Resilience as a Common Trait in Researchers
This encouraging article in the NY Times reminded me of a question that was asked by an undergraduate student eight years ago. “What is the most important skill for a career in science?” I was a new PI and a panelist for our undergrad career night. I blurted out “resilience,” and most of us laughed and agreed. It got me thinking that resilience might truly be a shared trait among scientists, partly innate and partly learned.
Some people are naturals. My scientist husband is almost always optimistic, excited about the future, certain that discovery is right around the corner. Unfortunately, I am not a natural. But I think I’ve become sufficiently resilient over the years.
One time in grad school I complained to my mom that my experiments never worked at first. They needed to be repeated many times to troubleshoot the process and get it right. She said, “I’m so happy that you chose a profession that forces you to fail. You perfectionists need to learn how to deal with failure, and it sounds like you picked the right career.” Sigh. Thanks, Mom.
She was right, of course. I stopped taking it personally when the experiment didn’t work. If you stick with it, you get to have that delicious, heady feeling that comes when you learn something about nature that no one else knows (yet). It is humbling.
The other reason that science demands resilience is that our work is peer-reviewed. Not only do we doubt our abilities from time to time. There are plenty of brilliant people around to doubt us too. If you’re going to publish your work or get a grant, you’re going to have to put yourself out there for others to judge. What is more personal than your work – your methods, your approach and your thoughts about what it all means? It’s like being inspected in your underwear.
If our reviewers are doing their job right, they will be looking for the flaws. Hopefully they will give us some concrete suggestions for improvement. I am now at the point where I feel gratitude for those reviewers, because they really are trying to help make the paper better.
But. I don’t even have to say it. Not every reviewer does a good job. You know that feeling when you are reading a review, and the person is not only nasty but also wrong? I hear the blood pounding in my temples. What about the feeling when you learn you are not getting the grant that you were sure to get. Dark days.
The question is, why keep going after a disappointment? For me, it comes down to being curious. I just want to know the answer. It’s waiting to be discovered, and I think I know the way to answer it. So I have to figure out a way to keep going so I can find out. I also have to read the book to the end, even if I stay up all night. So maybe scientists need to be both resilient and insatiably curious.
It’s good to grieve, and to rant, and rage at the system. I do all those things. Then I go back to work, because it’s fun. We are lucky if we get paid to do it. I wouldn’t mind a little more funding, though. Just saying.