Building Resilience in Scientific Research & Academia
The views expressed here are those of the author and should not be considered to be the views of the NCI, NIH or the DHHS.
Resilience, in simple terms, means to hold on, press forward, and make progress despite the odds. Now, apply this definition to the academic or research setting, and you get my definition of resilience in academics or scientific research. There are lots of fancy words out there to define resilience (and these definitions are all true by the way), but I hope to approach resilience in a much more relatable manner in this blog. After all, we deal with more than enough technical terms in the laboratory and in textbooks.
One of the first points to note is, in academia or research, there always will be setbacks – no matter how well you plan or prepare. The next point is that each of us responds to setbacks differently. Our response may be related to our backgrounds, past experiences, and overall well-being. It is, therefore, important not to make a regular habit of comparing ourselves with others except for motivational purposes.
Some setbacks may feel minor, while others may be major. Interestingly, the definition of a minor or major setback will vary from individual to individual. The ‘minor’ setbacks are of course easier to overcome, but the ‘major’ setbacks are the most stressful and make the difference between being resilient or not.
To break or not to break? The step back program.
I have what I like to call ‘programs’ that help to build resilience, and I’d like to share one of them here. Picture yourself being faced with that ‘major’ setback, possibly because events are not going the way you planned. The pressure is mounting from your boss or PI, or maybe from fellow colleagues, students or teachers. At such a time, you might be feeling overwhelmed, distraught, confused, unsure, and also stressed. What is your reaction? How are you reacting right now? Giving up? Pressing on? Labelling yourself a failure?
Whatever your reaction, it is time to stop for a moment, and take a step back.
This pause might be anywhere from a few hours, to a few days, to a few weeks (though of course, this depends on urgency). During this time, you need to be sincere with yourself and address why it is that you feel the way you do.
If your ‘major setback’ was failed research, for instance, then you need to stop and work up from the basics. Ask yourself the following, and journal the answers if it helps to do so:
- Why did your research/experiment fail?
- What was it (precisely) that went wrong?
- Did the research actually go wrong, or did you just not have the right hypothesis or approach? If this was the case, why?
It may be that you know the solution already. You are simply overcome by stressors that are beyond your control, causing you to be out of balance and affecting your ability to think clearly. Take a moment and ask yourself why you are feeling the way you do.
If you can’t find the answers for yourself, then it is time to begin to talk with others and get balanced, objective opinions. I always think it is best to get advice from people with different perspectives and experience. These people may include close associates (PI, fellow, and senior colleagues), neutral associates (colleagues in other labs or faculties whom you know well), and people you may not know that well (maybe in a completely different institution but related to your field). It does not hurt to talk to someone who is not in research or academia either (friendship is valuable, whatever you are dealing with).
Keep an open mind
As you receive others’ opinions, keep an open mind. Bring all their ideas together one at a time, and begin to process and refine, while mapping out different strategies. The strategies you come up with will be unique to you and your situation.
In the meantime, you may need to remind yourself of some facts:
- Firstly, you are good at what you do (it does not matter what the situation looks like at the moment)
- Secondly, every excellent academic and researcher out there started from a place just like yourself and made mistakes and failures just like you may have done
- Thirdly, everyone needs to take actual time off, sleep more, and relax more during stressful times (though it might seem like the last thing you want to do it is, nonetheless, amazing what good sleep and relaxation can do for your mind)
Now, you are ready to go back and try again, armed with well-designed plans (and possibly back-up plans).
The moment you go back to try again after a major setback… guess what? You have officially become resilient, and the sky will be your limit. In future, every time you slip up, take these steps, and you will soon be ready to bounce back.
Be kind to yourself
I have faced numerous obstacles as a researcher and academic. It has been (and probably still is) an arduous journey. There are several times I have wanted to give up (it is a normal feeling, trust me). I find that when I do not use the step back method above, things often seem to get worse rather than better. The step back approach helps me reset my system, and refocus my mind.
It is perfectly alright to feel sad and down during setbacks or stressful periods – that doesn’t mean you are weak or have failed. The real problem comes when you go down and stay down.
Trust me when I say you have it in you to bounce back from any situation. Be determined to succeed, maintain a positive attitude (it always helps), appreciate your ‘little’ successes. A failed research or path is never all wrong (if nothing else, it has shown to you not to take that approach). Try making small goals the next time you approach the situation, and as you accomplish each, you will feel a sense of satisfaction.
Resilience can, and will, bring success in the end.
Enitome Bafor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health USA, with Dr Howard Young. Her current research focus at the NCI is on reproductive immunology. She’s also an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Benin, Nigeria.
Dr Bafor’s notable achievements include research grants in 2016 and 2019 from The World Academy of Sciences, and research grants in 2017 from the Society for Reproductive Investigation/Bayer Pharmaceuticals USA. Her awards and accolades include the Gro Brundtland Award 2018 for women in sustainable development, the research advocacy award by Research4life Elsevier, Nigerian Young Scientist Prize in Health Sciences 2017, and Runner-Up in Inspiring Champions of Science 2019 by Johnson & Johnson USA. Some of her fellowships include DAAD-International Deans Fellowship and the Excell Fellowship by the African Research Excellence Fund (AREF).
Dr Bafor was our Hello Bio Lab Heroes Award Winner 2018.
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