Monthly Archives: May 2024

Weathering the storm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …..”
The opening lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens

The best of times for me recently: A 4-day holiday in the German Allgau from Thursday 29th May until Sunday 2nd June. I was planning to see the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, as featured in the film, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (which only people from my era will remember!) and visit the Austrian Tirol.

The worst of times: We did not expect the weather to be this bad and the queues for the castle meant we couldn’t go inside.

HOWEVER, we made the most of things and managed to enjoy our holiday anyway: We ate lots of nice food, did some shopping, went on a boat trip and kept warm in the thermal baths, of which there are many in this area.

So, what has this got to do with careers I hear you ask…. Well, as much as we can plan to enjoy our careers and imagine how great our jobs will be, there’s always going to be bad times, as well as good times. Times that may last for just a few minutes or hours, or that go on for days or even months.

PhD and postdoctoral researchers, especially, relate stories of bad times on their social media posts, in my workshops or individual coaching sessions. They talk about experiments not working, unsympathetic supervisors, rejected papers and uncooperative collaborators. When time is limited and deadlines are coming up, this can be particularly frustrating, and I know many researchers feel powerless to change things.

The reality is that most of these things really are out of your control – you can’t force your experiments to work, you have little influence over your supervisor or collaborators and you can’t change deadlines.

However, you can change your own behaviour – you do have influence over yourself. This might be changing something physically, psychologically, emotionally or mentally. For example:

1. Communicate – don’t keep quiet about problems or difficulties that you’re having. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed – you’d be surprised how many others are having similar issues. You can speak with your peers, a career professional like myself or even your PI. I’ve known researchers to be afraid to open up to their supervisor, only to find that they are sympathetic and eager to assist them.

2. Connect with others – there are many early career researcher and postgraduate groups that you can join, either at the institutional level, nationally or even internationally. These groups might be social or even career-centred, they might be policy or discipline oriented, such as learned societies. You might not want to share your issues with them, but the sense of belonging can be restorative and energising, giving you back the confidence and optimism you need.

3. Use social media platforms – LinkedIn, X (formerly Twitter), Researchgate, Instagram, etc. might not be to everyone’s taste, but I know many early career researchers and PhD students who have benefited greatly from sharing their situation on social media. They’ve not only experienced unprecedented support and encouragement, it’s even opened up other career avenues for them, especially beyond academic careers. Social media can be time-consuming, so choose the platform that works for you and stick with it. For me, it’s LinkedIn because it’s a fantastic ‘people’ database, which allows you to reach out and communicate with a whole world of professionals.  

4. Treat yourself – I write this blog having eaten two apple strudels today! Tomorrow, I plan to do a bit of shopping. Whilst I’m not saying that eating and ‘retail therapy’ is the answer, it’s important to get away, take a breather and be nice to yourself. It’s probably quite usual for us to be our own hardest critics, to get bogged down in the situation and lose perspective. I remember when I was having a hard time in my previous job, I would take my dog out for a walk and after about 20 minutes, I could feel the angst and heavy weight of my ‘problems’ ebbing away.

5. Get things in perspective – As a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, you’ve perhaps been used to getting things right, getting great grades and being top of the class. This could mean that you’re particularly sensitive to when things go wrong and aren’t perfect. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, but I read a great article recently entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin A. Schwartz, an established academic at the University of Virginia, in which he argues that it’s important not to be afraid to be ‘stupid’ in science, because research is hard and problems are difficult to solve.

So, perhaps, the more willing we are to wade into unknown territory and experience ‘bad times’, the more likely we are to experience the good times. As someone said recently when replying to a post on X: “If it wasn’t for her bad luck, she wouldn’t have had any good luck at all!”