story, girls as young as 6 years old were more likely to identify that “really, really smart” person as a man. Girls were also less likely to play games that described as being for “children who are really, really smart”.
Another study found that 10th grade girls tended to rank themselves as less skilled in math and science than their male counterparts, even if the girls’ test scores reflected strong abilities in STEM. Even though it was the girls who performed better on tests, it was the boys who saw themselves as being more skilled in math and science.
How can we build better self-confidence for women in STEM?
Our own internal dialogue is a powerful force that dictates our actions and reactions. When we don’t know how to counter our own negative impressions of our abilities or have low self-confidence in general, it can make pursuing a career in STEM challenging. A lack of confidence makes science seem like it’s only meant for the “really, really smart” people. Given the importance of self-confidence in pursuing and staying within a career in science, how can we better encourage women in STEM to stay the course and work through the more challenging times as they come?
One recent study provides an example of the importance of peer mentorship as sources of inspiration for motivating women. The researchers looked at exercise habits and found that people are inspired to run faster and train harder when they see friends sharing their own fitness stories on social media. But the most noteworthy finding from this research was that while men can find inspiration from both male and female friends, women tend to only become inspired to exercise harder when they see stories from other women.
If we want to encourage more women to become scientists, we as women scientists can start by encouraging self-confidence and serve as mentors for girls who are looking for someone to inspire and support them. Another recent study demonstrated how female engineering undergraduate students were more likely to feel more confident in their technical abilities, as well as their perception of their ability to overcome stress or challenges, when they were connected with a female mentor at the start of their program. Female undergraduate students who had no mentors, on the other hand, were more likely to feel out of place and anxious, with 11% dropping out of the program entirely (in contrast, all of the female students who had female mentors remained in the program). Interestingly enough, grades had no bearing on whether a student remained in the program or not—but the presence of a mentor did.
What does the future hold?
It can seem daunting to look at the facts and figures related to women in STEM and contemplate a way forward. But by recognizing the fundamental importance that self-confidence and mentorship can impart on young minds, we can bring all of the best and brightest minds to science—and make it clear to them that they are welcome, and able, to stay.
If you are working in STEM and are struggling to find your place in the community, start by working independently towards improving your own self-confidence. While you work on building yourself up internally, start your search for your networking support team by reading our Research Entourage series. These articles focus on the characteristics of the members of your career development team, the people who can work with you and support you as you move forward in your career.
If you are lucky enough to feel confident in your career path and want to help the next generation of scientists and engineers, you can volunteer to serve as a mentor for girls and women in STEM. You can also explore the outreach activities happening at your institute and get involved with local events happening in your community that are STEM focused. One great example in the UK is Soapbox Science, an organization that recruits and supports women scientists for science communication and public engagement activities.
Becoming a confident scientist
The life of a scientist will always be fraught with challenges as well as rewards, joys, and ‘eureka!’ moments. After my stressful moments in the lab, I realized that my frustration and tears were not a sign of weakness but were instead a realization that the job I was in was not the right fit for me. With this realization, I was able to focus my energy on finding a new STEM career path that was a better fit for both my expertise and my passions. I’m now enjoying my third month as a medical writer, a job that feels like the right area of STEM for me. My hope is that by finding your own self-confidence and bringing together your research entourage, you can find the job that's the right fit for you!
The strategic graduate student
An early career researcher faces a lot of pressures within the academic research environment. We’re expected to work hard and put in long hours on experiments and data analysis, under the idea that more output (or, in our case, more data) will inevitably lead to more papers and more opportunities. Hard work is a crucial aspect of success in graduate school, but what’s sometimes not as clear, especially in the early periods of our research careers, is how to work smart.
Working smart means being strategic with time: set goals, plan ahead, and adapt as needed. But how exactly can we learn to become more strategic in our work? It’s one thing to design a flawless plan of experiments and analyses in great detail…but what about when an unexpected results offers new insights or inspires different experiments? With an endless array of tasks, distractions, and the all-enveloping feeling like we have to be doing something at any given point in time, how can we clearly see and decide on the most valuable course of action at any given moment?
I’ve been interested in answering this question both in a broad sense as well as for my own work-life balance. And while I’ve had wonderful mentors, coaches, and bosses who have taught me how to prioritize my current work while visualizing the future, I also like to find inspiration from other sources. My reading hobby typically leads me towards history books, in part as a break from reading about science but also as a source of awe-inspiring stories. It’s incredible how often the lives of the great men and women of history were defined by how they made pivotal strategic decisions or how a single idea changed the entire course of history.
One of my recent such reads was Robert Greene’s “The 33 Strategies of War”. Greene’s book offers insights on how you can make your own career, or even your entire life, more strategic. The book is interwoven with stories from history highlighting the 33 concepts described in great detail in his book. If you’re not a military history aficionado, there are also a number of stories about politicians, business leaders, and even artists who fought in their own sort of ‘wars’ as they worked to bring their goals and ideas to life.
Highlights from “The 33 Strategies of War”
Greene’s book is not a practical ‘How to make war’ type of book. It instead focuses more on the psychology of conflict and how to approach these situations with a rational and strategic mind. One of the most important facets of good strategy is to have a wide perspective of your situation. In the case of research, you should thoroughly understand the problems that your field is working to solve and the possible solutions:
“To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into.”
