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!
I attended the #scidata16 meeting last week as an amateur reporter and as part of an award for being selected as a finalist for the SciData writing contest. After the conference I returned to my own office and my own project, searching for the code and datasets I needed to re-make some figures from some data analysis months prior, with the discussions of the previous day all of a sudden feeling even more relevant. I thought it would be worthwhile for our Science with Style readers to provide some highlights from the conference and some tips and tricks for data management and sharing. You’ll be able to read my upcoming report on one of the keynote presentations in a future post on the Nature Jobs blog.
Early career researchers, especially PhD students, tend to focus on their own work and their own project. But as you progress through a career in research, the projects you’ll be involved in will become much larger efforts, with not as much of the project that’s yours and yours alone. Anyone who’s dug through a freezer full of boxes to find some crucial samples that a student who graduated 3 years ago left in a box labelled “E. coli samples” will know the struggles facing those of us in lab management.
But for researchers who are working on large datasets or large collaborative projects, the concepts and importance of data management might not be as evident. As science students we learn how to keep lab notebooks organized and in graduate school we learn how to organize our samples and important reagents, but when your entire project is stored digitally, how should it be organized? When do we learn as Phd students or early career researchers how to manage digital information?
While the conference was focused on quite a few topics related to data science, management, and open data, I’ll focus on just a few of the highlights from the keynotes. You can read more in-depth about the meeting in upcoming posts by myself and other #scidata16 contest winners in the coming weeks.
Reproducibility: When comparing data science with wet lab science, there are more overlaps than you think in how both are conducted and managed. One overlapping concept is that both types of data need to be reproducible. The first keynote speaker, Dr Florian Markowetz of the University of Cambridge, gave an example of a paper which was later retracted after two bioinformaticians noticed that the incredible findings they discovered were only due to Excel copy-paste errors. And those incredible figures you made once but now can’t find the original code? You need to have the data and the plan in order to make them again, or else it’s not a trustworthy result. My favorite quote from this talk was “A project is more than a beautiful result.”
Dr. Markowetz also gave the audience 5 things that data reproducibility can do for you. It can 1) help you avoid disaster, like having a retracted paper, 2) help you write a paper since it’s easier to look up numbers and be confident in your figures, 3) help you during peer-review since you can share your data and let the reviewer take a look for themselves, 4) help you achieve continuity in your work so you can come back to a problem later and you don’t have to start all over again, and 5) it will help you build a better reputation, which will allow you to submit your work to better journals and can establish yourself as a solid scientist.
Dr. Markowetz gave a great talk and emphasized that reproducibility is not a waste of time but is a part of science—think if your lab mate or a future student in your lab could repeat the ground-breaking results you generate in your thesis. The big take-home message here is to make reproducibility a part of your work flow early on in your career.
Data sharing: We started off the second keynote by Dr. Jenny Molloy (also from the University of Cambridge) with an answer to the seemingly apparently question of ‘What is Data?’, which she defined as collected observations and tabular calculations. Explaining what data you have is the first step for data sharing. It’s also important to understand that you can retain ownership and restrict how other uses and reuse data you share, similar to copyright on images and written works.
In another series of 5 items, we also learned the 5 steps for data sharing: 1) get motivated and start early, 2) stay on top of your data, 3) share the way you want to, 4) make the most of your sharing experience, and 5) set an example to your colleagues. If you ask why sharing is important, Dr. Molloy emphasized how open data can lead to better career recognition, connections to new collaborators and employers, and even gave some examples of how open science is creating new jobs for researchers with experience in data management. Other presentations on open data also highlighted tools available to researchers—if you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the Open Knowledge Framework website for examples and data management training.
Data management: Dr. Kevin Ashley from the University of Edinburgh discussed tools and infrastructure already in place for data management. He first emphasized that data management is not something that happens at the end of a project but something that begins when you conceptualize an idea and think about what data might look like in the end. The importance of good data collection and management was also highlighted in discussions on astronomy data and their use in research today. Measurements from 8th century astronomers are still being used by researchers today, although for purposes not connected to what the observers originally intended. Dr. Ashley also mentioned the volume of data collection efforts from the Hubble telescope, where numerous publications and observations were made not on data collected by the researcher who wrote the paper. This keynote highlighted the importance of clear and open data management policies that allow researchers to tap into their own ideas without even having collected the data themselves.
Dr. Ashley also mentioned that we’ll be running out of storage space in the long term, based on how quickly storage capacities and the number of datasets are both increasing. Because of that, it’s important for ECRs to consider what needs to be kept and for how long. And for curious ECRs wondering about the details of data management, recommendations for project budgets (5%) as well as the role of institutional infrastructure for data storage were also discussed.
The future of data science: Dr. Andrew Hufton, the editor of Scientific Data, talked about the role of data journals as well as the importance of meeting journal requirements for open data sharing. Data journals are one way to get credit for reproducibility of your results and to have your data cited even when you’re not involved with the new paper itself. Data should also be seen before it can be believed, and it needs to be able to be shared or it’s not science. Dr. Hufton also emphasized how data sharing drives the impact of your work, especially for researchers working in emerging or timely fields (such as zika virus research).
Dr. Hufton also presented an acronym for good data sharing, the type of sharing that allows other authors to replicate and build off of the author’s claims. This includes making data FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable (i.e. in the right format), and reusable (i.e. having really good descriptors for each header). Dr. Hufton also emphasized that while supplementary materials are great, they are not curate and machine-readable and should not be the only place you put your results.
What’s next? One of the last points discussed really hit home for me: when it comes to being a scientist, we need to take time to remember the reason that we do research: we are tackling the problems facing our world and need to remember that people’s lives can be directly impacted by our work. Any work we do that’s not open, repeatable, or manage properly can negatively impact others, not just our own career, and work poorly done work can be harmful to people who rely on our work for bettering their lives. A recent article about incentives in science highlighted this concept, which again brings up the need for incentivizing well-done, repeated studies instead of just more publications.
While it will take some time for the research culture to change, you can already find Open Science peers through the OSF network as well as reaching out to your institution for support in terms of data management and open data platforms available. With just a few of the potential benefits to your career laid out in this post, there are certainly a number of reasons for having open, repetitive, and well-managed datasets—and if I didn’t manage to convince you in this post, you can catch up on the #scidata16 tweets or see the presentations posted later on the Nature Jobs website.
I greatly enjoyed #scidata16 not only for the experiences as a reporter-in-training but also as a bioinformatician and as a person who is interested in finding ways to improve the research experiences of PhD students and ECRs. The conference had a great set of speakers as well as tips and tricks for researchers at all stages in their careers and across a range of fields. Whether it’s a big or small dataset, making it readable, available, and interpretable by others in the long run is a more powerful tool than I would have thought before attending this conference. Who knows—it could even get you a publication in a Nature journal!
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!
