Resilience through a PhD

It has been some time since I’ve posted, but I am starting back with a strong post with tips on building resilience as you pursue research. This is something I constantly struggled with through my graduate degree, so I asked someone I consider to be an expert at this, my twin sister! She obtained her PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt and is now a postdoc at Yale. Check out these tips from Becky Adams.

-by Becky Adams, PhD

In my opinion, and from experience, the most important quality of a successful graduate student is resilience. Strong students can vastly differ in the number of hours worked, papers read, or insights generated, but every successful scientist has to rebound after a difficult phase in work. It is no surprise that graduate school is challenging, but it can be exceptionally stressful due to the personal nature of the work. Often for the first time, students’ own thoughtful ideas are rigorously challenged and experimental difficulties persist with no clear solutions. These difficulties arise at the same time students experience their first or most intense perceptions of imposter syndrome. In the face of these challenges, and perhaps response to them, outstanding graduate students develop and practice resilience.

Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” after a difficult or challenging situation, but practicing resilience is more than simply coping. Possessing resilience means that you are ready and able to face challenges again, even after feeling “knocked down”. While I’ll always be working on it, I have found several ways to build resilience, and I hope that these tools are helpful to you, no matter what stage you are at in your career.

Find a tribe

First, and perhaps most importantly, find a tribe. A tribe is a group of people who provide emotional support and who may share similar experiences as you. Maybe you can meet friends through a mutual extracurricular interest (intramural sports, yoga, board games), from your graduate class or lab, or spark up a friendship with an old acquaintance. I’ve been fortunate to have multiple groups of people who I can turn to when I question myself during a challenging period in lab so that I get advice from differing viewpoints. The important thing is to have a group with whom you feel comfortable sharing your insecurities and who support your decision to take on the challenges of graduate school. Your family can serve as your tribe, but unfortunately, for some people, family members (parents, siblings, spouses) might not know how to be supportive in the ways you might need. It is important to find a tribe of your peers who share similar ambitions in life and who might have experienced similar challenges. You might be surprised to find how reassuring it is to talk with people who share your insecurities and doubts.

Your tribe can also provide the important attribute of getting you out of the lab. Especially during challenging times, it is essential to allow yourself self-care. You should regularly seek opportunities to find a meaningful way to spend down time. This can include reading, exercising, getting outside, traveling, or getting to know other people over dinner and/or drinks. Although it can be relaxing to watch TV, get absorbed in a video game, or have a drink alone, I recommend making an attempt at least once a week to have quality time outside of lab with friends. Go enjoy downtime with your tribe (and try not to discuss work the whole time).

Seek critical feedback

This might sound antithetical to building resilience, but I recommend strongly that you regularly seek feedback from thoughtful, critical peers and colleagues. Becoming a scientist requires a lot of practice in learning how to “think like a scientist”. This includes considering alternate interpretations of data, being aware of caveats for different experimental approaches, becoming familiar with a diverse set of scientific literature, thinking of important controls in experiments, and developing alternative hypotheses. It is natural that these complex considerations and thought processes do not come quickly, and hearing diverse feedback is good for a scientist at any stage. At first, you might feel uncomfortable hearing critiques from your lab mates, PI, and committee members. At many points during graduate school (and even still), I felt like I was the dumbest person in the room, and that I should have already known everything that was being explained to me. But I’ve learned that it is important to seek out feedback despite my insecurities. More importantly, it is much easier to hear critiques early from friendly peers than potential competitors during paper or grant reviews. You will set yourself up for success (and resilience!) if you seek feedback from thoughtful colleagues early, often, and from diverse sources; and instead of feeling foolish, you will begin to be grateful for their critiques. This should also help you respond to critiques in a mature and grateful, rather than defensive, way.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that there will never come a time when you should not seek help from others. You will be on your way to developing into a strong scientist when you ask for critiques and ideas from your peers and mentors, thoughtfully consider those multiple inputs, and then pursue what you consider to be the best path forward.

Difficulties are a passing phase

When I am at a low point, it is difficult to realize that there are peaks and valleys in work. At some points, I feel on top of the world after seeing an exciting result; and at other times, I fear I will never achieve the goals that I’m working so hard toward. One thing that has helped is recognizing that my negative feelings will not last forever during my low points. I don’t mean that you should ignore the difficulties and only try to “see the silver lining” (see next point). Instead, when I consider times in my past that seemed daunting, I see that those were periods of personal growth, and I made it through the challenges having grown as a person and scientist. I have tried to remember those feelings when I feel challenged in the present, and it helps me cope and seek the challenges more than I would otherwise. Try to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable–it won’t last forever.

Be introspective during challenges

Although it is important to always try to be introspective, I have found it useful to spend extra effort considering my situation during challenging phases. Take this opportunity to really consider why you are facing a difficulty. Perhaps you have a misconception about an experiment or hypothesis; maybe you need to reorganize the way you set up your daily schedule; or it is possible that you aren’t communicating your ideas effectively. It often takes a block in the road for us to think about the path we are on and potentially make a change. This is also a good time to seek out your tribe and friends–different viewpoints might help you see ways to tackle the difficulties.

Be proud of yourself

When you are surrounded by a diverse group of brilliant people, it can be so easy to focus on what you consider to be personal failings. Stop. You have nobly chosen to seek this challenge. Be proud of yourself for wanting to improve your career and your life for you and your family. During graduate school, a counselor taught me about cognitive behavior therapy–that you can choose what to focus on. It is better to recognize the positive aspects of this challenge than dwell on your possible mistakes. It is also helpful to have a “growth mindset”, where you seek self improvement, rather than a “fixed mindset”, where you think your skills should be innate (see Mindset, by Carol Dweck). Having a growth mindset means that you recognize that challenges are an inevitable part of growth. Despite the difficulties that are inherent in graduate school, you will grow immensely. You should be proud for seeking and attempting to conquer this challenge. Even during difficulties, try to spend a small amount of your attention feeling proud of yourself for being vulnerable and seeking personal growth (see Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown).

Seek professional help if needed

Finally, it is not uncommon for graduate students to experience depression (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03803-3). Most programs provide free and confidential psychological services. I’m glad to share that I sought help during graduate school–it was incredibly helpful. Although you might want to face your challenges alone, professional help can truly help you gain the skills needed to conquer the challenging periods of life.

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