“The essence of strategy is not to carry out a brilliant plan that proceeds in steps: it is to put yourself in situations where you have more options than the enemy does. Instead of grasping at Option A as the single right answer, true strategy is positioning yourself to be able to do A, B, or C depending on the circumstances. This is strategic depth of thinking, as opposed to formulaic thinking.”
Greene also stresses the importance of acting on the plans you make while being flexible to changing situations. While strategy is the “art of commanding the entire military operation”, tactics refers to the “skill of forming up the army for battle itself and dealing with the immediate needs of the battlefield.”
You can think of strategy as the plans you draw up for the experiments you need complete for your dissertation and tactics as the action you take if you find out that one of those experiments was already done by another lab or is no longer needed because another paper refuted the hypothesis. And regardless of how well you plan, you must also be ready to work hard and to learn from any mistakes you make. As Greene said: “What you know must transfer into action, and action must translate into knowledge.”
Greene’s book discusses how to use both victory and defeat to your advantage. Both victory and defeat are temporary, says Greene, because what matters is what you do with the lessons you gain from each encounter. If you win, don’t become blinded by your own success but keep working hard and moving forward. If you lose, envision your loss as a temporary setback and use the lessons learned to plant the seeds of future victory.
Greene also talks extensively about the way that emotions can cause you to make ill-informed decisions. This is especially true for academics and young researchers, where the pressures to work hard and publish can lead many to mental health problems or simply finding themselves burned out from exhaustion. Many of the stories in 33 Strategies of War show how people extricated themselves from difficult situations and provide hope for the rest of us that anyone can make it through any type of challenge we might face:
“Fear will make you overestimate the enemy and act too defensively. Anger and impatience will draw you into rash actions that will cut off your options.”
To become a strategic student, start by waging a war against yourself
Greene’s book goes into great detail on the many facets of war, including offensive and defensive tactics as well as methods for psychological warfare. What I found the most resonant, especially for early career researchers, were the discussions around internal warfare: ‘declaring war on yourself’ in order to progress and move forward. Greene also focuses on the importance of self-confidence and having a positive mindset—a topic we discussed earlier this spring.
One of the most striking personal stories in this section is about General George S. Patton, the famous WWII general who was instrumental in leading the Allies to victory. But before he was a WWII general, he found himself commanding a small contingent of tanks in France during WWI. At one point his unit ended up trapped, their retreat back to base blocked and the only way forward through enemy lines. He found himself terrified to the point of being unable to move or speak. In the end he was able to muster enough courage and stride forward, but the moment left a mark on Patton. He made a habit of putting himself into dangerous situations more regularly, to face that which he feared in order to become less afraid of the situation.
This is one of my favorite stories from 33 Strategies of War. It not only shows us the human side of a great general from modern history, but it also shows us the importance of facing our fears. There are many unknowns, uncertainties, and even fears we face in our own work: what if we get something wrong, what if an experiment fails, what if we don’t win that grant or fellowship. But putting ourselves into challenging situations is part of how we progress. Facing and embracing what we fear helps us move forward and lessens our anxiety surrounding failure.
Another important consideration for graduate students and early career researchers is the importance of taking time away from our work. We’ve discussed the importance of breaks and time away from the lab to give us perspective on our work and refresh our minds, and Greene also highlights this as a strategic move:
“If you are always advancing, always attacking, always responding to people emotionally, you have no time to gain perspectives.”
Through these opening chapters, Greene explores this internal war and how we can develop a warrior’s heart and mindset. Instead of summarizing the chapter in great detail, I’ve highlighted are a few of my favorite quotes from this part of his book:
“He (the warrior) must beat off these attacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learned from defeat—they are worth more than from victory”
(About your presence of mind): “You must actively resist the emotional pull of the moment, staying decisive, confident, and aggressive no matter what hits you.”
(On being mentally prepared for ‘war’): “When a crisis does come, your mind will already be calm and prepared. Once presence of mind becomes a habit, it will never abandon you.” and “The more you have lost your balance, the more you will know about how to right yourself.”
(About keeping an open mind): “Clearing your head of everything you thought you knew, even your most cherished ideas, will give you the mental space to be educated by your present experience.”
(About self-confidence): “Our greatest weakness is losing heart, doubting ourselves, becoming unnecessarily cautious. Being more careful is not what we need; that is just a screen for our fear of conflict and of making a mistake. What we need is double the resolve—an intensification of confidence.”
(On moving forward): “When something goes wrong, look deep into yourself—not in an emotional way, to blame yourself or indulge your feeling of guilt, but to make sure that you start your next campaign with a firmer step and greater vision.”
I’ve learned a lot from mentors and colleagues throughout my career, but I also enjoy looking for inspiration outside of my normal work environment. Greene’s book “The 33 Strategies of War” provides great inspiration in the form of quotes, advice, and stories from history for approaching life strategically and rationally. Greene’s book is also very grounded and realistic in its approach, and he encourages us to do the same:
“While others may find beauty in endless dreams, warriors find it in reality, in awareness of limits, in making the most of what they have.”