Every Monday and Thursday night, I take a 15 minute train ride on the Northern Line from Liverpool Central for my biweekly tae kwon do lessons. The classes vary throughout the week: sometimes we focus on technique, sometimes we focus on strength and endurance exercises, and some weeks we do so much kicking and sparring that I can barely manage the walk back to the train station. Last week we had our last two lessons before a summer break, starting with a seemingly relaxed warm-up that led into an intense 30 minute sparring session.
During our sparring prelude, someone asked about a former class attendee who hadn’t been around for a while. Our black belt instructor Paul said that he didn’t think the student in question would ever return, and wasn’t too surprised about it, commenting that the current number of students who had taken his class versus those who had completed their black belt was similar to what he had seen at other schools, including when he earned his black belt. The black belt ‘graduation’ rate according to Paul is around 1 in 35, so of 35 students that start tae kwon do training, only one will actually earn a black belt.
Call it tae kwon do attrition or just the fact that not everyone’s cut out for the sport, but it’s no surprise that not everyone makes it to black belt stage. It’s a tough sport, as my legs can attest to after our final lesson of the summer last Thursday. But Paul’s comment also brought to mind thoughts of the parallels between training in martial arts and going for a PhD and career in research. The completion rates are a quite a bit higher for those going for a PhD (50-60% in the US and closer to 70% if you’re here in the UK), but the processes have a lot of overlap. It’s not that people going for a PhD or black belt who don’t finish are lacking in intelligence or athleticism, it’s that both processes require more than you expect at first glance. To succeed at both, you can’t just be intelligent or be physically fit: it takes additional dimensions of mental strength in order to succeed.
After writing two previous posts that focused on the connections between scientific research and tae kwon do, namely in learning how to fail and the balance between rubber and steel, I was inspired to revisit the topic and delve more deeply into the parallels between these two seemingly different activities and to focus on the aspects of both that might not be as readily apparent as the kicks and punches of tae kwon do and the papers and grants of a life as a career researcher.
Both require you to humble yourself. Regardless of how flexible, strong, or fast you are, everyone in tae kwon do starts with a white belt. The color white symbolizes a person having purity due to their lack of knowledge of the martial art, and as you progress through the colored belts towards black you gain knowledge of new techniques as well as some much-needed control of your abilities.
As you go from white belt to yellow belt to green belt, you’ll feel pretty confident. You’ll feel like you can take on anyone. But as you progress further and further, inching your way towards black belt status, you soon come to recognize how little you actually know and how much of an expert you are not. There is always a move whose execution can be further perfected, a stance that can be stronger or more elegant, and regardless of what level you’re at there will be someone in your class who’s above you in some way.
Training to become a scientist is very much the same: we start off in undergrad learning so much all at once, progressing in our classes and lessons, maybe even getting a bit of lab work under our belt. But at some point we dive into the big pond of scientific research, where we find that the world is so much bigger and that what we know is so much smaller than what we thought. We gain knowledge through school and in our research, but part of learning how to be a scientist comes from recognizing how little we know and what we can do to get to the next step.
…but both also require you to have a thick skin. Feeling like you don’t know very much is a humbling experience, but it’s also one that you have to know how to counter with confidence. In both martial arts and research, you have to balance the humbleness of recognizing your place in the world with the confidence of knowing where you stand. It’s easy to let feeling like you don’t know anything or aren’t good at something turn into you thinking that your lack of knowledge or skills will set you back permanently. Those who find success in both research and marital arts are able to walk this careful balance between humility and confidence, able to recognize where they can improve but to stand firm in the place that they are strong.
Both require good senseis. A mentor or coach is crucial for success in both martial arts and in doing a PhD because both of these processes are not easy. It’s not as simple as just progressing from white belt to black belt or from undergrad to professor: you need time and a structured environment for reflection, assessment, and a critical eye to see the flaws and strengths that you can’t. And even though both endeavors are seemingly independent activities in that it’s your belt and your research, you still need a good mentor to show you the way and to encourage you to work and learn from others in the process.
Both will help you find confidence but won’t automatically give it to you. I’ve heard a lot of parents say that they want their kids to get into martial arts because it’s an activity that builds confidence. But as someone who started white belt training as a 14 year-old shy kid who grew up to be red tag and slightly more outgoing and gregarious 28 year-old, it’s not just the sport that makes you who you are. Confidence is one of those personality traits that function best when they come from within. I greatly enjoyed tae kwon do as a kid, but found that I find the sport more enjoyable and more relaxing now that I’m more confident in myself than I was back in high school.
Both martial arts and science are great at building up the confidence in those that already have it, but you can’t start from nothing. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and then fail at something, you won’t get that boost of additional confidence you’re looking for and will find you less likely to try again, whether it’s a new sparring move or a complicated experiment. A good sensei will work on developing your confidence from within, finding where you’re most comfortable, and figuring out how to help you shine without having to rely on your results to give you the boost you need. The positive side is that if your own confidence has been boosted, you’ll feel good enough to try new things, to explore new ideas, and you won’t be as afraid to fail the next time around.
Both require you to take a lot of hits before you learn how to fight back. I spent 8 years on hiatus from tae kwon do and I came back into the sport only as a post-doc during the past two of years. Some of my muscle memories for techniques and forms stayed in place, and I’m also in better physical strength than when I started 14 years ago. But it didn’t mean that I was ready to jump back into being a black belt, since there were still quite a few places where my lack of practice and instincts were apparent. As an example, in free sparring I’ve become much better at attacking than when I first started, in conjunction with the downside that I’m still getting hit quite a lot since I didn’t build up my defenses to the same level as my attacks.
In science, there are numerous occasions when your strengths and instincts will be tested. Hard-line questions and critiques by your graduate committee, advisor, conference audience, and lab mates, and you’ll essentially be dealing with an onslaught right from the get-go. It can leave you reeling and hurt, as if you were in your own intense sparring session. But the thing I’ve learned about sparring is that even if you’re not perfect, the next time you fight you won’t get hit in the same place again. You learn (even if it has to be the hard way) what parts of your work are the weak points and what you can do to make the weak points stronger. A career in research isn’t about putting up a good fight 100% of the time or only retreating from others: it’s about knowing how to move forward but also to protect yourself and foster your ideas and work at the same time.
Both can be used to let your strengths shine, whatever they might be. One of my favorite things about martial arts is that it’s a sport that can be done by more than one type of person. Regardless of your body type, natural strength/flexibility, height, or weight, you can be good at martial arts and can get your black belt. In my class I’ve met other students who are extremely fast, flexible, strong, or just plain fearless. I’ve seen people who are good at sparring, who excel at forms and technique, or who are just brave enough to try anything crazy-and to me, they are all amazing martial artists.
I also love that in science, despite being thought of as a place where only geniuses and nerds can succeed, you meet so many kinds of people. Some are great writers, others give amazing conference presentations, and others are wonderful group leaders or efficient lab managers. You don’t have to fit a cookie cutter ideal of what a scientist is in order to be a good one. In science as in the martial arts, what’s important is fostering the strengths you have and recognizing what you need to work on and how you can better complement your skillset.
