Facing the challenges of a career in STEM
Portions of this post were originally shared as part of a SETAC women’s workshop fundraiser
On the night before I started my post-doc, my mother sent me an email with her best career advice. It was my first job after graduate school, and her message was a way to wish me well and to help me start with my best foot forward. Her advice included Be present; Find meaning and happiness in what you do; Don’t sell yourself short; and Don’t look for others to validate what you’re doing.
During those first few months, I remembered her advice and did my best to embrace it. I faced challenges and issues in my post-doc, as expected in any new job , but overall I felt confident in what I was doing. I felt like I was placing myself in the right career trajectory. But a year and a half later into my post-doc, another piece of advice rang loudly in my ears. It wasn’t because I had followed my mom’s advice but rather because I had gone against it. I went home after having a complete crying break-down in my boss’s office, feeling horrible for not having followed my mother’s simple advice: Don’t cry at work.
As much as I tried to move on from what was a quintessentially bad day, I felt myself becoming increasingly distressed and anxious about my job and my career. I felt guilty about my break-down and worried that I would be seen as weak and overly emotional. I felt like I had gone from being an up-and-coming independent scientist to the girl who cried in the office. More than anything, I struggled with the feeling that I was no longer on the right career path. I wondered if I was not ‘cut out’ for life as a scientist or as a researcher.
Unique challenges for Women in STEM: Self-confidence in times of stress
I was fortunate that the stress that had taken over my day-to-day life eventually resolved itself. The months I had spent dealing with new and urgent tasks and the endless shifts in my project’s aims finally came to a resolution and I had a clear path ahead for what needed to be finished by the end of my post-doc. The fear of not having my contract extended was alleviated when the paperwork came through and I was relieved to find that my job would not end as abruptly as anticipated. But I still struggled with feeling like I was not a good scientist. If I had gotten to the point where I cried at lab, was I really cut out for life as a researcher?
It was at this point that I had to force myself to realize that I was not a bad scientist just because I had become frustrated. I was organized, hard-working, and forward-thinking. The thing I was lacking was the self-confidence. Confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this”—and when you hear that voice, you believe it. Confidence lets you see your positive attributes at difficult times, and also helps you recognize that the mistakes you make on one stressful afternoon don’t have to define you in the long term. We touched on this topic in a post earlier this year and discussed the importance of self-confidence for navigating through the numerous challenges you might face as an early career researcher.
A lack of self-confidence is not a unique challenge that early career researchers face, and I am certainly not the first person to wonder whether I was ‘cut out’ for something or not. In particular, women who embark on careers in science face unique challenges related to self-confidence, even from a young age. When children are told a story of a person who is described as “really, really smart” and are then asked to select a gender for the person in the story, girls as young as 6 years old were more likely to identify that “really, really smart” person as a man. Girls were also less likely to play games that described as being for “children who are really, really smart”.
Another study found that 10th grade girls tended to rank themselves as less skilled in math and science than their male counterparts, even if the girls’ test scores reflected strong abilities in STEM. Even though it was the girls who performed better on tests, it was the boys who saw themselves as being more skilled in math and science.
How can we build better self-confidence for women in STEM?
Our own internal dialogue is a powerful force that dictates our actions and reactions. When we don’t know how to counter our own negative impressions of our abilities or have low self-confidence in general, it can make pursuing a career in STEM challenging. A lack of confidence makes science seem like it’s only meant for the “really, really smart” people. Given the importance of self-confidence in pursuing and staying within a career in science, how can we better encourage women in STEM to stay the course and work through the more challenging times as they come?
One recent study provides an example of the importance of peer mentorship as sources of inspiration for motivating women. The researchers looked at exercise habits and found that people are inspired to run faster and train harder when they see friends sharing their own fitness stories on social media. But the most noteworthy finding from this research was that while men can find inspiration from both male and female friends, women tend to only become inspired to exercise harder when they see stories from other women.
If we want to encourage more women to become scientists, we as women scientists can start by encouraging self-confidence and serve as mentors for girls who are looking for someone to inspire and support them. Another recent study demonstrated how female engineering undergraduate students were more likely to feel more confident in their technical abilities, as well as their perception of their ability to overcome stress or challenges, when they were connected with a female mentor at the start of their program. Female undergraduate students who had no mentors, on the other hand, were more likely to feel out of place and anxious, with 11% dropping out of the program entirely (in contrast, all of the female students who had female mentors remained in the program). Interestingly enough, grades had no bearing on whether a student remained in the program or not—but the presence of a mentor did.
What does the future hold?