Whether we are focused on our own research projects, maneuvering into the world in search of fulfilling work, or just going through our day-to-day lives outside of work, we will encounter different types of battles. Greene’s book focuses on the importance of goals in waging this war, whether they are personal or professional:
“Do not think about either your solid goals or your wishful dreams, and do not plan out your strategy on paper. Instead, think deeply about what you have—the tools and materials you will be working with. Ground yourself not in dreams and plans but in reality: think of your own skills or advantages.”
“Think of it as finding your level—a perfect balance between what you are capable of and the task at hand. When the job you are doing is neither above nor below your talents but at your level, you are neither exhausted nor bored and depressed.”
How we approach them depends on our own strategy, but we can all face them with courage and strength by adopting a warrior’s approach to facing conflict. Greene’s discussion about internal warfare might be one of the books’ most relevant sections for graduate students. There are numerous quotes in this book and it’s difficult to highlight all of the great advice discussed in just one blog post, but to close off the post, here is a post on the importance of having a warrior’s heart:
“It is not numbers or strength that bring victory in war but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them.”
The origins of a super hero
(Spoiler alert: details of the plot of Wonder Woman in this section—proceed with caution!)
I went to the cinema last Saturday eager to see Wonder Woman and optimistic that it would easily be one of my favorite superhero films. But after the film, I spent the entire way home on the tram complaining about the story to my husband. I’ll avoid extended discussions on my frustrations with films that feature breast-shaped armor for women and my other costume-related annoyances (I know it’s a tropical Mediterranean island…but they were fighting with swords and spears. Shouldn’t they be wearing pants or longer skirts that would actually protect your legs from getting hurt??).
In reality, my frustration went deeper than the lack of proper clothing. I was disappointed with the lack of inspiration from Diana’s origin story in that I didn’t feel it was relatable nor realistic. “But it’s a superhero/fantasy movie!” you’re now thinking to yourself. “Of course it’s not real.” But just because the setting is imaginary, it doesn’t mean that the characters can’t feel real or can’t have a backstory that remind us of our own.
Throughout the film, Diana was following her path towards achieving her destiny. She was brave, personable, cared about protecting people, and had a love of justice and doing the right thing, which are all qualities that we should strive for. But she was also the daughter of Zeus, trained from childhood by an island of Amazons for the purpose of defeating her half-brother Ares. For those of us who aren’t born the daughters of gods, how can our own origin story compare?
From humble beginnings to…?
Of the large number of talented, hard-working, and dedicated PhD students and early career researchers, only a select few will end up becoming tenure-track professors. The origin story of the PhDs who don’t end up with a tenure-track job will at first glance look the same as those who go on to be professors: a love of science, a natural talent or ability that leads he/she to a career in research, a dedication to our project, and the hard work and grit it takes to finish a dissertation. But the story doesn’t finish neatly there—at some point, for many of us, the path of our presumed destiny takes a turn.
Turning off from this traditional career path leads us to a new type of beginning. We go from accomplished academic researchers, working hard on every experiment and fighting for every data point, to finding ourselves in an unfamiliar new working world. Any new career path means starting over: a new work culture, new buzzwords, new colleagues, and an overwhelming sensation that we are no longer the experts that we thought we were.
Last week I embarked on my first day as an associate medical writer. I spent three years of life as a post-doc and felt that there was a place for me in the world of research. But after three years, I realized that following what I once thought was my destined path, of becoming some world-renowned/world-changing scientist, was no longer the path for me. I welcomed the opportunity to adjust my career trajectory and explore a new path in the area of medical communications. It meant starting over with a new commute, a new office, new rules, and a new hierarchy, all while becoming familiar with a completely new way of working.
I may not have achieved what I thought had been my destiny, but starting over and embarking on a new path was something that I really wanted to do. Now I have the chance to embrace a new ‘destiny’, taking the lessons I learned on my previous journey while forging ahead to something unknown yet exciting.
If you feel like you’re having a difficult time with starting over, or perhaps even knowing where to begin in writing your own origin story, here’s a few suggestions and things to keep in mind:
Writing your own career origin story
Embrace your passions and abilities.
Our skills and passions define who we are more than the paths we choose in life. Part of finding the right path involves reflecting on what you’re passionate about. We all have a love or a fascination with science, but was it always connected to something else? In your research, do you feel the most inspired when teaching, writing, being creative, or helping others? A successful career is any path that leads you to feeling fulfilled and that puts your passions and expertise to good use. Finding this path is the true definition of success in a career.
Superhero take-home message: Heroes who follow their heart are the ones who inspire us to do the same.
Be ready to change your perspective.
Embarking on any new path forces us to see things with a new pair of eyes. Even just moving to a new lab or getting a new boss provides us with new ways of working and interacting with colleagues. People who make the most of their changing career paths are the ones who are able to learn from their new perspectives and keep a broad look across the horizon. Be ready with an open mind to embrace a new way of working or thinking and you’ll gain as much from your new situation as you’ll put into it.
Superhero take-home message: It’s not enough to follow your heart—you need to open your mind to new ideas and perspectives to be able use what you’ve learned.
Find a mentor and an ally.
