Picture it: You’re in the throes of multiple experiments. Your lunch and dinner are often out of a paper sack and most likely eaten in less than 15 minutes. When you leave your house in the morning, it’s dark. When you go home at night, it’s dark. In fact, you know the janitor prefers two sugars and a splash of milk in his coffee. Maybe you’ve taken to naming your mice or plates of cells because keeping up with friends—fuggedaboutit. Maybe you notice yourself acting a little, you know, (in hushed tones) crazy, even for a scientist. Learn from my mistake; pipettes will not channel magical powers no matter how loud you shout Wingardium Leviosa. Now couple that with departmental requirements, fellowship deadlines, classes, and your boss’s expectations (known to you or not). Perhaps many of you didn’t need to picture it because you are living it! It’s enough to make any sane person have a Jessie Spano moment and shout, “No time! There’s never any time!”
Losing Sight of the Science
Research can sometimes make you feel as though you live in a pressure cooker—a very lonely, isolating pressure cooker. And while you are using all your strength to hold everything together, it happens: the latest edition(s) of your most respected journal(s) hits the Internet.
When you sit down and read, ahem, skim the articles…fine, the abstracts, when you skim the abstracts, I mean who has time to sit down and read a whole article anyway?…sure your initial thought may be, “Wow this is so cool!” or “How did they even think of that method?” But I think for a lot of us that sense of awe can quickly turn into other feelings such as jealousy, despair, frustration, helplessness, and anger and we may even begin to feel that life is unfair. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I believe a majority of people in research can be just a touch competitive.) Maybe you imagine how much you would accomplish if you were in that lab or had those resources. Or curse the good luck of the authors. Or imagine that the first author just lucked into an amazing publication by joining the lab at the right time.
How did you end up in this state? Well, in my humble experience and that of many colleagues, as we advance in our scientific career, it can begin to feel, to put it bluntly, less about the science. In trying to keep up with the “ideal” of a successful scientist many of us lose touch with the curiosity that brought us into research in the first place. Our focus begins to shift. Gradually, more importance is placed on the speed of the work, getting money, selling our science, politics, job promotion, impact factor, publication quantity, and, for some, fame. I would argue that pre-graduate school life did not prepare me for the amount of mental stamina I would need to conduct research while struggling to maintain my identity, my curiosity, my sense of accomplishment, my self-worth, my determination, my morale, and/or my feeling of camaraderie in light of the success of others.
Staying True to the Beauty of Research
In this fast-paced, high-pressure career path, which provides ample breeding grounds for bitter discontent, how do we stay motivated? Honest? Quality-driven? Purposeful? Curious? Or maintain any other fill-in-the-blank that drove you into this career path?
The short answer is I don’t know. I don’t know a sure-fire solution. I have tried a variety of techniques with some success and like any good experimenter, I have also learned from what didn’t work. These are things I have learned through my own blood, sweat, and tears or anecdotally from my equally antagonized colleagues. No, these aren’t completely novel, highly complex, or fool-proof. (Side note: That is not something you ever want to write when you are applying for funding!) Everybody is different, so what may not work for some may be the golden ticket for others. But I think these tips can be useful for any career path, research and non-research alike, because at some point the majority of us will find ourselves in a uncharted mental territory:
Do remember why you started this career path. It is so easy to become disillusioned as you go along. The negative factors, the failures, the rejections, loss of time, lack of instruction or the opposite of micro-managing, etc., can really start to take their toll. For bench researchers, sometimes the distance to the drug or the patient that can use it is too big and it’s easy to forget how absolutely important and necessary these early mechanistic findings are. So if it takes you creating your own mantra to be repeated on a daily basis or writing your reasons on a list that you hang somewhere highly visible, go for it.
Don’t put these reasons in stone. Sound contradictory? Not at all. Your interests will probably change over time, for any number of reasons—moving, family obligations, etc. The longer you do something the more your focus begins to hone on what you want to do and how you prefer to spend your time.
Don’t be an emotional actor. That means don’t make changes to your career because you are angry or highly stressed. These two emotions can be positively channeled into excellent motivators to research other career paths if you feel that is the best option for you, but set them aside when it comes to making the actual commitment to a new direction. After all, you won’t always feel this way.
Don’t take publications and other people’s successes at face value. It is so easy when you read an article, especially a well-written one, to see the “Facebook effect.” You know the one—where everyone appears happy all the time and other people are always going on vacation. Remember you are seeing the highly polished product of many highly intelligent and skilled people who have most likely been at it a lot longer than you. I’ve also never seen anybody publish the date of when a project was actually initiated or the number of antibodies they tested before a band could be seen on a Western blot. That’s because it’s ugly! That doesn’t make for a nice story! Of course no one is going to reveal all the skeletons in their research closet. At the end of the day, we are all creating an image we want to put out to the world.
Do set an ethical standard for yourself. I’m going to say what we don’t like to say in science, which is sometimes not everyone does things by the rules or with ethical methods. Worse yet is not everybody is honest about the liberties they have taken. I mean are controls really necessary if your experimental group shows what you want? (The answer is Yes! Always Yes!) It’s important to know your limits, what you are and are not willing to do if, for example, your mentor is breathing down your neck about some preliminary fluorescent staining to go into a grant in two days. Should you help yourself out by playing with the imaging software settings to make the negatives more negative and the positives more positive. I mean this is only preliminary grant data, right? It’s not like this is getting published. Don’t do it! Yes, you’ll make your mentor happy (for the time being) and have data in time for the grant deadline, buuuuut you will now face the beast that is reproducibility and potentially following up a false lead. And heaven help the colleague who borrows your protocol.
Don’t stay in a negative zone. Unfortunately often those responsible for imprisoning you there are your work colleagues, who in most cases double as friends. It’s great to like who you are working with and even to hang out on that elusive weekend off, but really consider your conversational topics and the feeling you have afterwards. Are you going in circles talking about the same old work stuff? Don’t get me wrong, a good ole’ complaining sesh can do wonders but just make sure to limit it and then move on. Another option is to make an effort to hang out with non-work friends. These people can be excellent sources of outside perspective as well as, potentially, providing a more positive atmosphere.
Do set individual goals and expectations for your thesis work or postdoctoral fellowship. This helps keep your head clear on how you want you to progress. When you are working a lot and feeling stressed it’s easy for your personal milestones to dissolve in favor of the short-term, pressure-driven goals of your mentor. It’s easy to override what’s best for you to make him or her happy. It’s your boss, after all. If you have a boss you trust then openly share your goals with him or her. A good boss has your best interest in mind in the long term. For those less fortunate in the boss department, it’s hard but be your own advocate. You are the one who will have to answer for what you accomplished when it’s all said and done.
Let me close with this. Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “When students cheat on exams it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” In essence, when we put value on superficial measures or appearances we lose the true nature and fulfillment behind why we do what we do. So buck the system! Stay true to yourself and the beauty that is research. Be confident in the work you are doing and strive to be an asset to your chosen field.
Have any tips you’d like to share?
Emma Lindcourt completed her PhD in the United States and then moved to Europe for a postdoctoral fellowship. Lindcourt is currently working on completing her Medical Writing Certification because she believes those who can write about science have the real power. Her future ambitions include joining the blogosphere as a creative writer and engineering a master plan to rework the current grant funding system so that those that deserve money get it and those that have money use it in the most efficient and responsible way possible.
Article also appeared on the Compass Blog.