In both martial arts and in research, I somehow ended up becoming something of a jack-of-all-trades. I enjoy all aspects of both martial arts (forms, technique, flexibility, strength, sparring, and ferocity) and science (lab work, data analysis, reading, writing, meetings, and tweeting) without really excelling at one aspect or another. Sometimes I feel like I’m less skilled than others who have a more obvious specialty, whether it’s while sparring with someone who is faster than I am or when asking my lab mates to help me troubleshoot R code. But thanks to my own confidence in both parts of my life, I’ve been able to recognize that that’s just who I am and I value the way I work and live, even on the days when I come home exhausted from an intense work-out or a long day in labs. I’m thankful for the life lessons provided by both of my primary activities, and in the tough times I look ahead to days when my bruises are few and my manuscripts are many!
“When it rains it pours” is not just the motto for Morton’s salt, it’s also a good analogy for a researcher’s to do list. More often than not, it feels like deadlines all come at once. But working in an academic research environment doesn’t have the same kind of pressures that a traditional office setting does. Researchers have an immense pressure to get things done, but when there’s no project deadline or a looming submission deadline, there really isn’t a solid reason that something has to get done at that moment in time. Deadlines are the way that most companies stay working on schedule, but in the world of academic research, how do we get things done?
Let’s start with a typical example of research output: a manuscript. Unless you’re sending an article to be part of a special issue or when you’re doing a resubmission, you probably won’t have a hard-and-fast-deadline for submitting a manuscript: you can send in a paper any day, be it next week, next month, or next year. Academia then becomes this blend of feeling like we need to get something done but accompanied by a deadline that’s more fluid, depending on when you feel like you need to get it done, or when your boss or PI wants you to finish it. But even amidst the pressures your PI might put you under, the fact remains that you can still submit your manuscript at any given time. And while you might have a PI that gives some hard deadlines on projects, papers, or analyses such as “Have this done by your next committee meeting”, it may not come in the form of “Have this done by midnight on October 3rd,” as you would have had for classroom assignments and homework.
And that’s not the only place that academic deadlines show their more fluid side. I found myself laughing out loud by this recent tweet by @ithinkwellHugh:
If you’re still at the stage in your career where you’re working more independently, the last point might seem a bit daunting. “Ten times? Really? Surely that’s an exaggeration.” But anyone that’s worked on a large group project before knows that this multiplier factor is spot-on. Collaborating with other researchers on big group projects, projects that might not have a solid deliverable deadline akin to submitting a manuscript, means that the pace of the work is inevitably much, much slower. This initially might be a welcome pace, especially if this work not crucial to your out research output, but after weeks or months of inactivity from all parties due to a lack of central oversight, someone will realize that something needs to get done and it needs to be finished right now. And depending on your specific role in the project, the bulk of this last-minute, needs-to-be-done work could easily end up falling on you.
The way that academic research and collaborations work is not likely to change anytime soon, but it doesn’t mean that all your work has to pour down on you all at once. You can develop a working strategy that helps you set yourself apart by learning how to become your own boss and track your own productivity. As independent researchers in the making, learning how to be in charge of setting your own deadlines and keeping other collaborators and colleagues working within a deadline-less world is an essential task. Here are a few ways to work towards a more productive working schedule even amidst a deadline-less working environment:
Figure out your tendency. We reviewed Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies in a previous post, and if you haven’t already checked out the quiz and read about the typologies, be sure to give her books and website a look. Especially if you struggle with stress at work or with staying on task, Rubin’s approaches for developing productive habits and working styles that align with each tendency are a great starting point. It’s much easier to figure out what strategies will and won’t for you in a research environment if you can better understand how you work and how you relate to expectations and deadlines, and you can use these approaches to make sure you don’t over-work yourself or under-deliver on your research outputs.
Be realistic. For each of your big-picture, major tasks that you need to finish for your project, think in detail about all the components. If it’s lab work, how much prep time will you need for a single experiment? If you’ve done something similar before or are scaling up a smaller part of your work, how long exactly did it take and was there any troubleshooting involved? If it’s computer-based, how much of the work can be streamlined and how much time will it take for programming, formatting data, etc? It’s easy in research to trivialize tasks, especially ones we do on a regular basis, only to realize while doing something on a larger scale or on a short deadline how long it actually takes to double the number of replicates or to run code on a dataset that’s ten times the size.
As with Hugh’s tweeted recommendations, give yourself some breathing room, especially if it’s something you never did before. Once you have an estimate that will give yourself a little bit of breathing room, double the time, since a dropped test tube or a computer freezing up can still set you back. Setting yourself up for success can be linked in part to knowing what’s feasible in a given amount of time, which can help reduce your stress levels by knowing what needs to get done but at the same time taking a breather in knowing that it will get done.
Make daily and weekly goals. It’s easy to get stressed while thinking solely in the long-term months and years of all the work you have to do. Instead, put more of your focus on what you need to do that day and that week, and keep your big picture to-do’s in you peripheral vision. Given your realistic timelines, what should you work on today? What lab or computer work can you fit in together to give yourself a break from one or the other while still staying productive? If you keep your appointments and meetings in an online calendar, also include a place where you can list your daily to do’s, and check things off as you finish them. If you still enjoy keeping an analog version of a day planner and to do lists, write down what you need to get done that day and that week and check them off when each one is done. Doing this also helps you feel like you achieved something, especially if there may not be a ‘real’ deadline involved with the daily tasks or if the big picture to do, like publishing a paper, is a bit further ahead in the future.
On a weekly level, have a few bigger picture goals in mind that are distinct from your day-to-day tasks and that can help you further your longer-term goals. Are you working on a manuscript and need to sort out your outlines or figures? Do you want to get in touch with a potential collaborator about an idea you have but always seem to forget to do it? Have these written off to the side of your daily to-do’s, and when you find yourself with 20-30 minutes to kill, take a look at your weekly goals and see what can be done in that period of time. You may not get everything done that you set out to do for your weekly goals, but keeping some bigger picture to do’s in your periphery can help you from being blindsided by big tasks like submitting a paper or writing a grant proposal.
Recognize when you’re not being productive and step back. There is such a thing as trying too hard: sometimes when trying to get or stay motivated or focused, we just end up worn out and opening yet another tab on the internet (or, nowadays, checking our phone to see if any pokémon showed up nearby). Academic guilt has a way of making you feel like you should work all the time, but this is never a good strategy. Focus on getting your daily and weekly to do’s done, and if you find that you get to the end of one task and are not quite ready to start another, take a walk around the lab or make a coffee and give yourself time to digest before jumping in feet first to the next thing on your list.
In big projects, make tasks and objectives clear. The first step in successful group work is being clear on who’s doing what. Make sure that the tasks and deliverables for the project are clearly delineated, and if something belongs to you then do your best to finish that part of the project on time. If things that you’re doing hinge on what people will do after you, keep them informed of your progress and any blocks you run into. If someone has given a deadline for a project, then treat it as such, even if there may not be a company or boss who’s breathing down your neck about it. Remember that even in research, your time is money, so take the time you need to complete a task for another project and allow the project to move forward instead of making it drag on.