It can seem daunting to look at the facts and figures related to women in STEM and contemplate a way forward. But by recognizing the fundamental importance that self-confidence and mentorship can impart on young minds, we can bring all of the best and brightest minds to science—and make it clear to them that they are welcome, and able, to stay.
If you are working in STEM and are struggling to find your place in the community, start by working independently towards improving your own self-confidence. While you work on building yourself up internally, start your search for your networking support team by reading our Research Entourage series. These articles focus on the characteristics of the members of your career development team, the people who can work with you and support you as you move forward in your career.
If you are lucky enough to feel confident in your career path and want to help the next generation of scientists and engineers, you can volunteer to serve as a mentor for girls and women in STEM. You can also explore the outreach activities happening at your institute and get involved with local events happening in your community that are STEM focused. One great example in the UK is Soapbox Science, an organization that recruits and supports women scientists for science communication and public engagement activities.
Becoming a confident scientist
The life of a scientist will always be fraught with challenges as well as rewards, joys, and ‘eureka!’ moments. After my stressful moments in the lab, I realized that my frustration and tears were not a sign of weakness but were instead a realization that the job I was in was not the right fit for me. With this realization, I was able to focus my energy on finding a new STEM career path that was a better fit for both my expertise and my passions. I’m now enjoying my third month as a medical writer, a job that feels like the right area of STEM for me. My hope is that by finding your own self-confidence and bringing together your research entourage, you can find the job that's the right fit for you!
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!
My husband and I spent last bank holiday weekend exploring the gorgeous scenery in and around Bergen, Norway. The weather on that late August weekend was what can only be described as distinctively Scandinavian. It’s a mix of gorgeous, sunny moments that reveal postcard-worthy scenes of rolling hills and fjords along with the constant threat of clouds and rain. The pictures taken during our hikes fail to capture the time we spent walking in the pouring rain and the ones from our incredible ferry ride through the fjords north of the city don’t show my husband and I in nearly full winter regalia, with hoods and hats to protect our heads from the intense winds.
Norwegians have a saying (which rhymes in Norwegian) about the weather: “Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” which translates to “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” It’s a phrase that captures two aspects of the Norwegian culture: their love of being appropriately outfitted and their disdain for making an excuse not to do something. On the first day of our trip we did a long 22 km hike from Ulriken to Fløyen, and during our rainy ascent we were passed by numerous groups of fast-paced Norwegians. Whether they were big families or solo hikers, all of them seemed completely unphased by the wet and slippery rocks or their (likely) wet and uncomfortable socks.
Coming back to the UK after the long weekend, it only took one rainy day to see the contrast between Scandinavia and the UK. An afternoon shower found numerous people caught in the rain without umbrella or jackets, wearing canvas-side shoes on a day forecast to be wet, followed by a general clearing out of the city center as soon as the wet weather came. Seeing this contrast between how two rainy countries deal with wet weather also brought forth another realization: when looking for a career as a scientific researcher, the forecast seems to always call for rain. The market is competitive, research budgets are tight, and a long-term contract might not always be easily in easy reach. Given that the forecast might not change in the near future, the question then becomes: what can you do to weather-proof your career?
If you’re in the midst of a PhD, your main focus will generally be your own project. You’re thinking about lab work, papers, committee meetings, and all the other things you need to do just to get done. It’s exhausting to think about both finishing and what you’ll do after you finish. Post-docs and early career researchers might have a focus which is more ‘career’-oriented, but in the midst of the pressures of our own projects, grant proposals, and trying to figure out what comes next, the thought of actually getting there feels scary. But just as you wouldn’t go on a trip or on an errand run without checking the weather and bringing your sunglasses or umbrella or jacket as needed, you shouldn’t charge on ahead through a job without being ready for what happens when you step outside into the real world.
The good news is that hauling some extra gear in your bag isn’t as exhausting as you think it is, since a lot of these ‘weatherproof’ skills are becoming more easy to find and more packable than ever before. Regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, here are a few things that will make your career ready for whatever weather lies ahead:
Take a skills inventory. Before you run off to the outfitter store to buy one of everything, start off by figuring out what you already have. Review your current CV and give it a critical read-over, as if you were reviewing the CV of someone applying for a job in your lab. Think about the skills that you have or what you do every day, be it emails or coordinating lab meetings or multi-tasking in the lab and office. Is your CV up-to-date and does it capture all your skills? Are there courses or training programs that you completed outside of your standard curriculum that might be useful later on? Is there an activity you did as volunteer work or as the leader of a group that’s relevant and can be highlighted?
