Last week we had a fantastic introduction into this week’s topic from our guest poster Namrata Sengupta. If you missed Risk Communication 101, be sure to check out her post which focuses on why we talk about risk in toxicology, the process of risk assessment, and why we need to have accurate communications when talking about these risks.
It may at first seem that the theme for these last two weeks is only relevant for those doing toxicology research. While it is crucial in our field of research, risk and the importance of clearly communicating risk goes beyond toxicology. From issues in public health such secondhand smoke or issues on a much bigger level like global warming, talking about risk is prevalent in many areas of science. More broadly, risk appears whenever there is uncertainty in a decision that has consequences. For instance, in any research endeavor there is always some uncertainty in our predictions of the truth of the universe (i.e. the p-value). Knowing how to talk about uncertainties, risks, and the consequences of inactivity or a lack of understanding are crucial for any field.
A few weeks ago I attended the “7 Best Practices for Risk Communication” webinar organized by NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. The webinar was targeted to people who work with natural disasters or landscape restoration. Even though my work doesn’t venture much into the risk communication area, I thought the webinar was a good introduction and was relevant for anyone whose work enters into the territory of ‘risk’ related to human health or the environment. Even if your work or your outreach doesn’t have a focus on behavioral changes, these principles are a great way to help you get started with your own research-oriented communication activities.
Before I go into a quick summary of the 7 best practices, it’s important to realize that the definition of risk communication is slightly different than what we discussed last week. In this webinar, risk communication was defined as “Exchanging thoughts, perceptions, and concerns about hazards to identify and motivate appropriate action” while last week we spoke more generally about “The interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders.” This first definition is less specific in that it doesn’t mention who is engaging in the communication, and instead defines this activity as a two-way conversation about a topic in which one of the parties is trying to motivate a change in the other.
Webinar take-home message: Behavior change is a slow process.
We won’t go into detail about every single part of the webinar, but for each section we’ll try to focus in on some of the most important points highlighted as the “Webinar take-home messages.”
If your goal is to have someone’s lifestyle or opinion change, be aware that this will take some time. Your audience will come with a diverse set of preparedness or awareness, with some not thinking the issue impacts them at all and others already 99% on board with what you’re saying. Whoever your audience is, it will also be unlikely that their opinion will change after one meeting or one interaction. Another reality is that you might not be able to change their opinions at all, so be ready to deal with pushback from people who just won’t budge at all.
Step 1) Have a plan: Know what you want and how you’ll achieve it.
Webinar take-home message: Think of who else is talking to your audience.
If you’re already an active science communicator then many of the considerations mentioned in this step are considerations you’ll already be aware of. Be sure to have a goal for what you want to say/achieve, know your audience, develop your message, be consistent, etc. In particular, the webinar made the point that we are not the only ones talking to our audience. Think about your own day: there’s long emails, #hashtags, and news that is updated on an hourly and faster basis as new information comes in. These information streams are flooding with opinions from experts, friends, and everyone in between on what’s healthy, what’s hazardous, and what’s should be the concern in your day-to-day life.
Being aware of where else our audience will get information from can help you develop a consistent message in connection with what might be coming from other sources. For example: if your audience likes to hear news directly from friends on Twitter or Facebook, think about what those posts might look like and if you can to adopt a similarly friendly or narrative approach to make that initial connection.
Step 2) Speak to their interests, not yours: Connect with your audience’s values on an emotional level.
Webinar take-home message: Make the story about the audience and listen to them
The presenters talked about a case study on Wetlands protection, where conservationists saw an apparent shift in their outreach efforts when they changed the discussion from “Save our wetlands because they’re nice” to “Save our wetlands so your homes won’t flood.” It might seem unscientific to think about communicating science by playing on the emotions of your audience, but communication without any empathy is always destined to fail. You can develop trust with someone by showing that you’re interested in their problems, not just your own. Another message I like from this step is to be a good listener: you can quickly learn what is important to someone by hearing things from their perspective.
3) Explain the risk (or the research): Help your audience gain an understanding.
Webinar take-home message: Go from the top down
As scientists we thrive on the details of the data before coming to a decision, but as people we thrive by seeing the big picture and how things fit together. When talking about a particular risk or your own research, start off with the impacts and then work your way to the nitty gritty. It can also help you make a connection by talking about science in a way that’s more obvious than error bars and biological replicates: residential flooding, asthma rates, and salmonella infections are all things that people can see and connect to.
4) Offer options (or actions) for reducing risk: Provide some hope instead of just doom and gloom.
Webinar take-home message: Talk about both the small and big picture solutions
If your message involves telling your audience how the world is going to end and there’s nothing they can do about it, you’ll lose them. People can only intake a certain level of feeling helpless and fearful about a situation and at some point will just stop caring about a situation entirely. Some topics are difficult to talk about in a positive light (“There’s ONLY a 20% chance you’ll get cancer!”) but giving a suggestion for how people can help mitigate some aspect of risks provides a positive spin to the situation, as much as it’s possible. A few examples include encouraging volunteer activities such as planting trees or providing better ways for people to properly disposing of unused prescription drugs. Having an empowerment to-do list will also help others feel more involved with the problem and that they can actually work towards a solution on their own.
5) Work with trusted sources: Teamwork to achieve a common goal.
Webinar take-home message: Working with partners can broaden the audience for both of you.
The workshop instructors presented a case study of a collaborative project between the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and a local bike shop who all worked together to put on a local bike tour. The event introduced community members to groups they didn’t yet interact with through an activity organized by groups they already had established trust with.
Doing these types of cross-sector collaborations broadens your perspectives by allowing you to hear about other groups and how they communicate with their audience—perspectives you can use on how you communicate with your target group. This type of work can also lead to some new conversations among people you never thought you’d interact with—think of inviting a pensioners-only book club to your lab to talk about your research. You can then see the differences between their questions from questions coming from a group of primary school students or from your peers.
6) Test your message: Tell your story to someone who’s not in your research group.
Webinar take-home message: ….and be ready to make changes when you tell it to someone else the first time.
Nothing is perfect in a first draft, so if you’re preparing new material then allow for some additional time to react appropriately when you get feedback. It’s hard when you put so much energy into explaining something or making figures and designing graphics, but if it’s not working on a subset of your audience, it won’t work with the majority of them. Remember that your goal is to have a message click, not just to get it done the first time and move on with your life—so be ready to invest the time and energy to make it matter.
7) Use multiple communication venues: Understand where your audience is listening.