In group work, you may end up with someone who isn’t pulling their weight on their part of the work. It’s frustrating and will more often than not make you upset, especially if you’re in charge of the project. Instead of getting mad right away, ask them what you can help with and if they need an extension due to some issues on their side. If all else fails, be ready to take over the and consider this in the planning stages of the project by budgeting in some time for the possibility of having to do the work of someone else.
Not everything has to be done in research, but there’s still a lot of things that should be done. In academia and in scientific research, you set yourself apart not by doing what you’re told but by doing something more. Bosses and deadlines will always be a factor in motivating us to finish a boring task or assignment, but for a successful career in research you’ll need to develop a strategy for working and figuring out how to inspire yourself to work when no one is looking. You can’t see everything as just a list of of things you have to do but should instead see a collection of ideas that are so great that they should be done.
Research is a tough gig, but it doesn’t have to feel like your life is an endless stream of tasks and deadlines. Developing your motivation and time management skillset can keep you from being bogged down by deadlines (or a lack thereof) and can keep your work progressing on a regular basis instead of having everything fall on you at once. If you’re motivated to keep pursuing a career in research, find a way to let your work be moved by your passions instead of your have-to-do’s, and then even amidst the downpours you can find some comfort in knowing that you’re doing the best you can to make the world a better place.
I landed in Marrakech last Tuesday an hour late due to delays in Manchester, and even though I was a bit tired, I was excited to start exploring a new city. After an interesting taxi ride through narrow streets full of vendors, donkeys, and an endless flow of mopeds, I made it to my Airbnb riad (the term for a traditional Moroccan house). I was given a map and some instructions about the best way to get to the city center, just 15 minutes away. I set out into the warm Moroccan evening and soon ended up going the completely wrong way, not even sure which street was mine when I tried to retrace my steps. After accidentally running into the friend of my host who’d helped me get to the riad from the taxi drop-off in the first place, we walked together to the city center, with my enthusiasm for exploring soon turning into embarrassment at getting lost.
With my friends arriving in the morning, I wondered how the rest of the trip would go from here. Would I keep getting lost, and this time run into someone less friendly than the friend of our host? How would the rest of the trip go if we couldn’t even find our way around town? After that initial bump in the road that left me feeling anxious for the rest of the trip, I’m glad that the rest of my time in Marrakech was amazing. I soon found that the best way to get around wasn’t to have a precise plan as to what cross-streets you were going to take, but it was simply to wander through souks and side streets with a vague impression of the cardinal direction you wanted to get to. This approach led to more than a few wrong turns, but it also led to less crowded streets and shops, beautiful street art and wall decorations, and the feeling like you were really getting to see the heart of the city.
The trip to Marrakech was a great experience for many reasons, not because everything went to plan, but because it was an adventure in itself: a chance to try new foods and experience new smells, to be a bit unsure of what exactly you were walking into, a time to wander and find things you never expected, and even at times a chance to fail. Whether it was museums that were closed due to Ramadan or dead ends or a store owner rather aggressively trying to sell you a henna tattoos, there were certainly things on the trip that didn’t go all the way according to plan. In the end, we found out things that work and things that don’t and kept going past the small missteps as they came.
Throughout our time studying, from primary school to our undergraduate careers, we are taught how to achieve and how to succeed, and we are encouraged to do so. We get rewards for performing above the mark, we get grades and rankings based on our achievements in classes and on exams, and we’re measured on a regular basis in terms of how we succeed and how much we know. Then when you get to graduate school and find yourself in a research-oriented career, the game changes. There are no more exams, grades, or rewards of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Grad school and life as a researcher is more about producing reliable data, generating results related to a question, and making sense of new information and putting abstract concepts together. It requires a different mindset from the one that gets you success in school: a mindset that includes being ready to fail.
If you’re a PI in the US, the success rate for applications on research grants hovers around 20%, and here in the UK it’s closer to 30%. That means on average you’ve got a higher percentage chance of failing for every grant you apply for-and if you’ve never applied for a grant, it’s definitely not a small endeavor. In addition to the task of securing research funds, as scientists we’re also met with experiments that fail, manuscripts that get rejected, uncertainty in terms of a job market or a long-term contract, and criticism everywhere from your PI to people who come to your conference presentations. It’s a really difficult transition, especially for those of you for whom primary school and/or undergrad came easy, who might be naturally good at memorizing facts or taking tests but who find research more of a challenge than initially expected.
But this post isn’t meant to paint research as a life of doom and gloom, of spending your days steeped in failure. I’ve met lots of colleagues who’ve been turned down for grants, but because they knew the idea was a good one and believed in the value of the project, they learned from the first round reviews and had a revised application accepted in a second or third submission. I’ve seen friends struggle in the lab for weeks or months on end, then followed by strings of incredible results that just keep rolling in. I’ve read about the hurdles that world-famous scientists had to go through or the challenges they faced in their ideas or in their careers, only to come back from a challenge with more vigor and an even better understanding of the problem than before.
In one of our previous posts from last year we talked about the importance of not being afraid to fail, a post inspired from my time spent in martial arts. But it’s one thing to say ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ and another to actually follow through with putting yourself at risk for failure. How can we become better at taking that first step, knowing that after a few more steps we might easily fail at our task?
As a child and through my studies as an undergraduate, I seemed to be good at all the things I participated in. But it wasn’t because I was good at everything; in fact, I was very bad at trying new things, because I was afraid of failing. I was good at the things I did because I avoided things I was bad at, whether it be team sports, dating, socializing, or getting lost. In graduate school, I learned how to fail the hard way: I took failed experiments and rejected papers really hard, but at the same time grad school became one of the most enlightening times in my life. While I was learning how to fail the hard way, I also figured out how to be braver at venturing out into unknown territories of research and of life, and I learned how to fail in a way that didn’t make me feel like I had done something wrong. But how exactly does one become good at failing?
Remember that failure is part of the process. Research is difficult because you are working on the cutting edge that divides what’s known and what’s yet to be discovered. You’re not repeating the same thing that any one person has done before, so because you’re in uncharted territory there will inevitably be wrinkles to sort out and things that don’t pan out the first or fifth time around. The famous scientists that came before us also made mistakes, sometimes even a lot of mistakes, but they also know that it’s all a part of the scientific method: you have an idea, you test it, and then you figure out whether it’s right or wrong. Science isn’t about always being right, it’s about figuring out the answer, whatever that answer might be.
Work on achieving a balance of optimism and pessimism. Being too much of an optimist can leave you feeling like you’ve taken a hard hit when something doesn’t work, because you’ll have gotten yourself excited about an idea or an experiment. In contrast, being too much of a pessimist and thinking that every upcoming experiment will fail can leave you feeling too unmotivated to even try. A good scientist is a balance between the two: you recognize that not everything will be sunshine and roses the first time around, but you also are inspired and hopeful for good results to come down the line. As with other times in our career when we need to achieve a balance between two sides of a coin, you can also work on achieving this balance by surrounding yourself with colleagues who might lean more towards one side of the optimism/pessimism spectrum than you do.
