Tips to Combat Research Blues

Photo by Damien Thorne

Photo by Damien Thorne

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 conduct magical powers no matter how loud you shout Wingardium Leviosa. Now couple that with departmental requirements, fellowship deadlines, classes, and expectations from your boss, 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!”

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 it together, progress in your own work, live up to expectations, or at the very least take a shower, change your clothes, and resemble a functioning person, it happens: the latest edition(s) of your most respected journal(s) hits the internet.

Why does this matter? Well, in my humble experience and that of many colleagues, as we advance in our scientific career, it can begin to feel like, to put it bluntly, less about the science. I think of science in its purest form as curiosity. Curiosity that leads to questions that are tested by a hypothesis. I think it’s curiosity that drives a lot of people into research. However, trying to keep up with the “idea” of a successful scientist seems to cause many of us to stray from my simplistic definition. 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, it’s fame. Now all these things are not bad within reason and, sure, you would expect a natural increase as you progress into being a competitive scientist, but it seems in research the balance becomes tipped too far and too fast. Staying in research can begin to feel more like a psychological hybrid of an obstacle course and a marathon—constantly battling challenges with no end in sight. I would argue that life pre-graduate school did not prepare me for the amount of mental stamina research would require, in particular, 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.

So when that latest edition of your most respected journal drops and 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—especially those of us in stressful positions that have set out to prove ourselves and move ahead in our careers—that sense of awe can quickly turn into other feelings such as jealousy, despair, frustration, helplessness, anger, and maybe even unfairness. (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. You may even start to have thoughts such as:

“I bet they aren’t really that smart anyway”

“Probably there were like 7 postdocs that actually did all the work”

“If you actually read the article, they really only did x, y, and z”

“They must have had easy reviewers”

Have you ever known one of those people who totally lucked into an amazing publication just because they joined the lab at the right time? AAARRRGG, it can make you tear your hair out if you think about it too much. How much different your career could be if that had just happened to you?

But, alas, no, you’ve had to find out everything the hard way. Nothing worked the first time, you had to wait on money to be able to buy reagents, you had the audacity to pick a highly understudied protein or pathway for your project and now you are having to figure out EVERYTHING! That’s even supposing you were lucky enough to have had a company already create the antibodies or plasmids you need for your selected targets. Have you ever found yourself in one of those situations where you’ve never heard of the company and it’s not exactly clear how they made their reagent or what it targets? Now that’s not to say every upstart company doesn’t make quality items—that’s just not true. However, isn’t it funny some of the compromises we are willing to make when we feel our backs against the wall?

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. Now some of these tips may read more like a guide to self-help, but I can assure you that I am no Tony Robbins. Just ask my bank account. 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. Also, 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 mentally uncharted 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 editor. Meaning 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 that 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 a 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 had the misfortune of working for someone who played fast and loose with scientific ethics. And don’t even get me started on the lack of controls. I mean are they really necessary if your experimental group shows what you want? (The answer is Yes! Always Yes!) But I digress. It’s important to know your limits. What you are and are not willing to do. For example, I once had a friend tell me she would write in a grant application that our lab could successfully perform a technique even if we had only tried it once. A harder example is if your mentor is breathing down your neck about some preliminary fluorescent staining to go into a grant in two days and so you decide to 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. Can you still look yourself in the face? Yes, you made your mentor happy (for the time being) and made it 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 that borrows your protocol.

Don’t stay in a negative zone. Unfortunately some of the most common offenders of imprisoning you here 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 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 goals, i.e., pressure-ridden, of your mentor. It’s easy to override what’s best for you in order to make them happy, it’s your boss after all. If you have a boss you trust then openly share your goals with them. 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?

About the Author:

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.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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