Webinar take-home message: Meet your audience where they are
Twitter and Facebook are great ways to connect—if your audience is on the website regularly and follows your posts. If you’re looking to reach an older or less tech-savvy target group (which is not necessarily the same in this day and age!), they might not find your message using a hashtag. Conversely, if your target group has a monthly meeting on Wednesday at 8pm at a local bar, show up and have a pint. Having a great message doesn’t do you any good if the message only gets to your social network. Know where your target audience is and where they go looking for information, and be there waiting for them.
And with that two-week crash course, you are now ready for Risk Communication 301: Applied Risk Communication tactics. Get out into the world, craft your message, and get it to your audience in the place they’re looking for information. And if you’re wondering what the risks are in sharing your research with a new audience, you’ll be happy to know that engaging in risk communication has no potential hazards associated with its use or implementation. But it might be a good idea to bring your flood pants, just in case.
Since the next semester is fast-approaching, the editors of Science with Style and the University of Landau’s EcotoxBlog are collaborating on a guide to help students find their own style of studying. Enjoy!
As Ned Stark (or maybe it was actually your professor) once wisely said: Autumn is coming. Do you find yourself still in relaxation mode after a leisurely summer, or can you already sense that calm before the storm? We’re already well into September, with the next semester looming ahead of us in UK, Germany, and many other parts of the world. Regardless of what mindset you’re in, you’ll soon find that the rigors of the upcoming busy semester of exams and assignments are soon to come.
Everyone has a different way of engaging in coursework: some of us take a lot of notes, others listen, and others, well, don’t really do the whole going-to-class thing. But at some point at the end of the course, we all have to take an exam, write a term paper, or in some other way show the professor that we learned something.
Your professors will spend a lot of time teaching new concepts, explaining complicated subjects, and trying to inspire some interest in a favorite topic of theirs. But one thing a professor can’t do is to teach you how to study in a way that you can retain and reuse knowledge while being examined. Therefore, we here at the Ecotox Blog and Science with Style have collated a few tips that will make the use of your valuable time more effective:
First: Check out this video from Vox, who provide the following tips on their YouTube channel:
Don’t just re-read your notes and class readings. Re-reading isn’t helpful for retaining information. Another downside to re-reading is that the process can make you feel like you’re learning when you are really not. Reading in itself is a passive activity, but when you’re taking an exam and need to recall information, you’ll be doing something much more active. You’ll need to practice active learning if you want to be able to remember a concept thoroughly while being tested on it.
Quiz yourself. Flash cards are an easy way to do this, and depending on your own style there are lots of ways to go about making and using flashcards. You can make card-stock notecards on your own, but if you prefer a more tech-savvy approach you can make your own cards to read from your computer or smartphone. Flash cards provide that active component of studying that your brain needs in order to be able to recall information and facts on demand—just like you’ll have to do during an exam. An important suggestion in the video is to put cards that you get wrong back in the deck, which forces you to review the concept again and again until you get it right.
Visualize concepts. Create a new analogy for a complex reaction or process. Creating this analogy forces your brain to actively process the information, as you need to really understand the concept before you can explain it in a new way. You can also come up with personal connections to help you remember how things connect, such as aligning concepts to characters or a plot from your favorite TV show, game, or movie.
Avoid cramming! Cramming usually doesn’t work well, and even if you pass the exam the information will only stay in your brain for a short while. Especially if the course covers concepts that you’ll use throughout your time in university, it’s worthwhile to invest that extra study time. With better study approaches, you’ll be able to better remember a concept for a longer duration of time, not just to regurgitate it during one afternoon.
Some more tips that helped us and our colleagues during our own student times
Explain an idea back in your own words. Test to make sure you’ve got a concept down by trying to explain or teach it to someone else. You can work with classmates by organizing “explaining sessions” with each other to see if your explanations are on par with how the system actually works. This practice will also help you prepare for exams where you’ll have essay portions, as it forces you to practice how to explain something before you’re given the task on paper.
If you’re not good at staying on-task or studying independently, find an accountability buddy. Some of us find it easy to stay on task with independent assignments like studying or writing, and others might feel the need for an external or firmer deadline. The problem with exams is that there’s no deadline until you get to the exam-which is not when you want to start studying. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, find a study partner in your class and schedule regular sessions to study together and hold each other accountable for keeping up with your study materials.
Use a study group if you need one, but be sure to stay on target. If working with groups helps you study and keep on track, then forming a study group can be a good solution. But be sure that for each group meeting you have a plan of what you want to achieve and a deadline for how long you’ll work on something. Unstructured group work can quickly fall off track or get sidelined, but having a game plan before you start and a clear objective of what the group wants to achieve will make your get-togethers more productive.
Have dedicated breaks. It’s exhausting to think of having to study “all day” and can also lead to unproductive minutes and hours if you drag things out for too long. Have a set start and stop time for when you’ll focus on studying or writing a paper. It can also help to have a dedicated study space, whether it be a corner desk in your apartment or your favorite spot in the library. Then when you’re done or need a break, you can physically leave the space and let your mind relax. If you’re worried of taking too long of a break, set a timer and allow yourself to do whatever you’d like in that set amount of time before getting back to work.
Find your incentive. Speaking of breaks, we all know that learning or writing the whole day can be very frustrating and that doing something which makes you happy during a break can help you get through a hard day’s work. Just be sure to make your breaks more rewarding by ensuring that they stay limited in size and don’t become as long as a study session. Play one campaign of your favorite online game, watch one episode of your favorite TV show, or do a particular hobby you have for a preset period of time. We promise that this will cheer you up and that you will survive until the next break!
If you’re frustrated or feel like you’re not getting something, ask for help. Even if you study independently, you don’t have to go through the learning process alone. If something isn’t sticking or you’re not sure you’re understanding a concept correctly, talk to your professor or a class tutor and get yourself on track sooner rather than later. If you miss out on understanding the basics at the beginning of the semester, you’ll be much more likely to miss out on understanding the important concepts that will build off of the basics. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if you don’t figure things out the first or second time around—TAs and professors are there to help you (they are even paid to help you do this!).
So what now?
Truth be told, studying for an exam or writing an exam paper will never be anyone’s favorite activities. But if you invest your time wisely and give some of these tips a try, you can work on finding your own style of studying and become a much more effective student. Being more effective will mean more successes for the amount of time you invest, and this will allow you to achieve what any student aims for: getting good grades while still having enough time for the nice things in life :)
We hope guide had some helpful hints for you to study with style. Wishing you a successful start into the new semester!
- Erica & Jochen
PS: We are interested in what works best for you! Any other tips on mastering exams or term papers? Let us know by contacting us at Science with Style or the EcotoxBlog and we’ll spread the word. Any advice from those who already successfully completed their studies is also highly appreciated.
PPS: Want to read more about their Master’s program in Ecotoxicology and their research? Be sure to check out Landau’s EcotoxBlog.