Lower your expectations. This sounds like a terrible piece of advice, but especially if you’ve achieved a good balance between optimism and pessimism, having lowered expectations can come in handy. If you over-exert yourself by trying to get everything to work all at once or are relying on one success to raise you to another, one failure can knock you over. Take your research one step at a time and leave a buffer in terms of time and energy by taking into account that some things might not succeed. Don’t expect that something will work the first time around, and if instead you expect that you won’t get perfect results right away then you’ll know to leave some time to repeat things as needed. On the other side of the coin, lowering your expectations also means you have an excuse to celebrate the small successes. In grad school especially, it’s these small victories that can help keep you going. Had a PCR reaction work? Drinks with your lab! Got a paper that wasn’t rejected outright? Drinks with your lab! Celebrating these smaller, perhaps ‘lesser’ victories will make the bigger ones seem even more incredible and will keep you going until things start to go your way more consistently.
Come at a problem with confidence, even if you don’t feel confident. This week in tae kwon do, a few other students are getting ready for testing. Our instructor was giving all of us a pep talk after one prospective red tag to red belt was clearly uncertain and nervous during practice, saying that we needed to be confident and ready even when we didn’t know everything 100%. Even the most veteran black belt will get nervous when faced with a belt testing, and it’s easy to believe we’re not doing everything perfectly, that we’ll make a mistake, or that we’ll forget something.
In a recent seminar I gave on the five easy steps for a perfect presentation strategy, I asked the participants what they were afraid of the most while giving a talk, and most said they were afraid of doing something wrong. I thought back to those replies during tae kwon do class this week, and realized again just how much martial arts can teach us about being a scientist: it inspires us to live a life of confidence even in the face of punches and stern instructors (or professors) grading our every move. When faced with fear, you meet it with ferocity. When afraid of failure, you hold yourself with the confidence of a person who knows everything like the back of your hand. It’s about being ready to face a potential for failure in the same way you face the potential to succeed. Envisioning success is half of the battle, and by facing potential failures with confidence you can increase your chances of success.
Don’t let a failure (or two) define you. I still get nervous for talks, tae kwon do testings, even conference calls. Before anything that makes me feel nervous, I always end up giving myself the same pep talk. I tell myself that no matter what the results are, it doesn’t change who I am. Just like the two failed black belt pre-testings that didn’t keep me from getting a black belt later on, or the many failed experiments or rejected papers that didn’t keep me from getting great data or publishing my results. What’s more important than not failing is to learn something from the moments when we fail, to celebrate when we succeed, and to not be afraid to let a couple of mistakes hold us back from getting where we want to be. Whether that’s a government lab researcher, a university professor, or the CEO of a company, the failures we have along the way won’t define how we get to the end result, and won’t solidify our fate or who we are as people.
Failure is an option in science-and more than that, it’s a way that we make progress. It doesn’t have to feel like banging your head against a wall if you look at failure as part of the process instead of blaming your own faults. By approaching problems with confidence, holding back from becoming too over-zealous when it comes to thinking what might work or not, and by not letting each wrong turns define who we are and where we go, we can learn how to use failure to our advantage, and to become better scientists and people in the process.
It’s finally the end of the semester! Time to put your textbooks away, apply some sunscreen, and get ready for a summer of…science? Your summers spent as an undergrad and your summers as a grad student (and all the subsequent summers you’ll spend as a researcher) will look very different from one another. Even though it’s been 7 years since I finished my undergraduate studies, I still feel nostalgic and a bit jealous when I see droves of undergrads heading home after finishing their spring term exams, off for that blissful time when you’ve accomplished another year of studies and have an entire summer ahead to enjoy life before it all begins again in the fall.
Life as a researcher can certainly leave you feeling like you need your own summer vacation. It’s additionally difficult when working in an academic setting, where you witness the happy undergrads set off on summer adventures while you’re stuck in the lab. Regardless of whatever stage in your career you’re in, summer can still be a great time in the year of a researcher. Summer provides us a bit of warm air to freshen our spirits and plenty of sunshine to brighten and motivate us. It’s also generally a less busy time of the year regardless of what field or what sector you’re in, as most folks will head off on vacation when kids are out of school or to take advantage of the nicer weather for some needed rest and relaxation.
As with most things in life, having a good plan is a great way to make the most of it. Summer can be a great chance to unwind and relax after a busy academic year, but it’s also an opportunity to re-focus and re-assess where you are and what you need to do to make progress in your own project, while also thinking about where you and your career will go next. Especially for those of you who are just starting grad school and experiencing your first ‘academic’ summer, it’s important to see how this part of the year will look like, what you can expect from the people you’ll work with, and how to make the most of your summer months. Summers are a great time to explore some ideas of your own and to develop your skills of working more independently. And while summer is a good opportunity for you to take your own summer vacation, be careful not to use it as an excuse to do no work at all. Remember that part of the training in grad school is to become an independent researcher, so just because your advisor’s not around doesn’t mean you necessarily should take off, too!
Plan ahead for the summer. Whether you’re at a university or an industry research lab, people tend to disappear over the summer. Between school vacation for kids, fieldwork, conferences, and the fact that everyone else is on vacation, you may soon find yourself in an empty lab. If you have things you need done by other people during the summer months, or need to get feedback on something from a committee member, professor, or collaborator, be sure to keep in touch with them early on in the start of summer and find out when they’ll be out of town. Don’t put yourself in a position to be set back in your own project just because one of your collaborators is spending 2 weeks away!
Spend some time on your own projects or goals. Summer is a great time to focus on the things that you haven’t managed to get done or that might not have been a priority during the regular academic year. Have a small side project or experiment that you’ve been dying to try but haven’t had the time? Set aside some time in the summer months to focus on getting it done. Doing these smaller projects can also keep you motivated during the quieter part of the year, especially if you are the type of person that thrives on always having something to do.
You can also expand your idea of a ‘side project’ to include new activities like outreach, volunteering, and mentoring. Want to get involved in some public engagement? There are always ample opportunities for activities with schools and summer programs, and it’s a great time to try something new like talking to 7th graders about science. Has your PI talked about setting up a lab twitter or Facebook page but never got around to it? Sign up for an account and work on developing your group’s social media presence over the summer, then come the start of the semester you’ll have a fully up-and-running platform to build from. These activities can also bolster your CV and give some breadth to your current work and research perspectives.
