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.