My husband and I spent last bank holiday weekend exploring the gorgeous scenery in and around Bergen, Norway. The weather on that late August weekend was what can only be described as distinctively Scandinavian. It’s a mix of gorgeous, sunny moments that reveal postcard-worthy scenes of rolling hills and fjords along with the constant threat of clouds and rain. The pictures taken during our hikes fail to capture the time we spent walking in the pouring rain and the ones from our incredible ferry ride through the fjords north of the city don’t show my husband and I in nearly full winter regalia, with hoods and hats to protect our heads from the intense winds.
Norwegians have a saying (which rhymes in Norwegian) about the weather: “Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” which translates to “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” It’s a phrase that captures two aspects of the Norwegian culture: their love of being appropriately outfitted and their disdain for making an excuse not to do something. On the first day of our trip we did a long 22 km hike from Ulriken to Fløyen, and during our rainy ascent we were passed by numerous groups of fast-paced Norwegians. Whether they were big families or solo hikers, all of them seemed completely unphased by the wet and slippery rocks or their (likely) wet and uncomfortable socks.
Coming back to the UK after the long weekend, it only took one rainy day to see the contrast between Scandinavia and the UK. An afternoon shower found numerous people caught in the rain without umbrella or jackets, wearing canvas-side shoes on a day forecast to be wet, followed by a general clearing out of the city center as soon as the wet weather came. Seeing this contrast between how two rainy countries deal with wet weather also brought forth another realization: when looking for a career as a scientific researcher, the forecast seems to always call for rain. The market is competitive, research budgets are tight, and a long-term contract might not always be easily in easy reach. Given that the forecast might not change in the near future, the question then becomes: what can you do to weather-proof your career?
If you’re in the midst of a PhD, your main focus will generally be your own project. You’re thinking about lab work, papers, committee meetings, and all the other things you need to do just to get done. It’s exhausting to think about both finishing and what you’ll do after you finish. Post-docs and early career researchers might have a focus which is more ‘career’-oriented, but in the midst of the pressures of our own projects, grant proposals, and trying to figure out what comes next, the thought of actually getting there feels scary. But just as you wouldn’t go on a trip or on an errand run without checking the weather and bringing your sunglasses or umbrella or jacket as needed, you shouldn’t charge on ahead through a job without being ready for what happens when you step outside into the real world.
The good news is that hauling some extra gear in your bag isn’t as exhausting as you think it is, since a lot of these ‘weatherproof’ skills are becoming more easy to find and more packable than ever before. Regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, here are a few things that will make your career ready for whatever weather lies ahead:
Take a skills inventory. Before you run off to the outfitter store to buy one of everything, start off by figuring out what you already have. Review your current CV and give it a critical read-over, as if you were reviewing the CV of someone applying for a job in your lab. Think about the skills that you have or what you do every day, be it emails or coordinating lab meetings or multi-tasking in the lab and office. Is your CV up-to-date and does it capture all your skills? Are there courses or training programs that you completed outside of your standard curriculum that might be useful later on? Is there an activity you did as volunteer work or as the leader of a group that’s relevant and can be highlighted?
Doing a skills inventory involves thinking critically about all the work you’ve done, both in and outside of the lab, and how your skillset can be presented in a way that shows its relevance to a potential employer. Especially if you haven’t thought about your CV for a while (or since you first made it), going through your extracurricular activities and professional skillsets might help you realize there are skills you didn’t know you had-just like how digging through your closet at the start of a new season reminds you or a few pieces of clothing you forgot about since you didn’t wear them for a whole year.
Check the forecast. A forecast is rarely perfect, but it can help you figure out existing weather patterns and to get a sense of what might lay ahead. In your career, you won’t be able to get a 100% accurate prediction of what the field will look like once you’re actually ready for a job, and you might not even know exactly where you want to go next. But at any stage, you will have some amount of an idea of what or where you want to be, whether it’s a city, region, sector, or field.
Regardless of where you want to go, check the forecast by scoping out the job market well in advance. Find a few job websites or email listservs to be a part of and take a look at what the jobs are looking for. Since you’ve already done your inventory and you know what gear you have, you can figure out if you have all the gear you need. If you’re missing something, you can decide what you need to pick up before you hit the road.
Read some travel reviews to find out what it’s really like. You probably already have an impression of what your ideal career and your dream job will look like. You know that all you need to do is get the post and you’ll love it! It’s similar to getting a postcard in the mail of some picture-perfect exotic scenery that makes you instantly say I wish I was there…But before you fall in love with something you’ve never seen first-hand, read the reviews.
It’s here that your professional network can help set you up for success. Connect with your colleagues and mentors and reach out to new contacts who work directly in the field you’re interested in joining. Arrange an informational interview over skype, ask to see their CV and/or have them look at yours, and see if their experience matches up with your preconceived impression. A 5-star review can be just the thing you need to give you the inspiration and confidence you need to set forth, and a less-than-stellar review can show you that there might be a better destination on your horizon.
Have one of everything in your bag. It’s tempting to only bring flip-flops and shorts on your tropical vacation, but the Caribbean islands can still get hurricanes. Just as it’s good to have an extra rain jacket, it’s also a good idea to keep your own portfolio of skills diverse. Your time as a PhD student and ECR is perfect for this, as it’s the stage in your career when your time can be a bit more flexible. You can use a wide assortment of techniques and should feel encouraged to try new things on a frequent basis instead of doing the same thing every time you’re in the lab. If your work is computer-focused, be sure to get try programs or languages that others may use. That way if you end up with an employer that prefers one of the other, you’ll be able to say that you at least have some familiarity with the one they’ll use. Once you arrive at your destination and know you’ll stay there for a while, you can stock up on things you’ll need more of. But until you get there and know for sure what you’ll need in your bag, play it safe and keep a little bit of everything on hand.
Adopt a Norwegian attitude to bad weather. The job market is a rainy place to visit, and it’s tempting to want to stay inside the warmth of your current job or project when you can hear the sounds of the downpour outside. But that doesn’t give you an excuse for staying inside: at some point you have to suit up with the best outfit and equipment you have and give the day all you’ve got, even though you might get your boots wet or your hat blown off. The best way to get through the downpour is to approach it as optimistically Scandinavian as possible and remind yourself “There is no bad job market, only bad cover letters.”
There won’t ever be a “Five easy steps to your dream career” post here on Science with Style, since finding a job is as much of its own journey (with the occasional bit of rain and thunder). Preparing yourself now by making a thorough inventory, picking up some tips from colleagues, and adding some new skills to your pack, you can gain the confidence and the preparedness to be able to go for it, regardless of what’s waiting for you. Walking through a rain storms is certainly not an enjoyable feeling, but occasionally a rainy day will bring a nice reward when the clouds clear. All it takes to find your job at the end of the rainbow is to take the first step outside and get out there!