Doing a skills inventory involves thinking critically about all the work you’ve done, both in and outside of the lab, and how your skillset can be presented in a way that shows its relevance to a potential employer. Especially if you haven’t thought about your CV for a while (or since you first made it), going through your extracurricular activities and professional skillsets might help you realize there are skills you didn’t know you had-just like how digging through your closet at the start of a new season reminds you or a few pieces of clothing you forgot about since you didn’t wear them for a whole year.
Check the forecast. A forecast is rarely perfect, but it can help you figure out existing weather patterns and to get a sense of what might lay ahead. In your career, you won’t be able to get a 100% accurate prediction of what the field will look like once you’re actually ready for a job, and you might not even know exactly where you want to go next. But at any stage, you will have some amount of an idea of what or where you want to be, whether it’s a city, region, sector, or field.
Regardless of where you want to go, check the forecast by scoping out the job market well in advance. Find a few job websites or email listservs to be a part of and take a look at what the jobs are looking for. Since you’ve already done your inventory and you know what gear you have, you can figure out if you have all the gear you need. If you’re missing something, you can decide what you need to pick up before you hit the road.
Read some travel reviews to find out what it’s really like. You probably already have an impression of what your ideal career and your dream job will look like. You know that all you need to do is get the post and you’ll love it! It’s similar to getting a postcard in the mail of some picture-perfect exotic scenery that makes you instantly say I wish I was there…But before you fall in love with something you’ve never seen first-hand, read the reviews.
It’s here that your professional network can help set you up for success. Connect with your colleagues and mentors and reach out to new contacts who work directly in the field you’re interested in joining. Arrange an informational interview over skype, ask to see their CV and/or have them look at yours, and see if their experience matches up with your preconceived impression. A 5-star review can be just the thing you need to give you the inspiration and confidence you need to set forth, and a less-than-stellar review can show you that there might be a better destination on your horizon.
Have one of everything in your bag. It’s tempting to only bring flip-flops and shorts on your tropical vacation, but the Caribbean islands can still get hurricanes. Just as it’s good to have an extra rain jacket, it’s also a good idea to keep your own portfolio of skills diverse. Your time as a PhD student and ECR is perfect for this, as it’s the stage in your career when your time can be a bit more flexible. You can use a wide assortment of techniques and should feel encouraged to try new things on a frequent basis instead of doing the same thing every time you’re in the lab. If your work is computer-focused, be sure to get try programs or languages that others may use. That way if you end up with an employer that prefers one of the other, you’ll be able to say that you at least have some familiarity with the one they’ll use. Once you arrive at your destination and know you’ll stay there for a while, you can stock up on things you’ll need more of. But until you get there and know for sure what you’ll need in your bag, play it safe and keep a little bit of everything on hand.
Adopt a Norwegian attitude to bad weather. The job market is a rainy place to visit, and it’s tempting to want to stay inside the warmth of your current job or project when you can hear the sounds of the downpour outside. But that doesn’t give you an excuse for staying inside: at some point you have to suit up with the best outfit and equipment you have and give the day all you’ve got, even though you might get your boots wet or your hat blown off. The best way to get through the downpour is to approach it as optimistically Scandinavian as possible and remind yourself “There is no bad job market, only bad cover letters.”
There won’t ever be a “Five easy steps to your dream career” post here on Science with Style, since finding a job is as much of its own journey (with the occasional bit of rain and thunder). Preparing yourself now by making a thorough inventory, picking up some tips from colleagues, and adding some new skills to your pack, you can gain the confidence and the preparedness to be able to go for it, regardless of what’s waiting for you. Walking through a rain storms is certainly not an enjoyable feeling, but occasionally a rainy day will bring a nice reward when the clouds clear. All it takes to find your job at the end of the rainbow is to take the first step outside and get out there!
Every Monday and Thursday night, I take a 15 minute train ride on the Northern Line from Liverpool Central for my biweekly tae kwon do lessons. The classes vary throughout the week: sometimes we focus on technique, sometimes we focus on strength and endurance exercises, and some weeks we do so much kicking and sparring that I can barely manage the walk back to the train station. Last week we had our last two lessons before a summer break, starting with a seemingly relaxed warm-up that led into an intense 30 minute sparring session.
During our sparring prelude, someone asked about a former class attendee who hadn’t been around for a while. Our black belt instructor Paul said that he didn’t think the student in question would ever return, and wasn’t too surprised about it, commenting that the current number of students who had taken his class versus those who had completed their black belt was similar to what he had seen at other schools, including when he earned his black belt. The black belt ‘graduation’ rate according to Paul is around 1 in 35, so of 35 students that start tae kwon do training, only one will actually earn a black belt.