Even a solitary hero needs trusted friends on his/her side, and very few super heroes ever work in complete isolation. In any origin story you’ll always find someone who falls into a mentor or teacher role. This is someone who helps the hero embrace a new perspective and progress through their story. Find a person along your path who will help you do the same, a person who will encourage you to work towards your passions while ensuring that you learn as much as possible. A strong mentor wants to see you succeed—so let them guide you, and at times push you, in order to help you get there.
All superheroes need allies, so find someone along your career path who’s either been through the process or who is even learning alongside you. This ally can become your friend, your confidant, or just someone you can share your joys and frustrations with as you progress. Having a person who can empathize with your situation is a strong reminder that even when you’re struggling or you feel like you’re not getting something right, you’re not alone.
Superhero take-home message: Even the strongest of super heroes can’t save the world on their own. All of us need people to guide us and to support us along the way.
Failure is part of the learning process.
We’re all driven by success and by feeling like we’re good at something. For those of us who always excelled in school, a failed experiment or a critical comment hits us in harder than we expected. But many super hero origin stories show us that even heroes make mistakes, both early on and even when they are at the top of their game. They stumble when trying to learn something new or find themselves unable to move forward when faced with a difficult challenge. Remember that critiques are not there to punish us but are there to help us learn and to make us better. Embrace your failures and strive to learn from them instead of fretting over them.
Superhero take-home message: A hero gains more from what he/she gets wrong than what he/she gets right. Use every mistake as an opportunity to learn something new.
We all have to start somewhere.
Anyone who’s at the top of their field, be it a CEO, an institute Director, or a world-renowned researcher, wasn’t born into that role. They had to work to get to that position by starting at the bottom and working their way up. It’s easy to feel downtrodden if we compare ourselves to others without recognizing the potential of our own career stories and remembering that all origin stories have to start somewhere. Instead of comparing yourself to others, recognize that the starting point of your career is the part of the path where you have the most potential. Your actions and your attitude at this stage will help define how far you’ll go in the future. Take a deep breath and remember that even your first step, however small, is still a step forward.
Superhero take-home message: Even in the most personal of origin stories, many heroes learn that the story is not just about themselves. Be ready to take a step back and see the picture from a broader perspective so you can better see your own potential for growth and progress.
Finding (and becoming) your own hero
Your career origin story is as unique and as varied as you are: it comprises your passions, your skills, the opportunities you embrace, and what you do with the challenges life puts in front of you. Perhaps I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I thought I would because I’ve already found super hero inspiration from other origin stories. As my own career path changes trajectory from research scientists to technical writer, I find myself attracted to stories where the hero finds himself or herself in an unexpected place but uses his/her skills, passions, and fortitude to progress and excel. And what’s even more inspiring than tales of fictional super heroes are the people I’ve met who have shared their career transition stories, who took advantage of new career paths and opportunities and found a great place to work that brings their skills and passions together every day.
No matter whose stories you consider inspiring, or what your own path looks like, remember that you can also be your own hero. Whether you’re working hard to find a career that’s the best fit for you, or you simply find yourself on an unexpected detour, your origin story can become one that’s worth telling. No armor or capes required!
Science communication online
Perhaps you’ve marched for science, talked to your congressional representatives, or explained the science behind global warming/GMOs/vaccines with your friends and family but are still looking for other outlets to share your scientific knowledge and passion to a broader audience. Through social media platforms online, it is now easier for scientists to embark in science communication and outreach with the general public.
There are numerous ways to share scientific ideas and results with a wider scientific audience than at a conference presentation or a wider lay audience than your family and friends. Starting a blog is a great opportunity to become an active science communicator: long-form blog writing is a way to share information, teach concepts to a new audience, and engage with interested readers who are curious about your topic.
Starting a science blog is not a trivial task, nor is it easy to maintain a website or keep up with a regular posting schedule. Keeping up with a blog takes time, energy, patience, and good planning. That being said, the potential for rewards for both you and your readers can be worth the effort.
This week we hosted the #SciBlogHubChat and discussed the challenges and strategies for active science bloggers. Today’s post is a summary of how you can start and keep an active science blog and some considerations for maintaining your creative energies. We are also only a few weeks away from celebrating the two-year anniversary of Science with Style. It has been a fun yet challenging two years and we hope to share some of the things we learned along the way!
Step 1: Lay out your blogging goals
Our online presence is becoming more of a part of our lives, and our careers, than ever before. Because employers and collaborators will look at your online presence as a portfolio alongside your CV/resume, it’s important to ensure that what you say online reflects who you are and what your goals are. It’s not enough to set up a blog and let it sit there empty until you write a 5000+ word post ranting about a bad day in the lab. You have to figure out what you want to achieve with your blog and what work it will take to achieve your goals on a weekly or monthly basis.
Start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who is your audience?
- How will you share your material with your audience?
- What ways will you promote your website (Twitter, Facebook, posting on other blogs, etc)
- How often will you provide new material for your audience?
- How much time do you have to devote to writing posts (be sure to include time spent brainstorming ideas, reading relevant papers/articles, and conducting interviews)?
Answering these questions will help you determine the style of your website, if you link your blog to a social media platform like twitter, what sort of language you use in your posts, and how long your posts will be.
For Science with Style, I write posts for early career researchers who come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds; for that reason, my posts focus on professional development and science communication. For my new project, the ToxCity Tribune, I am looking to reach people who are interested in toxicology and environmental science news. I write these posts in a way that is more general in terms of discussing scientific concept and I focus less on themes that are more relevant for early career researchers such as career development.