“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.
Last week I heard a great podcast news report about the way we talk about scientists and how that can inspire (or intimidate) those in the next generation and affect their desire to become scientists. In the US, we tend to talk about scientists as being geniuses, as having brilliant ideas and doing groundbreaking work that’s changed the course of our lives. But apparently that’s not a good way to motivate children to pursue science as a career path. Talking about scientists like they are super-human geniuses causes children to believe that since they aren’t geniuses, they’re not cut out for science. This is in contrast to how the stories of scientists are told in China, where the focus is on hard work. The podcast also describes a study in which kids were told stories about scientists in the context of being geniuses, in the context of personal struggle/hard work, and even in the context of having to ask colleagues for help when they were stuck. The kids who were told the ‘struggle’ stories were not only more engaged with science activities in the classroom, they even performed better on science tests.
The results of this study fascinated me throughout the week. Just by talking differently about scientists, about ourselves, we can motivate students not only to become more interested in science, but even to do better in exams. By relating how great scientists also faced challenges and persevered, children recognize the need for hard-work and determination and won’t give up if they find they are not as brilliant as Einstein. This study also got me thinking about stories as a whole. Science communication is essentially about telling a story with impact, to motivate and inspire…but as scientists, are we equipped to be able to tell these types of stories?
As an undergraduate in Environmental Studies, my formal training in writing was, well, very formal. We had a specialized course for students in the biological sciences, and if you were going to be an engineer or a banker you were in a different technical writing class. While these courses were clearly designed as an introduction to what writing would look like for the jobs we would end up in, I wonder in hindsight if this is the wrong way to go about a formalized training in how to write. Yes, as scientists we need to know how to talk about p-values, how to structure a manuscript, and how to write an abstract, but this type of knowledge seems to come as easily through practice as it does through formal, classroom-based training. What is more of a challenge is for us to figure out how to talk to people outside of science, given that we spend so much of our time since undergrad learning how to talk with ourselves. Could this be the block between science and the public: simply an issue of not knowing how to tell a story in the classic way because we’re only trained to talk to ourselves?
In contrast to being trained as a scientist, if you did your undergraduate in marketing you’d be thoroughly trained in how to tell a story, in this sense with the goal of leaving a lasting impression on someone, an impression so strong that they might even be biased towards buying the product or service you’re selling. One way that marketers do this is by using stories, and marketers do this for a reason: stories are a means to connect with emotions, and if you connect with the emotions of a person, you can create a more memorable connection. Whether it’s an ad about a horse and a dog who are best friends or a simple ‘We lived’ following a close-up of car crash wreckage, the ads with memorable content are the ones that impact our buying decisions, which are usually driven by emotion instead of logic. Another example of the impact of stories can be found in (name of teacher’s) marketing classroom. She asked each student to make a one-minute pitch for an imaginary product. Nine out of ten students presented facts and figures to make their case, but one student told a story about the product. When the audience was asked to remember things from the ten pitches, 5% could recall a specific figure or statistic, but 63% of them remembered the story.
When someone tells you a story, they are also directing your brain’s activity. If you read or listen to a story of someone running or jumping, versus just being read a list of words with no context, your brain visualizes the actions, and activates the same ‘motor planning’ brain regions that are used when you get ready to do a physical activity yourself. In comparison, the words in isolation or outside the context of a story simply activate the language processing center of a brain. Think for a moment about reading a scientific paper versus an action-adventure novel: in the novel you can empathize and represent the activity, but can you do the same thing when all you have are facts, figures, and abstract concepts?
So what do these examples from marketing and psychology mean for scientists? Early on in our careers, we’re trained to write very technically, to sound like a scientist, to talk about our work in the context of figures, error bars, statistical significance, and developing logical conclusions that fall within the bounds of our results. This is how science works: we’re presented with a hypothesis, we address that hypothesis with experiments, and we come to a conclusion about the state of the universe from those results. But at the same time, we are also human beings, as are our colleagues, our collaborators, and all the members of the public that fund our research in one way or another. Our brains are hard-wired to understand and be moved by stories, and while we’re trained to trust statistics and plots, we can still be swayed by the powerful emotions of empathy, joy, sadness, and fear.
But we can’t just tell scientists to go out there and tell stories, because science stories are not the same as the ones from marketing, literature, or art. Our stories aren’t here to entertain or to entertain or to sell a product, but are rather a means of working towards an understanding of how life, the universe, and everything in between works. It’s unfair to trivialize our hard-work using the foundations of the scientific method using sensationalism and fear-mongering, but it doesn’t mean that scientists can’t be storytellers, too.
In previous posts we’ve touched a bit on methods and approaches for writing and how you can frame your manuscript as a problem and solution approach. In the context of storytelling, you can think of your research as something akin to a mystery novel: you present some ‘case’ that needs to be solved, you describe your method for cracking the case, and present to the reader your conclusions as to who-done-it. Other options include presenting your science story with some relevant background (i.e. why the research happened) followed by the consequences of your work (why it matters). These approaches have also been formally adopted in materials developed for schools, with the aims of telling stories about scientists as a way to motivate and inspire them to get involved in science. A quote from one of this article: “Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible?" So while there is some dialogue about how to tell these stories, especially for educators, how can we as scientists, more fully embrace the power of storytelling in our own work?
Interestingly enough, if you search for ‘how to tell a story’ versus ‘how to write a scientific manuscript’, you’ll come up with very different results. This one from Forbes is a simple list of to do’s that also echoes what we’ve touched on in our Five Easy* Steps presentation posts. In contrast, the ‘scientific manuscript’ guidelines are more guidelines for structure and less for impact, for example in what order to write the introduction versus the materials and methods. These are helpful guidelines in the context of the science side, but what about the storytelling side? How can we connect storytelling to science? While there are a few websites with some pointers on how to tell stories, here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Don’t tell people something is important: make them believe it. Instead of telling your reader that your research is great and then give them a list of reasons why, describe for them the world in which your research sits. Paint the picture of what your field looks like and how your research fits into it. People, scientists included, will not instantly respond to being told that something is important, we need to realize for ourselves that it’s important and develop some connection to the problem. Hook your readers in with a story about what your world (of research) looks like. What are the mysteries still unsolved? What have people worked to figure out but in vain have yet to find an answer to? What will happen if nothing gets done? This isn’t about telling lies to make your work seem more important, or in foregoing facts for sensationalism, but focuses on presenting why people should care instead of just telling them to do so.