Practice becoming an independent researcher. It may be easy to lose sight of goals when there is no one around to witness your hard work or tell you what to do. Regardless of what sector you end up in, though, you’ll be required to work independently as a part of it, and you’ll be expected to take initiative instead of always waiting to be told what to do next. If your PI or other collaborators are gone for some time, use the opportunity to work things out on your own and to try out some new approaches to answering a problem. It will show your PI that you’re working on developing your own independent research skillset and will also give you some hands-on experience in how to manage your own time and efforts. While doing so, keep tabs on yourself and your productivity levels during a day. Be sure to also keep in touch and report back to your PI on a regular basis when possible, which will allow you to get feedback on your independent research endeavors and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Think about what you want the rest of the year to look like. One way that you can work on becoming a better independent researcher is to do some long-range planning of your own. It can be hard to think of what the next year or two will look like when you’re busy trying to get things done during the busy academic year, and the summer can offer a brief respite for your schedule to think about where you are and where you want to (and need to) go next. Take some time to think about what data you have, what questions you’ve addressed, which ones have arisen because of your work, and what you need to do to have a complete story by the end of your project. Doing this thinking exercise can give you some perspective on what you’ve done already and can put you in a better position to do great work during the next year to be in a position where you’ll have a lot to show, be it a manuscript, a dissertation, or a job!
Do some summer reading. Whether you get something off the summer best-seller’s list or something that’s been sitting on your shelf for a year, grab a book and make your own summer reading club. Reading something that’s not a scientific paper can be a good break and refresher for your own mind and can offer some perspectives that you don’t as easily get from a TV show or a movie. Added bonus: you can enjoy them outside without worrying about screen glare! On the more scientific side, you can also use the summer to read a few papers that go outside the scope of your normal reading list. Just as picking up a new book can expand your mind and introduce you to new places, reading a paper from another field is a good way to get a fresh look at science as a whole, and it may even bring a few ideas to bring back to your own project.
Make some excursions…for writing. Nice weather and relaxed academic schedules are a great opportunity for some excursions from the lab to a new working environment. Take advantage of shorter lines and less noise at your favorite coffee shop to watch the world go by while you work on emails or a manuscript from outside your normal work setting. Summer is a great time of the year to get some writing done and to take some time ‘off’ from the lab and other obligations you have during the regular academic year to work on a paper or make some progress on your dissertation. Summer is also a great time for your advisor to be able to read your work more thoroughly, as fewer obligations for faculty meetings and teaching means they’ll have some time on their hands to help you with a manuscript.
Enjoy the sun while it’s there. Remember that not every excursion has to be for work! Take advantage of a sunny afternoon for an afternoon drink with a colleague or a brainstorming/sunbathing session outside. While you should work on not making these excursions too much of a habit, take advantage of a more relaxed working pace and don’t feel guilty for taking some time to recharge and relax. Summer is a great reminder to take life at a slower pace and to enjoy life and work outside of the constant rushing around and fast-pace of the academic year and of research as a whole. There is always plenty of work to do in the lab and for your project, so be sure to enjoy the sun and the slower pace while it lasts.
Take your own vacation! There’s a reason that a lot of your colleagues, advisors, and collaborators will take a vacation in the summer: because they need one. We all need a break sometimes, and the hard part about research is that you always feel like there’s something that needs to be done or a pang of guilt when you’re not dedicating all of your time for scientific progress. The fact is that life as a researcher is busy, with months full of grant writing, lab work, classes, conferences, and everything in between. Regardless of whether you did 100% of the things on your to do list, a break in the summer will do you some good. It doesn’t have to be a long vacation, as even a couple of days to get out of town or a day at home to enjoy the sun from the comfort of your own balcony can do wonders to refresh your mind and get your brain re-oriented for the next round of research. Be sure to check out our archives for ways to make the most out of your break time.
Regardless of where your summer is spent, be it out in the field counting bugs or in the cool air conditioning debugging code, there’s a lot you can do to make your summer productive and relaxing at the same time. Taking some time to focus on your own interests and professional development, taking the initiative to become more independent, and working on the loose ends on your to do list can set you up for a great summer that will leave you poised for the start of another academic year. At the same time, remember that even though you’re not an undergrad anymore, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to enjoy some much-needed R&R in the summer months.
In terms of our own Science with Style summer itinerary: We are currently getting ready for our first-ever Science with Style seminar this week at the University of Liverpool as part of Post-graduate researcher week! If your UK-based institute or research group is interested in hosting a one-hour seminar on giving scientific presentations, please get in touch and we’d be happy to work with you.
We’ve also got quite a long reading list of our own, with a couple of these to be featured in an upcoming book review later on in the summer, in addition to some new posts for our Heroes of Science series. In the meantime, I’m also ready for my own summer break, currently listening to Andalusian music while dreaming of the Moroccan food I’ll get to enjoy in less than a week while I’m sipping mint tea in Marrakech.
- Modern Poisons, a contemporary book on toxicology written by my honors thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok
- Seven brief lessons on physics, because I need a good lesson in physics, be it one or seven of them!
- Born for this: How to find the work you were meant to do, intrigued after taking this quiz
- Aleph, because it's been sitting on my bedside table since March and because I loved The Alchemist
With one and half days still remaining in the SETAC Nantes meeting, I was exhausted by the lunch hour on Wednesday. I had presented in an early morning session that day, had spent the previous two days in meetings and filming a promo video for the next SETAC science slam, and was dreaming of caffeine on a regular basis. That being said, I did feel good knowing that the next day I had an evening flight to Marseilles for an extended weekend in the south of France. Just then, a text message from RyanAir informed me that my flight was cancelled because of strike actions by air traffic control. It was a bit of a drag, but soon enough I was re-booked for a Friday trip to Perpignan and re-invigorated with the chance of spending a weekend of wine and sun after four days of conference-ing.
Instead of a simple bus ride to the airport to catch my sunshine-bound flight on Friday, I found myself sitting in a taxi queue with less than an hour and a half before my flight left, glancing around the corner every few moments and beginning to feel anxious and desperate, wondering if a taxi would ever appear. With protesters blocking the roads for the airport buses and no taxis in sight for the past 30 minutes, would I ever make it for my long-awaited holiday? Long story short, I didn’t. And after yet another cancelled flight and the prospect that my return flight to Manchester next Monday would also be cancelled because of strikes, I rebooked myself for a direct flight home and spent my long weekend on the Merseyside instead of the Mediterranean.
This was the first time that I had to cancel a trip completely, but it was certainly not the first time I’ve felt stuck somewhere and quite anxious because of it. Last week, there was no way for me to call for a cab, no way to unblock roads or un-cancel flights, and only a limited amount of times I could continue to keep booking and re-booking things last-minute. In hindsight I was frustrated with how I felt about the whole thing, since in the grand scheme of things it was just a long weekend away. It also made reflect back on times in grad school and as a post-doc when I was really stuck and on things that were more important than just a weekend in southern France. Whether it was crossing my fingers about a job, advisors that left halfway through a PhD, or even just full days in the lab that went completely wrong, research has a way of making you feel on edge, like so many things are beyond your scope of control. The internal dialogue can get even worse if the situations you find yourself in cause to second guess yourself or your past decisions.