Science with Style posts tend to be around 1500 words long and the ToxCity Tribune posts are slightly shorter (1000 words). Part of this is the time required to read articles and write complex topics more concisely for ToxCity Tribune whereas for Science with Style I have time to talk more about a topic since there is less background research needed.
Step 2: Set up a clean and simple online presence
There are many hosting websites you can use to set up your science blog. A few examples include WordPress, Weebly, Blogger, and Wix. If you are more social media savvy than I am, you can also explore the applicability of websites like Tumblr and Reddit for your writing activities. Stick with a template that allows you to adopt a simple, clean style for your website; you don’t need anything flashy or complicated that will drown out your message.
Finding the best design for your message will take time and will most likely involve you trying out a few different approaches. Be open to changing things around if the template is not working. The good news with websites such as weebly is that if you change your layout, you won’t lose any of your content.
If you are using a free hosting platform, you won’t have full control over your URL; this service only comes when you pay extra for an expanded hosting package. When you are just starting your blog you can try out a couple of different websites before you commit to a paid plan and custom URL (if having one is important for you). I pay around $60 USD per year for both the URL and the upgraded Weebly package. I don’t make any of that money back on ads or revenue, but I consider $5 a month a low enough cost to feel comfortable with paying for the upgrade.
If you have HTML skills then you can create or customize your own website and only pay the URL and hosting fees. This means an investment in time instead of money (unless you pay someone to do the customization). But don’t feel pressure to become a computer programming or design expert—keep it simple, clean, and invest the time and/or money into the parts that are the most rewarding to you.
You might also want to develop a social media presence to go along with your blog. This can either be connected to your personal account or to a separate, blog-specific account. This will depend on your blogging goals, what type of posts you want to write (more personal or more detached from your own work/experience in science), and what audience you want to reach. If you decide to separate the personal from the professional, you can establish separate accounts to help you follow and find relevant materials for your blog and can keep your personal account for fun or your personal perspectives.
I use @SciwithStyle and @ToxCityTribune to follow accounts that are relevant for each blog. For Science with Style, I follow academic professional development organizations, science communicators, and outreach-related accounts. For ToxCity Tribune, I follow toxicology and environmental science research groups, toxicology papers, science news websites, and government institutions.
Having a social media account also requires you to have a social media plan in place: how often will you post on the account, how will you engage with others online, how will you share and promote your materials, whose materials will you share in return, and who you will follow. Social media can also be a distraction from work or from your writing, so be sure to limit your time to 5-10 minute increments. Distractions aside, I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of inspiration, news, and connections to interesting people I never would have met were it not for a curated account or a hashtag.
Step 3: Get to writing!
Long story short: writing is difficult and it takes time! For a single blog post, I usually spend ~30 minutes planning (developing the idea and preparing an outline), 1-2 hours writing the draft, and another hour editing the post, finding a relevant image, and posting the material.
Keep in mind the amount of time that writing a single blog post will take and plan your schedule accordingly. I dedicate a set time each week to drafting each post, generally with outlines and prep work on Monday night and draft writing on Tuesday, to keep me on schedule.
Part of getting into the writing ‘zone’ involves figuring out your own process and establishing a rhythm. I like starting with an outline and some notes the day before I write the post because it helps take the pressure off of the day that I need to write the post in full. I’ve met people who prefer to do all of their writing in a single sitting. Try a few approaches to see what works best for you and then stick to a routine to help maintain your pace.
Step 4: Hone your writing skills
Even the best writers need good editors. Find a reliable friend, colleague, or family member who is willing to read and edit your posts. A good editor will not only read your post and find any grammatical mistakes, they will also take the time to think of more impactful ways to share your message. This is someone who helps you improve any awkward or unclear phrases and a person who provides feedback on a draft that you can immediately use and incorporate into the final version. Comments like “This is great!” or “I don’t like the conclusion” are not that helpful; comments such as “I like the short introduction” or “You can improve the conclusion by adding another citation” are things that can improve your writing. Ideally, you should also be confident in your editor so that you don’t have to spend time editing his/her edits.
Step 5: Get inspired!
Another challenge with maintaining a blog is finding inspiration for new posts. Inspiration will often come from unexpected places, like a dinnertime conversation with a friend or a flash of insight on your commute from work. Take notes of your ideas as they come…I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very easy to forget even the greatest ideas!
To get inspired, stay on top of what other material is out there by following active bloggers and writers as well as recent science news. There is a lot of material online, but remember that your perspective will always be unique, and there is more than one way to look at a story. You might have a unique perspective as an early career researcher or from working on a topic at a level that most people might not recognize (like an anthropologist studying climate change).
When thinking about stories that might be interesting for others, think about what you like to read about, either for your blog, your work, or just your personal interest: What topics do you care about? What inspires or interests you? What worries or concerns do you have related to science and technology? Chances are if it is something that fundamentally interests you, someone else would also love to read about it.
Not feeling inspired? It happens to all of us! We all run into the occasional roadblock when it comes to writing. Check out our previous post on how to free yourself from writer’s block. When you are in a creative mood, make a list of post ideas and potential blog topics and keep these handy for when you get to a day when inspiration fails to strike.