If people remember one thing, what should it be? Regardless of whether it’s a manuscript, a blog post, an email, or an oral presentation, people will forget things. Details will get lost in the numerous other details you present, they might lose attention, or you might just be giving them too much information at once. Think of what your big-picture take-home message is, and make sure that gets across. Put it in your abstract, at the end of your introduction, at the beginning of your discussion, and at the end of your conclusion. Tell your readers again and again what you want them to remember, and you’ll ensure that portion at least sticks with them.
Write what you want to read. As scientists we’ve been trained to write in a certain way-but that style is primarily focused on structure, not content. These are the sections you should include, these are how you transition from introduction to methods, etc. The structure is important and should be kept, but it’s not the only tool we can use as writers. Use the advice from writers and from advertisers in terms of crafting the story and the vocabulary you use. As long as the science is there, using approaches from other fields is a valid way of setting up your paragraphs and structuring your sentences. If you don’t like reading papers that drone on about ‘therefore, XYZ’ and ‘henceforth, ABC’, then don’t write those papers. Say what you found, what it means, and why it’s important in the context of your story, and be simple and clear about how you got to the conclusion you did.
Read stories by good writers. We’ve already touched on this recommendation in other posts, and there’s a reason we mention it again. We generate a lot of our vocabulary and the way we talk from the people around us. If you spend time with someone that says ‘like’ or ‘totally’ a lot, you’ll totally, like, pick up on it, too. The same goes for writing: if you read what good writers write, it helps you do the same. You pick up on examples of how to transition between ideas, what words or phrases are memorable, and what analogies are helpful for conveying a message. While there are examples of good writing in the scientific literature, take a break from science reading and explore some blogs, news articles, or books whose focus is a story in order to get some insights into how to tell your own.
Write something other than science. It’s hard to put into practice narrative or story-based writing if you keep writing using the same structure you’ve done before already. Try expanding your writing repertoire by penning a creative short story or a news article instead. See how it feels to write something when logic isn’t at the forefront. How do you convey a complex topic? How do you transition between complex ideas? Practice how you can connect words and ideas which aren’t driven by science and then take those lessons into your own science writing efforts.
Thankfully, we have a lot of great science storytellers to learn from. If you want to get inspired, be sure to check out the works of Carl Sagan and Steven Johnson. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing a book review on Modern Poisons, a lay person’s guide to toxicology, with some insights on how to write a science book for a non-scientific audience from the author (and my former undergrad honors thesis advisor) Alan Kolok.
And they communicated their science happily ever after.
It’s finally the end of the semester! Time to put your textbooks away, apply some sunscreen, and get ready for a summer of…science? Your summers spent as an undergrad and your summers as a grad student (and all the subsequent summers you’ll spend as a researcher) will look very different from one another. Even though it’s been 7 years since I finished my undergraduate studies, I still feel nostalgic and a bit jealous when I see droves of undergrads heading home after finishing their spring term exams, off for that blissful time when you’ve accomplished another year of studies and have an entire summer ahead to enjoy life before it all begins again in the fall.
Life as a researcher can certainly leave you feeling like you need your own summer vacation. It’s additionally difficult when working in an academic setting, where you witness the happy undergrads set off on summer adventures while you’re stuck in the lab. Regardless of whatever stage in your career you’re in, summer can still be a great time in the year of a researcher. Summer provides us a bit of warm air to freshen our spirits and plenty of sunshine to brighten and motivate us. It’s also generally a less busy time of the year regardless of what field or what sector you’re in, as most folks will head off on vacation when kids are out of school or to take advantage of the nicer weather for some needed rest and relaxation.
As with most things in life, having a good plan is a great way to make the most of it. Summer can be a great chance to unwind and relax after a busy academic year, but it’s also an opportunity to re-focus and re-assess where you are and what you need to do to make progress in your own project, while also thinking about where you and your career will go next. Especially for those of you who are just starting grad school and experiencing your first ‘academic’ summer, it’s important to see how this part of the year will look like, what you can expect from the people you’ll work with, and how to make the most of your summer months. Summers are a great time to explore some ideas of your own and to develop your skills of working more independently. And while summer is a good opportunity for you to take your own summer vacation, be careful not to use it as an excuse to do no work at all. Remember that part of the training in grad school is to become an independent researcher, so just because your advisor’s not around doesn’t mean you necessarily should take off, too!
Plan ahead for the summer. Whether you’re at a university or an industry research lab, people tend to disappear over the summer. Between school vacation for kids, fieldwork, conferences, and the fact that everyone else is on vacation, you may soon find yourself in an empty lab. If you have things you need done by other people during the summer months, or need to get feedback on something from a committee member, professor, or collaborator, be sure to keep in touch with them early on in the start of summer and find out when they’ll be out of town. Don’t put yourself in a position to be set back in your own project just because one of your collaborators is spending 2 weeks away!
Spend some time on your own projects or goals. Summer is a great time to focus on the things that you haven’t managed to get done or that might not have been a priority during the regular academic year. Have a small side project or experiment that you’ve been dying to try but haven’t had the time? Set aside some time in the summer months to focus on getting it done. Doing these smaller projects can also keep you motivated during the quieter part of the year, especially if you are the type of person that thrives on always having something to do.
You can also expand your idea of a ‘side project’ to include new activities like outreach, volunteering, and mentoring. Want to get involved in some public engagement? There are always ample opportunities for activities with schools and summer programs, and it’s a great time to try something new like talking to 7th graders about science. Has your PI talked about setting up a lab twitter or Facebook page but never got around to it? Sign up for an account and work on developing your group’s social media presence over the summer, then come the start of the semester you’ll have a fully up-and-running platform to build from. These activities can also bolster your CV and give some breadth to your current work and research perspectives.
Practice becoming an independent researcher. It may be easy to lose sight of goals when there is no one around to witness your hard work or tell you what to do. Regardless of what sector you end up in, though, you’ll be required to work independently as a part of it, and you’ll be expected to take initiative instead of always waiting to be told what to do next. If your PI or other collaborators are gone for some time, use the opportunity to work things out on your own and to try out some new approaches to answering a problem. It will show your PI that you’re working on developing your own independent research skillset and will also give you some hands-on experience in how to manage your own time and efforts. While doing so, keep tabs on yourself and your productivity levels during a day. Be sure to also keep in touch and report back to your PI on a regular basis when possible, which will allow you to get feedback on your independent research endeavors and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Think about what you want the rest of the year to look like. One way that you can work on becoming a better independent researcher is to do some long-range planning of your own. It can be hard to think of what the next year or two will look like when you’re busy trying to get things done during the busy academic year, and the summer can offer a brief respite for your schedule to think about where you are and where you want to (and need to) go next. Take some time to think about what data you have, what questions you’ve addressed, which ones have arisen because of your work, and what you need to do to have a complete story by the end of your project. Doing this thinking exercise can give you some perspective on what you’ve done already and can put you in a better position to do great work during the next year to be in a position where you’ll have a lot to show, be it a manuscript, a dissertation, or a job!
