As an early career researcher, enthusiasm and passion for your subject are vital. However academic research can be tough and sometimes it can be a real test to maintain enthusiasm and develop resilience to criticism!
It is a really competitive arena and rejected manuscripts, fixed term contracts and constant battles for funding all contribute to this. I believe that it is important to talk about the more challenging sides of academia. If we were to include on our CV all of the applications that were rejected, then, they would certainly be a lot lengthier! I have to confess; I don’t often shout about the things that I wasn’t successful at, but maybe I should.
When I am introduced to conferences and events they don’t tend to mention the things that I haven’t or didn’t achieve. Of course, they focus on what has worked out and what I have achieved. But that doesn’t make the things that didn’t go so well any less important, in fact, I have learned a huge about from them. I am sharing these lessons with you, so you can become more open-minded about failures, to be able to learn from and build on them.
It might sound cheesy, but I think words like failure and rejected really aren’t that helpful! Ok, so I accept that it’s never nice to hear bad news, and there may be times where you are genuinely unable to learn from negative and unhelpful comments. It can also be all too easy to take these criticisms personally (I suffered from this for many, many years). Considering that you’ve probably spent years doing experiments that have contributed to a research paper or spent months preparing a funding bid. I know it is often easier said than done, but try not to take these criticisms to heart. Feedback can be difficult to take, but try to find the positives. Put that grant application in a drawer and leave it, come back with a fresh mind and a clear head. Although it might seem overwhelming, hopefully, there will be comments that will help you to improve. If the comments or feedback aren’t helpful or constructive then this can be really annoying! But try to persevere, we can’t always win everything (a lesson that my Mum had to drum into me as a child). Sometimes, the things that you didn’t get can be as valuable as the things that you did.
In times of need, it is important to have a support network to turn to, whether that is friends, family or people in a more formal capacity. I have hugely benefited from mentoring in a professional sense. The word mentoring can often be overused and sometimes mentoring relationships don’t work out. If this is the case it is important to recognize this early on and be clear about what you need help with. Make sure you collaboratively, set goals and check on progress, regular reviews of the goals can indicate if the mentorship is working for both of you. For me, successful mentors don’t tell you to want to do, they observe your situation and present the options in a clear and objective way, in order for you to make an informed decision. Sometimes just running your concerns or problems by someone can be really helpful, especially in a stressful career like research science, which is full of unknowns.
Take Care of Yourself… really!
It is important to remember that work is relative, particularly in academia it can be easy for work to seem all-encompassing. There are no set work hours and emails come through at all times of the day and night! Ensure that you make time for yourself to do other things outside of work that you enjoy (and turn your email off when you are not meant to be working! Delete your work email from your phone right now!). Admittedly, the time you spend on work will vary, in the final months of writing up a thesis or the week before a big grant deadline, you might find this difficult and that is okay. But make sure you take care of yourself when this busy time is over. Congratulate yourself on making deadlines, submitting grants, helping a student and for the little victories on the way, they all matter.
I hope that this article has helped to encourage you on your academic journey. Developing resilience can be a real challenge and I certainly don’t think that I’ve mastered it yet! Academia is tough and it is okay to recognize that, but remember the good parts. Sometimes experiments do work, grant submissions are successful and papers are accepted. So good luck on your academic journey.
This article was first written for Her Stem Story in May 2018. Some small edits were made in October 2021.