Call it tae kwon do attrition or just the fact that not everyone’s cut out for the sport, but it’s no surprise that not everyone makes it to black belt stage. It’s a tough sport, as my legs can attest to after our final lesson of the summer last Thursday. But Paul’s comment also brought to mind thoughts of the parallels between training in martial arts and going for a PhD and career in research. The completion rates are a quite a bit higher for those going for a PhD (50-60% in the US and closer to 70% if you’re here in the UK), but the processes have a lot of overlap. It’s not that people going for a PhD or black belt who don’t finish are lacking in intelligence or athleticism, it’s that both processes require more than you expect at first glance. To succeed at both, you can’t just be intelligent or be physically fit: it takes additional dimensions of mental strength in order to succeed.
After writing two previous posts that focused on the connections between scientific research and tae kwon do, namely in learning how to fail and the balance between rubber and steel, I was inspired to revisit the topic and delve more deeply into the parallels between these two seemingly different activities and to focus on the aspects of both that might not be as readily apparent as the kicks and punches of tae kwon do and the papers and grants of a life as a career researcher.
Both require you to humble yourself. Regardless of how flexible, strong, or fast you are, everyone in tae kwon do starts with a white belt. The color white symbolizes a person having purity due to their lack of knowledge of the martial art, and as you progress through the colored belts towards black you gain knowledge of new techniques as well as some much-needed control of your abilities.
As you go from white belt to yellow belt to green belt, you’ll feel pretty confident. You’ll feel like you can take on anyone. But as you progress further and further, inching your way towards black belt status, you soon come to recognize how little you actually know and how much of an expert you are not. There is always a move whose execution can be further perfected, a stance that can be stronger or more elegant, and regardless of what level you’re at there will be someone in your class who’s above you in some way.
Training to become a scientist is very much the same: we start off in undergrad learning so much all at once, progressing in our classes and lessons, maybe even getting a bit of lab work under our belt. But at some point we dive into the big pond of scientific research, where we find that the world is so much bigger and that what we know is so much smaller than what we thought. We gain knowledge through school and in our research, but part of learning how to be a scientist comes from recognizing how little we know and what we can do to get to the next step.
…but both also require you to have a thick skin. Feeling like you don’t know very much is a humbling experience, but it’s also one that you have to know how to counter with confidence. In both martial arts and research, you have to balance the humbleness of recognizing your place in the world with the confidence of knowing where you stand. It’s easy to let feeling like you don’t know anything or aren’t good at something turn into you thinking that your lack of knowledge or skills will set you back permanently. Those who find success in both research and marital arts are able to walk this careful balance between humility and confidence, able to recognize where they can improve but to stand firm in the place that they are strong.
Both require good senseis. A mentor or coach is crucial for success in both martial arts and in doing a PhD because both of these processes are not easy. It’s not as simple as just progressing from white belt to black belt or from undergrad to professor: you need time and a structured environment for reflection, assessment, and a critical eye to see the flaws and strengths that you can’t. And even though both endeavors are seemingly independent activities in that it’s your belt and your research, you still need a good mentor to show you the way and to encourage you to work and learn from others in the process.
Both will help you find confidence but won’t automatically give it to you. I’ve heard a lot of parents say that they want their kids to get into martial arts because it’s an activity that builds confidence. But as someone who started white belt training as a 14 year-old shy kid who grew up to be red tag and slightly more outgoing and gregarious 28 year-old, it’s not just the sport that makes you who you are. Confidence is one of those personality traits that function best when they come from within. I greatly enjoyed tae kwon do as a kid, but found that I find the sport more enjoyable and more relaxing now that I’m more confident in myself than I was back in high school.
Both martial arts and science are great at building up the confidence in those that already have it, but you can’t start from nothing. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and then fail at something, you won’t get that boost of additional confidence you’re looking for and will find you less likely to try again, whether it’s a new sparring move or a complicated experiment. A good sensei will work on developing your confidence from within, finding where you’re most comfortable, and figuring out how to help you shine without having to rely on your results to give you the boost you need. The positive side is that if your own confidence has been boosted, you’ll feel good enough to try new things, to explore new ideas, and you won’t be as afraid to fail the next time around.
Both require you to take a lot of hits before you learn how to fight back. I spent 8 years on hiatus from tae kwon do and I came back into the sport only as a post-doc during the past two of years. Some of my muscle memories for techniques and forms stayed in place, and I’m also in better physical strength than when I started 14 years ago. But it didn’t mean that I was ready to jump back into being a black belt, since there were still quite a few places where my lack of practice and instincts were apparent. As an example, in free sparring I’ve become much better at attacking than when I first started, in conjunction with the downside that I’m still getting hit quite a lot since I didn’t build up my defenses to the same level as my attacks.