Do some summer reading. Whether you get something off the summer best-seller’s list or something that’s been sitting on your shelf for a year, grab a book and make your own summer reading club. Reading something that’s not a scientific paper can be a good break and refresher for your own mind and can offer some perspectives that you don’t as easily get from a TV show or a movie. Added bonus: you can enjoy them outside without worrying about screen glare! On the more scientific side, you can also use the summer to read a few papers that go outside the scope of your normal reading list. Just as picking up a new book can expand your mind and introduce you to new places, reading a paper from another field is a good way to get a fresh look at science as a whole, and it may even bring a few ideas to bring back to your own project.
Make some excursions…for writing. Nice weather and relaxed academic schedules are a great opportunity for some excursions from the lab to a new working environment. Take advantage of shorter lines and less noise at your favorite coffee shop to watch the world go by while you work on emails or a manuscript from outside your normal work setting. Summer is a great time of the year to get some writing done and to take some time ‘off’ from the lab and other obligations you have during the regular academic year to work on a paper or make some progress on your dissertation. Summer is also a great time for your advisor to be able to read your work more thoroughly, as fewer obligations for faculty meetings and teaching means they’ll have some time on their hands to help you with a manuscript.
Enjoy the sun while it’s there. Remember that not every excursion has to be for work! Take advantage of a sunny afternoon for an afternoon drink with a colleague or a brainstorming/sunbathing session outside. While you should work on not making these excursions too much of a habit, take advantage of a more relaxed working pace and don’t feel guilty for taking some time to recharge and relax. Summer is a great reminder to take life at a slower pace and to enjoy life and work outside of the constant rushing around and fast-pace of the academic year and of research as a whole. There is always plenty of work to do in the lab and for your project, so be sure to enjoy the sun and the slower pace while it lasts.
Take your own vacation! There’s a reason that a lot of your colleagues, advisors, and collaborators will take a vacation in the summer: because they need one. We all need a break sometimes, and the hard part about research is that you always feel like there’s something that needs to be done or a pang of guilt when you’re not dedicating all of your time for scientific progress. The fact is that life as a researcher is busy, with months full of grant writing, lab work, classes, conferences, and everything in between. Regardless of whether you did 100% of the things on your to do list, a break in the summer will do you some good. It doesn’t have to be a long vacation, as even a couple of days to get out of town or a day at home to enjoy the sun from the comfort of your own balcony can do wonders to refresh your mind and get your brain re-oriented for the next round of research. Be sure to check out our archives for ways to make the most out of your break time.
Regardless of where your summer is spent, be it out in the field counting bugs or in the cool air conditioning debugging code, there’s a lot you can do to make your summer productive and relaxing at the same time. Taking some time to focus on your own interests and professional development, taking the initiative to become more independent, and working on the loose ends on your to do list can set you up for a great summer that will leave you poised for the start of another academic year. At the same time, remember that even though you’re not an undergrad anymore, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to enjoy some much-needed R&R in the summer months.
In terms of our own Science with Style summer itinerary: We are currently getting ready for our first-ever Science with Style seminar this week at the University of Liverpool as part of Post-graduate researcher week! If your UK-based institute or research group is interested in hosting a one-hour seminar on giving scientific presentations, please get in touch and we’d be happy to work with you.
We’ve also got quite a long reading list of our own, with a couple of these to be featured in an upcoming book review later on in the summer, in addition to some new posts for our Heroes of Science series. In the meantime, I’m also ready for my own summer break, currently listening to Andalusian music while dreaming of the Moroccan food I’ll get to enjoy in less than a week while I’m sipping mint tea in Marrakech.
- Modern Poisons, a contemporary book on toxicology written by my honors thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok
- Seven brief lessons on physics, because I need a good lesson in physics, be it one or seven of them!
- Born for this: How to find the work you were meant to do, intrigued after taking this quiz
- Aleph, because it's been sitting on my bedside table since March and because I loved The Alchemist
With one and half days still remaining in the SETAC Nantes meeting, I was exhausted by the lunch hour on Wednesday. I had presented in an early morning session that day, had spent the previous two days in meetings and filming a promo video for the next SETAC science slam, and was dreaming of caffeine on a regular basis. That being said, I did feel good knowing that the next day I had an evening flight to Marseilles for an extended weekend in the south of France. Just then, a text message from RyanAir informed me that my flight was cancelled because of strike actions by air traffic control. It was a bit of a drag, but soon enough I was re-booked for a Friday trip to Perpignan and re-invigorated with the chance of spending a weekend of wine and sun after four days of conference-ing.
Instead of a simple bus ride to the airport to catch my sunshine-bound flight on Friday, I found myself sitting in a taxi queue with less than an hour and a half before my flight left, glancing around the corner every few moments and beginning to feel anxious and desperate, wondering if a taxi would ever appear. With protesters blocking the roads for the airport buses and no taxis in sight for the past 30 minutes, would I ever make it for my long-awaited holiday? Long story short, I didn’t. And after yet another cancelled flight and the prospect that my return flight to Manchester next Monday would also be cancelled because of strikes, I rebooked myself for a direct flight home and spent my long weekend on the Merseyside instead of the Mediterranean.
This was the first time that I had to cancel a trip completely, but it was certainly not the first time I’ve felt stuck somewhere and quite anxious because of it. Last week, there was no way for me to call for a cab, no way to unblock roads or un-cancel flights, and only a limited amount of times I could continue to keep booking and re-booking things last-minute. In hindsight I was frustrated with how I felt about the whole thing, since in the grand scheme of things it was just a long weekend away. It also made reflect back on times in grad school and as a post-doc when I was really stuck and on things that were more important than just a weekend in southern France. Whether it was crossing my fingers about a job, advisors that left halfway through a PhD, or even just full days in the lab that went completely wrong, research has a way of making you feel on edge, like so many things are beyond your scope of control. The internal dialogue can get even worse if the situations you find yourself in cause to second guess yourself or your past decisions.
Throughout this blog, and also in the way I talk to myself and to my friends, I focus on finding opportunities, developing strategies, and visualizing the potential of life. I do what I can to focus on making bad situations better, and strive to give advice or ideas for getting through the tougher parts of life as a researcher or as a graduate student. But in my own encounters with stress and anxiety, it’s become clear that there isn’t always a strategy for getting out of a bad situation. Sometimes you really are quite stuck, like waiting for a taxi in a city full of protests and road blockades as the minutes count down for your flight leaving without you. In the words of an Italian woman who, when my friend asked her when the bus would arrive since it was already 5 minutes late, replied with a curt ‘It comes when it comes’. It's true in travel as much as it is in life.