Throughout this blog, and also in the way I talk to myself and to my friends, I focus on finding opportunities, developing strategies, and visualizing the potential of life. I do what I can to focus on making bad situations better, and strive to give advice or ideas for getting through the tougher parts of life as a researcher or as a graduate student. But in my own encounters with stress and anxiety, it’s become clear that there isn’t always a strategy for getting out of a bad situation. Sometimes you really are quite stuck, like waiting for a taxi in a city full of protests and road blockades as the minutes count down for your flight leaving without you. In the words of an Italian woman who, when my friend asked her when the bus would arrive since it was already 5 minutes late, replied with a curt ‘It comes when it comes’. It's true in travel as much as it is in life.
It may seem like an odd set of advice to tell you what you can do when you can’t do anything, but if you’re like me, when you can’t do anything, you still want to do something. You can’t make the bus or the taxi come on command, but you can make things better for yourself during the wait:
- Do something small yet positive for yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem or change your situation right away, but you can still do things to take care of yourself when you’re in a rut. Go for an afternoon jog, do some shopping, read a book instead of a paper, see a movie. These things won’t directly fix anything related to the problem at hand, but taking some time for yourself, regardless of how small it may be, can do wonders to help you relax, even if just for a small amount while stuck in a stressful situation. This is especially true if you focus on things such as beloved personal hobbies or your physical well-being.
- Do something for someone else. This may seem counter-intuitive, but being there for other people, whether they be friends or strangers, can help put your own stresses in context. It’s not that their problems are bigger than yours but it’s a reminder that we all have somethings that knock us over now and again, and this provides us some solidarity in realizing that we’re not alone. This can be something very formal such as volunteer work or even something informal, like offering to take a colleague for dinner or a walk after work when you know they are stressed out. Talking to other people can provide some perspective for your own situation, and sometimes a bit of advice about what to do moving forward, and sharing sympathies with another person can help get you out of your own funk that you might be in from feeling stuck.
- Don’t keep it to yourself. Even if you think your situation is exclusively unique to your project or your life, don’t feel like you should keep it to yourself. And since you know you won’t be able to distract yourself from thinking about the problem, don’t try to push it to the back of your mind only to have it come up time and time again and wear you down even further. The best way to approach the situation is to articulate it, in whatever medium you feel the most comfortable in. If it’s something more emotional or personal that you want to keep private, write it down somewhere. If it’s something that you want advice or perspective on, talk to someone you respect and trust. In graduate school I kept a small notebook at home; I didn’t use it to write about what I did or what happened that day but instead used it as a way to talk to myself about emotions and frustrations. How you do this will depend on you and how you deal with stress, but however you approach it be sure to articulate what you’re going through and why exactly you feel stuck, stressed, or anxious.
- Keep moving. There are ways in which you will be stuck, but don’t get stuck in thinking that you’re perpetually trapped or are stuck in every part of your life. You may not be able to directly solve the problem you’re in at the moment, but there is always something you can do in the meantime. If you’re waiting to hear back on a job or a grant application, keep working on other applications in the meantime. If you had a big experiment that gave results you didn’t expect and you have no clue how to move forward, read a few papers that you didn’t see before and see if you missed something. It won’t be an ideal solution to the problem, and sometimes to keep moving means you have to take the decision to leave a situation entirely, but anything that helps you from feeling slightly un-stuck is a good thing.
- Think about the big picture. In the heat of the moment, even a small hurdle can feel like a mountain. As you go through the previous ‘to dos’ in this post, think about the situation you’re in and how it will impact your life a year or even five years from now. Sometimes these are big events that we feel stuck in, but other times they only feel big because we’re right in the middle of them. Think about your long-term goals and how you can get there. Maybe this situation is a giant wall in front of those goals, and maybe it’s just a road blockage on the way to the airport that you can walk around with your luggage in tow. In the situations I’ve been in and have seen others go through, when you have your health, a good support team, and a little bit of drive to keep going, you’ll always there. Wherever there is isn’t always clear, but you’ll always end up somewhere and, more importantly, you won’t be stuck forever.
As for me, I’ve been fortunate to have gotten out of a few ‘stuck’ situations fully in-tact, and have seen a fair share of colleagues and friends do the same. Whether it be minor or major, working from small things to big, talking to friends or to yourself about your situation, and looking beyond the immediate situation, there are numerous ways of doing something when you can’t do much else. That being said, if you are in a place where you feel stuck more often than not, or feel like you can’t easily do the things on the list, don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone at your institute, university, or your doctor. There is no reason that anyone in research or graduate school should feel impossibly stuck. There’s always a way forward-even if you end up in Northern England instead of Southern France!
After a year of eager anticipation by show viewers, and a year of book readers being annoyed that they’ll no longer know what’s going to happen in the next episode, Season 6 of Game of Thrones is finally upon us. This week has been full of GoT anticipation on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I’ve passed several hours in the cell culture lab listening to The World of Ice and Fire audiobook. So with the show and story full in my mind I’ve decided to take a nerdy detour from the last two weeks of practical guides for writing manuscripts to talk about dragons and white walkers.
While perusing through my social media feeds and listening to the Westeros backstories these past few weeks, I’ve pondered why exactly this world and this show is so popular. It’s not the first show to deal with family dramas or power struggles mirroring those in our own history, nor the first one to bring fantasy elements like magic and dragons to life, but this one can strange as it seems, make it feel realistic. Everyone can relate to how love or hate drives people to do crazy things, how sometimes the struggle is not as clear cut as good versus evil, how sometimes the good guys lose, and how everyone’s looking for something that they think they deserve, whether it be retribution or glory or power.
Part of the big attraction, at least for me, is the incredible characters. They have flaws and struggles, they learn from their experiences, and sometimes just can’t catch a break despite being good people (here’s a toast to you, Sansa Stark). We all know people in our lives that mirror these characters, whether they’re vying for the iron throne or just take up all the time during lab meetings. Game of Thrones is such a great story and show because it’s not the perfect fairy tale we were told as kids, but is more of a realistic reflection on the challenges we face in our own world, whether we’re armed with dragons, valyrian steel, or just our own wits.
Graduate school and scientific research can also feel a bit like a Game (of Thesis, in our case most of the time). Whether it’s committee meetings that feel like the Small Council discussing your fate, or daydreaming of being able to graduate using a Trial by Combat, there’s certainly a few ways that the show and the story can reflect on aspects of the lives of scientists and researchers. This week’s post will focus on a few take-home messages from the GoT storyline, talking points that I feel reflect on graduate school and life as a researcher. And while there may not be one Iron Throne of Research that we’re all vying for, we’re all looking for something.