In science, there are numerous occasions when your strengths and instincts will be tested. Hard-line questions and critiques by your graduate committee, advisor, conference audience, and lab mates, and you’ll essentially be dealing with an onslaught right from the get-go. It can leave you reeling and hurt, as if you were in your own intense sparring session. But the thing I’ve learned about sparring is that even if you’re not perfect, the next time you fight you won’t get hit in the same place again. You learn (even if it has to be the hard way) what parts of your work are the weak points and what you can do to make the weak points stronger. A career in research isn’t about putting up a good fight 100% of the time or only retreating from others: it’s about knowing how to move forward but also to protect yourself and foster your ideas and work at the same time.
Both can be used to let your strengths shine, whatever they might be. One of my favorite things about martial arts is that it’s a sport that can be done by more than one type of person. Regardless of your body type, natural strength/flexibility, height, or weight, you can be good at martial arts and can get your black belt. In my class I’ve met other students who are extremely fast, flexible, strong, or just plain fearless. I’ve seen people who are good at sparring, who excel at forms and technique, or who are just brave enough to try anything crazy-and to me, they are all amazing martial artists.
I also love that in science, despite being thought of as a place where only geniuses and nerds can succeed, you meet so many kinds of people. Some are great writers, others give amazing conference presentations, and others are wonderful group leaders or efficient lab managers. You don’t have to fit a cookie cutter ideal of what a scientist is in order to be a good one. In science as in the martial arts, what’s important is fostering the strengths you have and recognizing what you need to work on and how you can better complement your skillset.
In both martial arts and in research, I somehow ended up becoming something of a jack-of-all-trades. I enjoy all aspects of both martial arts (forms, technique, flexibility, strength, sparring, and ferocity) and science (lab work, data analysis, reading, writing, meetings, and tweeting) without really excelling at one aspect or another. Sometimes I feel like I’m less skilled than others who have a more obvious specialty, whether it’s while sparring with someone who is faster than I am or when asking my lab mates to help me troubleshoot R code. But thanks to my own confidence in both parts of my life, I’ve been able to recognize that that’s just who I am and I value the way I work and live, even on the days when I come home exhausted from an intense work-out or a long day in labs. I’m thankful for the life lessons provided by both of my primary activities, and in the tough times I look ahead to days when my bruises are few and my manuscripts are many!
“When it rains it pours” is not just the motto for Morton’s salt, it’s also a good analogy for a researcher’s to do list. More often than not, it feels like deadlines all come at once. But working in an academic research environment doesn’t have the same kind of pressures that a traditional office setting does. Researchers have an immense pressure to get things done, but when there’s no project deadline or a looming submission deadline, there really isn’t a solid reason that something has to get done at that moment in time. Deadlines are the way that most companies stay working on schedule, but in the world of academic research, how do we get things done?
Let’s start with a typical example of research output: a manuscript. Unless you’re sending an article to be part of a special issue or when you’re doing a resubmission, you probably won’t have a hard-and-fast-deadline for submitting a manuscript: you can send in a paper any day, be it next week, next month, or next year. Academia then becomes this blend of feeling like we need to get something done but accompanied by a deadline that’s more fluid, depending on when you feel like you need to get it done, or when your boss or PI wants you to finish it. But even amidst the pressures your PI might put you under, the fact remains that you can still submit your manuscript at any given time. And while you might have a PI that gives some hard deadlines on projects, papers, or analyses such as “Have this done by your next committee meeting”, it may not come in the form of “Have this done by midnight on October 3rd,” as you would have had for classroom assignments and homework.
And that’s not the only place that academic deadlines show their more fluid side. I found myself laughing out loud by this recent tweet by @ithinkwellHugh:
If you’re still at the stage in your career where you’re working more independently, the last point might seem a bit daunting. “Ten times? Really? Surely that’s an exaggeration.” But anyone that’s worked on a large group project before knows that this multiplier factor is spot-on. Collaborating with other researchers on big group projects, projects that might not have a solid deliverable deadline akin to submitting a manuscript, means that the pace of the work is inevitably much, much slower. This initially might be a welcome pace, especially if this work not crucial to your out research output, but after weeks or months of inactivity from all parties due to a lack of central oversight, someone will realize that something needs to get done and it needs to be finished right now. And depending on your specific role in the project, the bulk of this last-minute, needs-to-be-done work could easily end up falling on you.