It may seem like an odd set of advice to tell you what you can do when you can’t do anything, but if you’re like me, when you can’t do anything, you still want to do something. You can’t make the bus or the taxi come on command, but you can make things better for yourself during the wait:
- Do something small yet positive for yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem or change your situation right away, but you can still do things to take care of yourself when you’re in a rut. Go for an afternoon jog, do some shopping, read a book instead of a paper, see a movie. These things won’t directly fix anything related to the problem at hand, but taking some time for yourself, regardless of how small it may be, can do wonders to help you relax, even if just for a small amount while stuck in a stressful situation. This is especially true if you focus on things such as beloved personal hobbies or your physical well-being.
- Do something for someone else. This may seem counter-intuitive, but being there for other people, whether they be friends or strangers, can help put your own stresses in context. It’s not that their problems are bigger than yours but it’s a reminder that we all have somethings that knock us over now and again, and this provides us some solidarity in realizing that we’re not alone. This can be something very formal such as volunteer work or even something informal, like offering to take a colleague for dinner or a walk after work when you know they are stressed out. Talking to other people can provide some perspective for your own situation, and sometimes a bit of advice about what to do moving forward, and sharing sympathies with another person can help get you out of your own funk that you might be in from feeling stuck.
- Don’t keep it to yourself. Even if you think your situation is exclusively unique to your project or your life, don’t feel like you should keep it to yourself. And since you know you won’t be able to distract yourself from thinking about the problem, don’t try to push it to the back of your mind only to have it come up time and time again and wear you down even further. The best way to approach the situation is to articulate it, in whatever medium you feel the most comfortable in. If it’s something more emotional or personal that you want to keep private, write it down somewhere. If it’s something that you want advice or perspective on, talk to someone you respect and trust. In graduate school I kept a small notebook at home; I didn’t use it to write about what I did or what happened that day but instead used it as a way to talk to myself about emotions and frustrations. How you do this will depend on you and how you deal with stress, but however you approach it be sure to articulate what you’re going through and why exactly you feel stuck, stressed, or anxious.
- Keep moving. There are ways in which you will be stuck, but don’t get stuck in thinking that you’re perpetually trapped or are stuck in every part of your life. You may not be able to directly solve the problem you’re in at the moment, but there is always something you can do in the meantime. If you’re waiting to hear back on a job or a grant application, keep working on other applications in the meantime. If you had a big experiment that gave results you didn’t expect and you have no clue how to move forward, read a few papers that you didn’t see before and see if you missed something. It won’t be an ideal solution to the problem, and sometimes to keep moving means you have to take the decision to leave a situation entirely, but anything that helps you from feeling slightly un-stuck is a good thing.
- Think about the big picture. In the heat of the moment, even a small hurdle can feel like a mountain. As you go through the previous ‘to dos’ in this post, think about the situation you’re in and how it will impact your life a year or even five years from now. Sometimes these are big events that we feel stuck in, but other times they only feel big because we’re right in the middle of them. Think about your long-term goals and how you can get there. Maybe this situation is a giant wall in front of those goals, and maybe it’s just a road blockage on the way to the airport that you can walk around with your luggage in tow. In the situations I’ve been in and have seen others go through, when you have your health, a good support team, and a little bit of drive to keep going, you’ll always there. Wherever there is isn’t always clear, but you’ll always end up somewhere and, more importantly, you won’t be stuck forever.
As for me, I’ve been fortunate to have gotten out of a few ‘stuck’ situations fully in-tact, and have seen a fair share of colleagues and friends do the same. Whether it be minor or major, working from small things to big, talking to friends or to yourself about your situation, and looking beyond the immediate situation, there are numerous ways of doing something when you can’t do much else. That being said, if you are in a place where you feel stuck more often than not, or feel like you can’t easily do the things on the list, don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone at your institute, university, or your doctor. There is no reason that anyone in research or graduate school should feel impossibly stuck. There’s always a way forward-even if you end up in Northern England instead of Southern France!
After a year of eager anticipation by show viewers, and a year of book readers being annoyed that they’ll no longer know what’s going to happen in the next episode, Season 6 of Game of Thrones is finally upon us. This week has been full of GoT anticipation on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I’ve passed several hours in the cell culture lab listening to The World of Ice and Fire audiobook. So with the show and story full in my mind I’ve decided to take a nerdy detour from the last two weeks of practical guides for writing manuscripts to talk about dragons and white walkers.
While perusing through my social media feeds and listening to the Westeros backstories these past few weeks, I’ve pondered why exactly this world and this show is so popular. It’s not the first show to deal with family dramas or power struggles mirroring those in our own history, nor the first one to bring fantasy elements like magic and dragons to life, but this one can strange as it seems, make it feel realistic. Everyone can relate to how love or hate drives people to do crazy things, how sometimes the struggle is not as clear cut as good versus evil, how sometimes the good guys lose, and how everyone’s looking for something that they think they deserve, whether it be retribution or glory or power.
Part of the big attraction, at least for me, is the incredible characters. They have flaws and struggles, they learn from their experiences, and sometimes just can’t catch a break despite being good people (here’s a toast to you, Sansa Stark). We all know people in our lives that mirror these characters, whether they’re vying for the iron throne or just take up all the time during lab meetings. Game of Thrones is such a great story and show because it’s not the perfect fairy tale we were told as kids, but is more of a realistic reflection on the challenges we face in our own world, whether we’re armed with dragons, valyrian steel, or just our own wits.
Graduate school and scientific research can also feel a bit like a Game (of Thesis, in our case most of the time). Whether it’s committee meetings that feel like the Small Council discussing your fate, or daydreaming of being able to graduate using a Trial by Combat, there’s certainly a few ways that the show and the story can reflect on aspects of the lives of scientists and researchers. This week’s post will focus on a few take-home messages from the GoT storyline, talking points that I feel reflect on graduate school and life as a researcher. And while there may not be one Iron Throne of Research that we’re all vying for, we’re all looking for something.
Dragons, prophesies, and steel are good, but a quick wit and hard work ethic can take you just as far. There are several characters and houses that rose to power for obvious reasons. Dragons for House Targaryen, gold for House Lannister, and being really good at shoveling snow for House Stark. It’s easy to see how resources and tools at your disposal can set you apart from the competition, and can make you stand out as a power in your own right. But one of my favorite things about Game of Thrones is that the little guys have a part to play, too, and not an insignificant one at that. Characters like Littlefinger and Varys didn’t come from powerful families (and until we finish the series, we can’t be sure of their honest intentions) but they’ve emerged as players and leaders in the Game through their wits and their knowledge. This is also the case for historically weaker houses such as the Tyrells (read about their back story here) who emerged to power not using, well, power, per se. Through good strategy, patience, and knowing when to stand your ground and when to back down, even minor pieces of the game can emerge to become powerful players.