A science blogger’s life
Starting (and, equally important, maintaining) a science blog can be a rewarding activity if you are ready to commit to the work required to make it happen. Even if you don’t feel that you are a ‘good’ writer, blogging can help you improve your written communication skills by helping you find your writing rhythm and keeping you on track with a post schedule. It’s also an opportunity to receive feedback from colleagues and readers and to share your perspectives with a new audience online.
Once you’ve become an established blogger, you can also more broadly share your work using common hashtags, joining twitter conversations, and guest blogging. Whatever your professional interest or skill level may be, science blogging is a great place for aspiring science communicators who are enthusiastic to share the world of science with a new audience.
Are you up to the challenge?
If you’ve seen any advertisements for martial arts schools, you’ve likely noticed how the various forms of martial arts are all touted as ways for a person to gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Given the fact that I already have a black belt and am now approximately one year away from earning a second, you would think that confidence would be no problem, that I’ve already gained perfect self-esteem from earning a black belt. How could I ever lack confidence?
After nearly three years of tae kwon do training in Liverpool, I now have a new club and a new coach. Stepping into an unknown dojo where the warm-ups, stretches, and drills are all new is a humbling experience when you get to a moment where you feel like you can’t keep up with everyone who knows the routine already. It’s left me feeling less confident in my abilities than the month before and more frustrated when I got things wrong. Even with three years of training and a red belt, I still suffer from waivers in my own self-confidence in the sport.
There are many experiences as a PhD student or early career researcher that can cause our confidence to waiver: a rejected grant, a scathing comment on a manuscript review, or a failed experiment. We all face challenging moments that shake our beliefs in our own value or skills. Having strong self-confidence is one of the ways that we can work through challenging moments as we keep our head held high and our mind in a positive place. In this week’s post we’ll discuss the importance of self-confidence and the steps you can take to unveil your own inner champion.
The basics of confidence
Confidence is touted as one of these all-important facets of life, as something that we all need to have. But does anyone really know how to get it? Is it learned or inherited? How does one learn to be confident? Similar to the concept of networking, confidence is a nebulous concept that feels difficult to acquire.
The Oxford dictionary lists the first definition of confidence as: “The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” For this post, we’re more interested in the secondary definition: “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities.”
In other words, confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this” and when you hear that voice, you believe it.
But let’s approach this more scientifically. We shouldn’t believe that voice without empirical evidence—we need proof of our own abilities, not just belief in them. Thankfully in academic research, empirical metrics are everywhere. It’s why we care about endpoints like the number of papers we published, how many citations those papers have, who comes to our talks, how many grants/awards we receive, etc. We put value on our tangible accomplishments, all listed out conveniently on our CV. So if they’re all listed out and we can count them and read them, it should be easy to gain confidence from them, right?
This is only true if we appreciate our achievements, our abilities, and who we are as people and as researchers. We can have a CV filled with papers, book chapters, and awards yet can still feel like we are not good enough. This is evident when talking about imposter syndrome, a situation where regardless of the number of achievements or accolades, you discredit yourself and your work entirely. The trick is that confidence cannot be imparted on you externally—no number of papers or awards will make you more confident. Confidence has to come from within.
How do you gain confidence?
Building confidence cannot done in a single day of soul-searching, but it’s something that you have to work on continually. Confidence is also ephemeral; it can wash over you and make you feel as if you’re invincible, or it can quickly recede and leave you feeling vulnerable, just like I experience in own waivers of confidence associated with tae kwon do.
Martial arts emphasize the importance of the mental components of the sport, such as meditation, courtesy, and respect, at the same time as teaching you physical skills. But the key to finding confidence in a sport, or any activity, and even in your own career, is you. Anytime I go to a tournament or test for a new belt, I get nervous. I see the other people I will fight against or the high-ranking black belts who will judge my performance. It’s not enough to look down at my red belt and see my achievements with my own eyes—I have to feel them, too.
Your own path to self-confidence will be very personal, but if you’re looking to make steps in a positive direction, here are some ways that you can work towards breaking down the barrier between seeing and believing in yourself:
Find your passion.
In your own career, you will find that a love of science or research doesn’t necessarily translate into a passion for every aspect of the job. You also won’t be naturally gifted at every part of your work. To help build confidence in the early stages of your career, find and focus on the part of your work that you love the most and use this as a central focus of your confidence-building activities.
For me this focus was (and still is) writing. I used writing as a way to gain confidence in the rest of my project. It was a way for me to collate thoughts and ideas before taking them to a place where I had less confidence, like a platform presentation or a committee meeting. Writing helped me realize that I did know what I was talking about and gave me an opportunity to do something I liked while also improving on the other parts of my work, like public speaking.
Keep your level of confidence steady through both ups and downs.
Although your confidence will inevitably shift when faced with the positive and negative events of your situation or career path, work to avoid the extreme ends of the spectrum (either a complete lack of confidence or over-inflated self-worth) by finding your center ground.
From this position, you can use positive situations to propel you further, but be sure to stay within reasonable bounds. One published paper won’t lead to a Nobel prize, but it is a worthwhile achievement and worthy of celebration. On the other hand, one rejected paper is not a complete step down from your center ground, but rather a chance to take the positive part of a negative situation and to learn from what went wrong the first time. Failures are one of the best ways we can gain fresh perspectives and to improve our work for the next submission.