Dragons, prophesies, and steel are good, but a quick wit and hard work ethic can take you just as far. There are several characters and houses that rose to power for obvious reasons. Dragons for House Targaryen, gold for House Lannister, and being really good at shoveling snow for House Stark. It’s easy to see how resources and tools at your disposal can set you apart from the competition, and can make you stand out as a power in your own right. But one of my favorite things about Game of Thrones is that the little guys have a part to play, too, and not an insignificant one at that. Characters like Littlefinger and Varys didn’t come from powerful families (and until we finish the series, we can’t be sure of their honest intentions) but they’ve emerged as players and leaders in the Game through their wits and their knowledge. This is also the case for historically weaker houses such as the Tyrells (read about their back story here) who emerged to power not using, well, power, per se. Through good strategy, patience, and knowing when to stand your ground and when to back down, even minor pieces of the game can emerge to become powerful players.
While scheming or back-stabbing is not recommended in research, you should never compare yourself to what other people have in terms of skills, resources, etc. Never underestimate the power of your own knowledge and abilities, and use your patience and wits to work towards your goals in your career. While you may look at others and only see the things they have that are better than you, whether it be in terms of publications, facilities, or the honorable name of their House (e. g. University), remember that in the end you are the one that can take yourself as far as you want to go. Another thing to remember is that even ‘small’ people can also make an impact, or in the case of Tyrion Lannister, ‘cast a large shadow.’ Don’t lower your own achievements because you didn’t save the world outright. If you make something slightly better, or figure something out that wasn’t known before, then that’s something.
Take-home book quote: Keep your mind and wits sharp! "A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge"
Make things right where you are: avoid blazing ahead and leaving things unfinished behind you. I hear a lot of book readers and show watchers look at Daenery’s storyline and say ‘Come on, girl, get those dragons and fly over to Westeros! What are you waiting for??’ Many criticize Dany’s decision to stay in Essos (and it looks like Season 6 will shed more light on the wisdom of that decision), but I like the reasoning she had here, regardless of all the things that went wrong since then. Instead of blazing ahead to Westeros with her dragons, she saw the problems that a power vacuum had left behind in Slaver’s Bay, and sought to solve the problem of ruthless leadership and a slave-based economy by staying in Mereen as queen. Clearly there has been a learning curve in her success in Slaver’s Bay, but nonetheless her heart was in the right place, and I believe it will end up being a good decision for her personal growth.
The take-home lesson from Dany is that if you want to learn how to do big things well, you need to start small. A good example of this in academic or scientific research careers is how we need to go through the steps from graduate school, then into post-doctoral training/entry level industry jobs, before we’re ready to lead our own research team or take the helm of a research program within a company or institute. If we try just to get through something for the sake of passing through, without learning lessons along the way or working to make small, impactful changes, then it can leave us unprepared. Becoming a professional scientist is a process, one that works best when you take it one step at a time. That way, you make sure we can get to the later stages and be ready for it. On a similar note, don’t pine too much about progressing to the next level before you’ve seen things through where you are. If you feel like it’s time to move on but you can’t find a way to get there, instead of getting frustrated just focus on what you can do to move forward bit by bit instead of regretting what’s already been done.
Take-home book quote: Keep looking forward! “If I look back I am lost.”
Be strategic and have a plan, but be flexible and get your hands dirty when need be. The battle of Blackwater Bay is a great example of how being well-prepared can seal a victory. Tyrion’s preparedness and forethought helped win the day, despite the numerous challenges in terms of the size of Stannis’ navy. But despite all the extensive planning he did, in the heat of the moment Tyrion had to throw on some armor himself and see to getting the work done that needed to be done.
Being prepared is always a good idea for life as a researcher. Whether it be reading up on literature before you start writing, thinking about your questions and experiments before you dive into work, or having a strategy for networking at an upcoming conference, laying out your goals and ideas ahead of time can set you ahead in your career, especially at an early stage. Do everything you can to foresee any challenges that come along, but know that you’ll have to be ready for a quick change or a leap into action if push comes to shove. It could be a last-minute experiment that you didn’t plan for or a conference presentation you find out about a week before-whatever it is, put some armor on and get out there.
Take-home quote: Go for it! "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?', 'That is the only time a man can be brave"
Be mindful of broken promises and be diligent in keeping your own oaths. The Red Wedding is certainly a good example of broken promises in the Game of Thrones universe, and it’s not the only time people were led astray or had a promise broken. In work and in life, you’ll meet people who will make promises that they don’t keep, or exaggerate their work and their abilities. This is unfortunately just a part of life. There is a good reason to approach everything in research with a skeptical, scientific eye. Keep up your guard and don’t believe anything until you see the data or see the work completed. On the more positive side of things, in your own work you can strive to be one of those who makes and keeps oaths, establishing yourself as a trustworthy collaborator and colleague. Setting yourself up as a reliable person can mean more collaborations, more supporters, and more allies (see the next section).
Take-home quote: Be mindful of promise-breakers, and strive to be the honorable one. “Give me honorable enemies rather than ambitious ones, and I'll sleep more easily by night.”
We all need allies at our side. We all love House Stark, but no one saw anything good coming from Ned’s single-handed attempt to throw Cersei and her family down. Without support, even if you’re in the right, you can’t hope to make much progress when it comes to big challenges. We all need friends, colleagues, and collaborators on our side to get things done, especially with the challenges we face as scientists today. Similar to being an honorable, promise-keeping person, in your career you should focus on getting and keeping people on your side. Be an engaged and courteous collaborator, and find people you trust that can provide the support or knowledge to make the work you do more impactful. In all your scientific interactions, be professional to the people you meet, and don’t let petty arguments or philosophical disagreements cause you to burn bridges between you and other good researchers.
Take-home quote: None of us can do this alone. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”
Knowing yourself and your strengths and weaknesses is the first step towards success. Tyrion gives one of my favorite quotes about this topic: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” In the Game of Thrones universe everyone has some level of expectation set on them, whether it be to meet up to the standards of their House/family or if they have some hindrance/greatness about them. Some choose to follow their own paths and others to follow the recommendations or expectations of others. Tyrion was despised by his family, and he knew it, but he focused on improving his own mind and his own connections instead of letting it destroy him. Brienne was expected to be the Lady of Tarth, but she went and set on her own course for knighthood and honor. Jamie was seemingly forever known as the Kingslayer, but he set to make things right for the sake of his own entry in the book of the Kingsguard (a theme more relevant for the book, perhaps…).
We already talked about the importance of knowing your own tendencies, work strategies, passions, and all the other ways that you are you. Don’t focus on comparing your skillset or yourself to others, but remember that as a scientist your work is on display for all to see, criticize, and evaluate. Know what you can do and what you can’t, work to fix what you can, and be proud of whoever that person is that you see in the mirror. You won’t be the best at everything, but you are you-and that means something.
When in doubt? Fire arrows! Because sometimes that’s all you can do when things get tough, and that’s OK.
So here’s to the next season of our favorite fantasy-family rivalry TV series, hoping that any and all of your favorites are safe, at least for a few episodes. Regardless of how A Song of Ice and Fire finishes or who ends up on the Iron Throne, Game of Thrones will have given us incredible story reflective of the human condition and the flaws and challenges we all face, whether there be dragons or just fire-breathing PhD committee members.