While scheming or back-stabbing is not recommended in research, you should never compare yourself to what other people have in terms of skills, resources, etc. Never underestimate the power of your own knowledge and abilities, and use your patience and wits to work towards your goals in your career. While you may look at others and only see the things they have that are better than you, whether it be in terms of publications, facilities, or the honorable name of their House (e. g. University), remember that in the end you are the one that can take yourself as far as you want to go. Another thing to remember is that even ‘small’ people can also make an impact, or in the case of Tyrion Lannister, ‘cast a large shadow.’ Don’t lower your own achievements because you didn’t save the world outright. If you make something slightly better, or figure something out that wasn’t known before, then that’s something.
Take-home book quote: Keep your mind and wits sharp! "A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge"
Make things right where you are: avoid blazing ahead and leaving things unfinished behind you. I hear a lot of book readers and show watchers look at Daenery’s storyline and say ‘Come on, girl, get those dragons and fly over to Westeros! What are you waiting for??’ Many criticize Dany’s decision to stay in Essos (and it looks like Season 6 will shed more light on the wisdom of that decision), but I like the reasoning she had here, regardless of all the things that went wrong since then. Instead of blazing ahead to Westeros with her dragons, she saw the problems that a power vacuum had left behind in Slaver’s Bay, and sought to solve the problem of ruthless leadership and a slave-based economy by staying in Mereen as queen. Clearly there has been a learning curve in her success in Slaver’s Bay, but nonetheless her heart was in the right place, and I believe it will end up being a good decision for her personal growth.
The take-home lesson from Dany is that if you want to learn how to do big things well, you need to start small. A good example of this in academic or scientific research careers is how we need to go through the steps from graduate school, then into post-doctoral training/entry level industry jobs, before we’re ready to lead our own research team or take the helm of a research program within a company or institute. If we try just to get through something for the sake of passing through, without learning lessons along the way or working to make small, impactful changes, then it can leave us unprepared. Becoming a professional scientist is a process, one that works best when you take it one step at a time. That way, you make sure we can get to the later stages and be ready for it. On a similar note, don’t pine too much about progressing to the next level before you’ve seen things through where you are. If you feel like it’s time to move on but you can’t find a way to get there, instead of getting frustrated just focus on what you can do to move forward bit by bit instead of regretting what’s already been done.
Take-home book quote: Keep looking forward! “If I look back I am lost.”
Be strategic and have a plan, but be flexible and get your hands dirty when need be. The battle of Blackwater Bay is a great example of how being well-prepared can seal a victory. Tyrion’s preparedness and forethought helped win the day, despite the numerous challenges in terms of the size of Stannis’ navy. But despite all the extensive planning he did, in the heat of the moment Tyrion had to throw on some armor himself and see to getting the work done that needed to be done.
Being prepared is always a good idea for life as a researcher. Whether it be reading up on literature before you start writing, thinking about your questions and experiments before you dive into work, or having a strategy for networking at an upcoming conference, laying out your goals and ideas ahead of time can set you ahead in your career, especially at an early stage. Do everything you can to foresee any challenges that come along, but know that you’ll have to be ready for a quick change or a leap into action if push comes to shove. It could be a last-minute experiment that you didn’t plan for or a conference presentation you find out about a week before-whatever it is, put some armor on and get out there.
Take-home quote: Go for it! "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?', 'That is the only time a man can be brave"
Be mindful of broken promises and be diligent in keeping your own oaths. The Red Wedding is certainly a good example of broken promises in the Game of Thrones universe, and it’s not the only time people were led astray or had a promise broken. In work and in life, you’ll meet people who will make promises that they don’t keep, or exaggerate their work and their abilities. This is unfortunately just a part of life. There is a good reason to approach everything in research with a skeptical, scientific eye. Keep up your guard and don’t believe anything until you see the data or see the work completed. On the more positive side of things, in your own work you can strive to be one of those who makes and keeps oaths, establishing yourself as a trustworthy collaborator and colleague. Setting yourself up as a reliable person can mean more collaborations, more supporters, and more allies (see the next section).
Take-home quote: Be mindful of promise-breakers, and strive to be the honorable one. “Give me honorable enemies rather than ambitious ones, and I'll sleep more easily by night.”
We all need allies at our side. We all love House Stark, but no one saw anything good coming from Ned’s single-handed attempt to throw Cersei and her family down. Without support, even if you’re in the right, you can’t hope to make much progress when it comes to big challenges. We all need friends, colleagues, and collaborators on our side to get things done, especially with the challenges we face as scientists today. Similar to being an honorable, promise-keeping person, in your career you should focus on getting and keeping people on your side. Be an engaged and courteous collaborator, and find people you trust that can provide the support or knowledge to make the work you do more impactful. In all your scientific interactions, be professional to the people you meet, and don’t let petty arguments or philosophical disagreements cause you to burn bridges between you and other good researchers.
Take-home quote: None of us can do this alone. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”
Knowing yourself and your strengths and weaknesses is the first step towards success. Tyrion gives one of my favorite quotes about this topic: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” In the Game of Thrones universe everyone has some level of expectation set on them, whether it be to meet up to the standards of their House/family or if they have some hindrance/greatness about them. Some choose to follow their own paths and others to follow the recommendations or expectations of others. Tyrion was despised by his family, and he knew it, but he focused on improving his own mind and his own connections instead of letting it destroy him. Brienne was expected to be the Lady of Tarth, but she went and set on her own course for knighthood and honor. Jamie was seemingly forever known as the Kingslayer, but he set to make things right for the sake of his own entry in the book of the Kingsguard (a theme more relevant for the book, perhaps…).
We already talked about the importance of knowing your own tendencies, work strategies, passions, and all the other ways that you are you. Don’t focus on comparing your skillset or yourself to others, but remember that as a scientist your work is on display for all to see, criticize, and evaluate. Know what you can do and what you can’t, work to fix what you can, and be proud of whoever that person is that you see in the mirror. You won’t be the best at everything, but you are you-and that means something.
When in doubt? Fire arrows! Because sometimes that’s all you can do when things get tough, and that’s OK.
So here’s to the next season of our favorite fantasy-family rivalry TV series, hoping that any and all of your favorites are safe, at least for a few episodes. Regardless of how A Song of Ice and Fire finishes or who ends up on the Iron Throne, Game of Thrones will have given us incredible story reflective of the human condition and the flaws and challenges we all face, whether there be dragons or just fire-breathing PhD committee members.