The way that academic research and collaborations work is not likely to change anytime soon, but it doesn’t mean that all your work has to pour down on you all at once. You can develop a working strategy that helps you set yourself apart by learning how to become your own boss and track your own productivity. As independent researchers in the making, learning how to be in charge of setting your own deadlines and keeping other collaborators and colleagues working within a deadline-less world is an essential task. Here are a few ways to work towards a more productive working schedule even amidst a deadline-less working environment:
Figure out your tendency. We reviewed Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies in a previous post, and if you haven’t already checked out the quiz and read about the typologies, be sure to give her books and website a look. Especially if you struggle with stress at work or with staying on task, Rubin’s approaches for developing productive habits and working styles that align with each tendency are a great starting point. It’s much easier to figure out what strategies will and won’t for you in a research environment if you can better understand how you work and how you relate to expectations and deadlines, and you can use these approaches to make sure you don’t over-work yourself or under-deliver on your research outputs.
Be realistic. For each of your big-picture, major tasks that you need to finish for your project, think in detail about all the components. If it’s lab work, how much prep time will you need for a single experiment? If you’ve done something similar before or are scaling up a smaller part of your work, how long exactly did it take and was there any troubleshooting involved? If it’s computer-based, how much of the work can be streamlined and how much time will it take for programming, formatting data, etc? It’s easy in research to trivialize tasks, especially ones we do on a regular basis, only to realize while doing something on a larger scale or on a short deadline how long it actually takes to double the number of replicates or to run code on a dataset that’s ten times the size.
As with Hugh’s tweeted recommendations, give yourself some breathing room, especially if it’s something you never did before. Once you have an estimate that will give yourself a little bit of breathing room, double the time, since a dropped test tube or a computer freezing up can still set you back. Setting yourself up for success can be linked in part to knowing what’s feasible in a given amount of time, which can help reduce your stress levels by knowing what needs to get done but at the same time taking a breather in knowing that it will get done.
Make daily and weekly goals. It’s easy to get stressed while thinking solely in the long-term months and years of all the work you have to do. Instead, put more of your focus on what you need to do that day and that week, and keep your big picture to-do’s in you peripheral vision. Given your realistic timelines, what should you work on today? What lab or computer work can you fit in together to give yourself a break from one or the other while still staying productive? If you keep your appointments and meetings in an online calendar, also include a place where you can list your daily to do’s, and check things off as you finish them. If you still enjoy keeping an analog version of a day planner and to do lists, write down what you need to get done that day and that week and check them off when each one is done. Doing this also helps you feel like you achieved something, especially if there may not be a ‘real’ deadline involved with the daily tasks or if the big picture to do, like publishing a paper, is a bit further ahead in the future.
On a weekly level, have a few bigger picture goals in mind that are distinct from your day-to-day tasks and that can help you further your longer-term goals. Are you working on a manuscript and need to sort out your outlines or figures? Do you want to get in touch with a potential collaborator about an idea you have but always seem to forget to do it? Have these written off to the side of your daily to-do’s, and when you find yourself with 20-30 minutes to kill, take a look at your weekly goals and see what can be done in that period of time. You may not get everything done that you set out to do for your weekly goals, but keeping some bigger picture to do’s in your periphery can help you from being blindsided by big tasks like submitting a paper or writing a grant proposal.
Recognize when you’re not being productive and step back. There is such a thing as trying too hard: sometimes when trying to get or stay motivated or focused, we just end up worn out and opening yet another tab on the internet (or, nowadays, checking our phone to see if any pokémon showed up nearby). Academic guilt has a way of making you feel like you should work all the time, but this is never a good strategy. Focus on getting your daily and weekly to do’s done, and if you find that you get to the end of one task and are not quite ready to start another, take a walk around the lab or make a coffee and give yourself time to digest before jumping in feet first to the next thing on your list.
In big projects, make tasks and objectives clear. The first step in successful group work is being clear on who’s doing what. Make sure that the tasks and deliverables for the project are clearly delineated, and if something belongs to you then do your best to finish that part of the project on time. If things that you’re doing hinge on what people will do after you, keep them informed of your progress and any blocks you run into. If someone has given a deadline for a project, then treat it as such, even if there may not be a company or boss who’s breathing down your neck about it. Remember that even in research, your time is money, so take the time you need to complete a task for another project and allow the project to move forward instead of making it drag on.
In group work, you may end up with someone who isn’t pulling their weight on their part of the work. It’s frustrating and will more often than not make you upset, especially if you’re in charge of the project. Instead of getting mad right away, ask them what you can help with and if they need an extension due to some issues on their side. If all else fails, be ready to take over the and consider this in the planning stages of the project by budgeting in some time for the possibility of having to do the work of someone else.
Not everything has to be done in research, but there’s still a lot of things that should be done. In academia and in scientific research, you set yourself apart not by doing what you’re told but by doing something more. Bosses and deadlines will always be a factor in motivating us to finish a boring task or assignment, but for a successful career in research you’ll need to develop a strategy for working and figuring out how to inspire yourself to work when no one is looking. You can’t see everything as just a list of of things you have to do but should instead see a collection of ideas that are so great that they should be done.