Practice positive thinking.
In science we are surrounded by critiques and reviews of our work, and many of us will internalize these messages as well as adding a few negative ones of our own. Being self-assured in your own qualities and abilities involves injecting optimism into your internal dialogue to help offset the critiques that come with a high-achieving career.
Positive thinking doesn’t have to be cheesy or fake, and you don’t need a pair of pompoms to be your own cheerleader. For example, positive thinking can provide a positive spin to negative situations (“The rejection was pretty tough, but the reviewer makes good points that I can incorporate into the next draft”) or can help you envision a positive outcome instead of dwelling on a negative one (“I’m nervous for the talk, but I’ve practiced it enough now that I know I’ll do a great job once I get on the stage!”).
I am not a naturally optimistic person, especially when I get nervous. One approach that I use is to change the situation when I’m surrounded by my own negative thoughts. I text a friend or call my husband to vent my nerves to someone else or to simply change the topic. Even turning on some upbeat music can help shift your mindset when you find yourself in a funk. If I am nervous for a talk, a meeting, or a tournament, I turn on some Sia or Madonna to put my mind in a better place. Shifting your situation can help improve your mood and broaden your perspective, opening up your mind to positive thoughts instead of negative ones.
Remember that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Failing is an essential part of any career and is also a facet of becoming an expert in any sport, skill, trade, or activity. Unless you are a prodigy, trying something new or beyond your current skill level will involve various degrees of failure. Becoming self-confident means facing a potential failure with cautious optimism: cautious in that you know you need to try your best, but optimistic in that you believe you can succeed, even if you fail the first time around.
Another important thing to remember is that coaches and mentors give critiques specifically because they want to see you improve. In general, people who seek out careers as professor want to see their students and their mentees succeed. Your mentors know that you are the next generation of scientists, and their critiques are there to help you, even if they are offered in a rather blunt or direct manner. You should also recognize that when people criticize your work, they are critiquing your output, not you as a person.
Confidence is not an easy thing to obtain. The keys to building confidence are to stay grounded, explore new skills and tasks while highlighting on your passions and abilities, and work to maintain a positive outlook. When good things happen, maintain a steady disposition and find productive ways to cope with failure, even if it means a short change of perspective or distraction from the situation. Once you begin living life with confidence, it will be difficult for any challenge to dislodge you completely. You’ll find that the challenges don’t last forever and the critiques only serve to fuel your internal flame.
“So, what are your plans for after you finish?”
It’s no secret that being a PhD student is stressful. Thankfully the process of earning a PhD doesn’t last forever, but because of its finite nature, any conversations with friends or colleagues will lead to the inevitable question of “So, what’s next?.” My group of colleagues includes some final year PhD students, all of whom are facing a not-too-distant future of writing and defending their dissertations. On top of this pressure, they are also worried about their job prospects and transition from student to employee.
When I finished my PhD, I was fortunate enough to have a prospective post-doc offer not long after finishing my dissertation. I managed to pass the time between submitting my dissertation and graduation without any additional job search stress. But I didn’t escape the job search stress for very long—last spring, and after many months of uncertainty about extending my post-doc contract, I found myself scrambling for what to do next. I applied for 9 jobs, and even landed an interview for one of them, but nothing fruitful came out of my search. I took a deep breath of relief when my contract was officially extended, but the experience left me with two realizations: 1) I was very lucky to still have a job, and 2) I would be in the exact same position again in 10 months’ time if I didn’t do something differently.
The importance of a professional network
Part of the reason for my struggle during my initial job search was that I only sort of knew what I wanted to do, which at the time included anything related to science communication, publications, public engagement, and so on. I knew that I didn’t want a career as a researcher, but I didn’t know what my exact options were or how to get there. What would an application reviewer be looking for on my resume? What sorts of skills did I need to highlight that were not on my academic CV? What types of positions could I realistically aim for with my skills and experience?
I had a lack of understanding since I had only recently decided what I wanted to do after my research post, and because I was new to the area I also lacked an existing network of colleagues and potential mentors working in the field that I wanted to enter. From my time as a researcher, I had a vast network of academics as well as industry and government researchers, but I didn’t know anyone doing science communication or writing. I had a broad understanding of where I wanted to go, but I was walking there blindfolded.
We discussed in a previous post about the nebulous nature of networking and some approaches you can use to make connections. Before we go further in this post, it would be good to revisit the definition of a network once more. Simply put, your network is the set of connections you have to colleagues, friends, and family members. These are connections you’ve made on a personal level: it’s not just shaking someone’s hand at a conference but means having a working relationship with them. They know who you are, what you can do, and your passions and area of expertise.
Networking may not seem that important if you are in the midst of lab work or writing your dissertation. But a solid network with more than one branch can take you places that wouldn’t be possible by simply sending in job applications and hoping for the best. Networking can show you hidden opportunities that won’t always be advertised and your mentors and connections can help you figure out how to enter into a new area by helping you to highlight your relevant skills or lay out a job-specific resume.