Research is a tough gig, but it doesn’t have to feel like your life is an endless stream of tasks and deadlines. Developing your motivation and time management skillset can keep you from being bogged down by deadlines (or a lack thereof) and can keep your work progressing on a regular basis instead of having everything fall on you at once. If you’re motivated to keep pursuing a career in research, find a way to let your work be moved by your passions instead of your have-to-do’s, and then even amidst the downpours you can find some comfort in knowing that you’re doing the best you can to make the world a better place.
Some days at work I catch myself thinking “I didn’t sign up for this!”, whether it’s while thumbing through pages of statistical test reports or signing up to use the electron microscope for the third Friday afternoon in a row. The ways in which we spend our working hours can leave us feeling like we’re in the wrong place, like this is not the work we were put here on earth to do. Keeping with the pace so far of this summer of book reviews, I couldn’t resist a quick read of Chris Guillebeau’s Born For This, a book that’s out there to tell us all that we are, indeed, born for something greater than endless days of feeling we’re stuck doing the wrong sort of job.
I first heard of Chris’ book while perusing Gretchen Rubin’s website and was hooked on the concept of finding the work you were ‘born’ to do after taking the online quiz which accompanies the Born for This book. According to the quiz, I’m a dynamic organizer, and the description seemed to fit me to a T: a person who feels comfortable with structure but who craves flexibility, who likes to keep busy but hates feeling stressed, and a person who has seemingly opposite desires to both work independently and to be collaborative. The quiz was quick and easy but the detailed description also felt really accurate, which prompted me to check out Born for This at the library to see exactly what else it had to say.
Reading the book was especially timely since I am approaching a pivotal transition point in my career: my current post-doc contract will finish this spring and I am looking around for where to go next. Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, this book is a great read regardless of what career stage you’re at. I would actually encourage those of you early in their scientific careers, who are getting ready to get into the nitty gritty of the next stage of life as a scientist, to use the tips in this book as a way to get a leg-up on your future career. But regardless of what stage you’re at, there are a lot of great talking points in this book, and you don’t have to be an independent business owner or an entrepreneur to use them. At first glance it may seem like the book is only intended for those who are looking for a major career transition or are looking to start their own money-making scheme at home, but the book has a wider relevance than that. Being more entrepreneurially-minded is especially important in this day and age of scientific research, when networking and promoting yourself is another part of your job description. In this sense, acting like an entrepreneur by gaining some insights from people who have succeeded outside the lab can really help set you up for success as you move further and further into your dream job territory.
The first few chapters of Born for This are focused on helping you discover the work you were meant to do, followed by tips and tricks of how you can go about getting that job. While most laboratory-based scientists may find it hard to be self-employed (the start-up capital required for your own HPLC or genome sequencer will likely hold you back), the lessons in the first part of this book can help you figure out what you’re good at, what drives you, and how you can make money doing it. Throughout the book, Chris also gives several examples and stories of people he’s met over the years who have been successful either at transitioning into a new career, breaking into a difficult to get into field, or setting off on a new and eventually successful business venture. These stories are inspiring in their own right, as well as Chris’ own story of jumping around from job to job and country to country before finding his own voice in helping people in their own careers, and serve to motivate and encourage readers as they venture through their own bit of career soul-searching.
If you look at the stories presented in Born for This, you can see a common thread that connects all of these successful people together: each of them identified a goal and pursued it wholeheartedly, or they identified a set of guiding values and followed them clearly. Regardless of which way you go, the first step is same: What do you value and what is it that you want to achieve? When I ask people why they got started in graduate school, the theme of loving research is always there, and while we all enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, it’s also a very vague answer. What exactly is it about science and research that drives us to finish the mundane tasks? Is it the dream or hope that our work will make an impact on the world? Is it learning something new every day? Is it the opportunity to teach or give back to the community? Is it the fact that we get to play with flammable chemicals or liquid nitrogen and that working in a lab feels ‘cool’? Whatever your answer may be, simply ‘doing research’ isn’t enough of a detailed answer to lead us to the next stage of figuring out what we were born to do.
To figure out what this job exactly is, Chris provides a model and a quiz exercise in Born for This as a way to think about what a fulfilling career has. Chris calls this the joy-money-flow model: a job should be something that makes us happy, provide enough money to live, and should maximize your own unique skillset. An ideal job is one that maximizes all three in that it’s what you like to do (joy), it supports you (money), and is something you’re good at (flow). The quiz exercise found in the book is a helpful guide for working through what parts of the model your current job is or isn’t meeting, and what types of work are ideal for your needs.