But there’s a trick to networking: because your network represents your relationships with other people, it’s not something you can put together on a short notice. You need to establish your network early on in your career so you have time to work with and establish trust between you and your connections. The key is to build trust with others before you need something from the other person—like a job, for example.
Where should I start?
1) Identify your skills, professional interests, and your long-term career goals
After going through contract extension panic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in science communication. But my short stint of job applications made me realize that this was a very broad ambition, and I felt like I was spreading myself very thin trying to cover every aspect of what this type of career could entail.
One of the ways I narrowed my career target was by reading Born for This and going through the book’s exercises. Perhaps the most powerful exercise in the book was when the author told us to think about what other people ask us to help with the most. This is a way of showing us what we’re good at because it’s something that others ask us to do for them. I realized that over the course of my time as both a PhD student and post-doc, I helped others the most with writing. Sometimes it was reviewing articles or manuscripts, other times it was in taking the lead on a paper that had been sitting unwritten for too many months. This exercise helped me realize something that was both a passion and a skill, which then helped me focus on careers related to writing.
2) Rework your brand
Knowing that I wanted to look for writing jobs, I sought out more opportunities to write. I participated in writing contests and guest posts for blogs and University websites. I then restructured my CV to highlight my written work more strongly. I also took part in writing classes (Coursera has some fantastic online courses if you’re looking for something free) and made sure that my social media profiles were up-to-date and reflected my career goals.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I did spend a good deal of time working on this outside of my normal post-doc hours. But it was also very enjoyable—I enjoyed learning about new topics and I got to meet other like-minded people in the process. This should also be a part of your re-branding process; if you’re not having a good time being the person you’re working hard to become, you should reconsider the path you’re walking on.
3) Look for opportunities that fit your style and your needs
Once you have your career goal and your brand figured out, start looking for what options you have based on your current/future limitations. For me, I knew that my husband had a job offer in Manchester for two years, so I wanted to look for science writing/communication jobs in that area. While looking at jobs on LinkedIn I found several posts for medical writers, and there were a lot of entry-level positions in the Manchester area.
I soon discovered a field, of which I had never heard, that was looking for PhD-trained researchers right in my back yard! I followed up by looking in more detail at the job advertisements, finding some resources about the field online, and sent off my resume for a couple of posts even though I didn’t need a job at the time. I felt that I had struck gold, but knew that it would take more than a good looking CV to get me my first job in a new area.
4) Look for connections that can help you reach those opportunities
Last autumn I was busy trying to get lab work finished so I could make more progress on the final manuscript for my project. One afternoon I found myself chatting with a PI in the physiology department whose lab space I used for some of my experiments. He knew that I was getting towards the end of my post-doc contract and asked if I had plans to stay in research and I told him I was looking to make a transition into the medical communications industry. As it turned out, the PI had a friend who was working at a medical writing firm near Manchester. He offered to pass me along his contact details and even to put in a good word with me at the pub when he met his friend for a drink later that week.
This conversation was a lucky exchange but one that highlights the importance of having trusted connections in all parts of your work. I was only working in this lab part-time and had no interest in continuing that facet of my work, but the PI knew I was hard-working, organized, and creative. He soon passed along his friend’s contact details and I made the all-important initial contact: a request for an informational interview.
I didn’t ask this new contact for a job or to look at my CV, since at the time he was only a colleague of a colleague. In my initial exchange I asked if we could meet informally to discuss more about medical communications in general. My goal was to meet someone in the field and hear from them what the work was like, then later on to expand this relationship and work towards getting help structuring my CV or even hints on potential job posts. This was all starting to happen close to six months before my contract would finished, so I also didn’t need anything explicit during our initial contact.
PS: If you’re looking for tips on what to ask during an information interview, be sure to check out Alaina Levine’s “Networking for Nerds book-it’s a great read!
5) Pursue opportunities as they come
The informational interview that I proposed never actually happened. As it turned out, the company was recruiting for an associate medical writer, and my new contact asked for my CV right away. I was nervous to send off my CV, but the work I had done restructuring my resume and highlighting my writing-oriented skills paid off. I was then given a writing test and made sure to not take the effort lightly even though I didn’t need a job at that time. I learned more about what was expected and dedicated a set amount of time to working on the test. One successful writing test and one in-person interview later (with my new contact at the other side of the table), I found myself celebrating the new year with a job offer to my name—months ahead of schedule!
Writing your own career story
My own career story was the result of yet another stroke of luck. But sometimes luck isn’t just a random coincidence: luck is something you can make for yourself. Sometimes luck is a product of the time and place you’re in. Sometimes luck is an opportunity you didn’t plan for that ends up directing your life’s story. Luck, timing, and the ability to find and seize opportunities leads us to many paths in our careers, and it’s often on these unplanned roads that we find the way through our own career journey.
But in order to take advantage of the hidden opportunities that can lead to game-changing moments, we need to network. This involves having strong personal connections with a wide range of colleagues as well as a solid and trusted reputation that connects to your name. Networking might seem like something nebulous or far-off while you’re knee deep in your own research, but thinking about your own career path as well as what connections you need to get there can take away part of the stress and uncertainty of your job search. You might not instantly have an answer for the question “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” but at least you’ll be able to say with confidence: “I’m exploring my options.”
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!
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!