For example, many young scientists love ‘doing research’, but may find that aspects of academic research such as writing grant proposals or working with undergraduate students don’t fit in with the joy or the flow part of the model. Thinking about how your work can maximize each aspect of the model can help you get into more specifics, and also brings in your own expertise and skillset into the equation. As another example, you may enjoy doing research but find that one of your skills includes working with K-12 students or in working with business clients. In this scenario, even though you enjoy research, you may be able to find additional career satisfaction in another field such as working at a science museum or becoming an industry consultant.
Another great piece of advice that Chris offers in terms of figuring out your flow is by thinking of how others ask you for help. What is your role in a group setting or in the lab as a whole? What do colleagues ask you for your help or opinion on? If you’re not in a position where you feel like you get asked for help, you can try the opposite by reaching out to your work colleagues and asking them what they need help with. And if you have ideas of what you’re good at already in mind, you can try reaching out to contacts and colleagues you’ve already made and offer them help with a specific task that you think they would appreciate. Maybe you’re really good at making schematics for presentations, and you know your lab mate is giving a talk on some new data at an upcoming conference. Offer to make a slide for them in your spare time and who knows-it could lead to your own science graphics side hustle!
One concept from early on in the book that I though was particularly relevant for scientists is this: even if you get a paycheck on a regular basis and have an employer, an office, and a seemingly ‘9-5’ type of job, we are all at some level self-employed. If you want to go beyond where you’re at now in your work, there’s no one else in your company or university can make your career happen except for you. We spend our time in graduate school being mentored and as recent graduates learning more skills, but at the end of a contract it’s our responsibility to make our own career.
Even in more stable settings like industry, where you don’t have to deal with the pressure of short-term contracts and grant proposals, good people can still end up losing good jobs, which highlights the importance of putting your own career in your own hands as much as possible. I have a good friend in Omaha who worked for a Fortune 500 company which decided, after nearly 25 years of being in the same location, to move to Chicago and subsequently started laying off staff around Christmas. She was lucky to have kept her job, but others who had been working at the company loyally for years weren’t so lucky. Being responsible for your own career and fostering your own professional network won’t guarantee you a job if things go wrong, but by investing in yourself and giving time to someone besides the company that pays your bills can pay off in the event that things take a turn for the worse. Remember that even when you change jobs or have to move to another part of your career, you get to take your personal network and professional connections and your reputation with you, so be sure to give them the care and attention they need to help you succeed!
Outside of the entrepreneurial/self-employment perspective, Chris also gives some sound advice for the job search. As detailed in this book, the job search is a game of imperfect information and multiple strategies (think of poker versus chess: poker has imperfect information while chess has perfect information, since you can see the full game board). Chris recommends a winning strategy that includes 1) having a back-up plan for any major decision, 2) taking out a ‘career insurance policy’ by having good relations within your professional network, 3) asking five people to help you while starting your career search (on things like finding leads for a job, an introduction to another colleague, or a skype chat to talk about the layout of your CV), and 4) creating an ‘artist’s statement’ which describes your work, your goals, and who you are. Chris states that in the service industry, a good reputation is an asset-and that’s certainly the case in science as well. Foster your professional network even in the times when they aren’t directly needed, and be useful and helpful to the people you know so you’ll be remembered as an engaging and hard-working person.
I’ll avoid re-telling Chris’ entire book here, but will leave you with this reminder from Born for This: It’s OK to feel like you’re learning more about what you don’t want to do in the early stages of your career. In the long run, knowing what you don’t like can help guide you to an ideal career as much as the positive experiences. Part of getting to that perfect career is to go through a range of experiences, from incredible and rewarding moments to the frustrating days where all you wanted to do was to have 5pm roll around. You won’t know what your ideal job is right away, and that’s normal. Reading through the numerous stories of people in soul-searching mode reminded me of that, and it shows that finding the work you were born to do is very rarely a simple or linear journey.
Science will always be a challenging field to work in, but it is also a place where active and enterprising young scientists, ones who are adaptive to new ways of thinking, communicating, and planning, are poised to leap ahead. I greatly enjoyed reading Born for This, and have only given a small taste of what he lays out in his book. Even if you’re not planning a major career shift, the strategies in Born for This in terms of building up your professional network and ‘fanbase’ are great life lessons for the early stage of a career, whether you’re an archaeologist, a zoologist, or anything else in between. Chris’ book is also a great reminder that there is no one size fits all career, and that part of the joy in finding what we were born to do is in recognizing what we’re good at and what we’re passionate about. Finding a way to get paid for what drives and inspires us is an added bonus!
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.