Resilience & Success In Science: A Researcher’s Perspective
The goal of research – in all its categories, levels and forms – is to make an impact. But creating impact with your research comes with a great investment of time, effort, resource, strength and courage.
Researchers could easily be tempted to throw-in the towel, especially when they don’t achieve the success they expect. Research doesn’t always feel fun, even though it can be. The rigors of developing a research idea and following through its execution is a commitment beyond the ordinary. Researchers therefore often have more reason to back out than moving forward – but what keeps them going is the commitment to providing progressive insights which could initiate a solution that genuinely advances the course of humanity.
While “cowards die many times before their actual deaths”, successful researchers have learnt the art of taking advantage of pressure to achieve their research goals. We are focused, tenacious, and used to advancing in the midst of adversity. No matter your demographic, adversity doesn’t discriminate – every researcher goes through moments of feeling like giving up on their dreams or giving in to discouragements and depressions. To keep going, RESILIENCE is needed.
Resilience goes beyond “not quitting” – it is having a mentality that makes you ask: “If I don’t, who will, and who can?” Having the ‘big picture’ in view builds a dynamic capacity to adapt to research challenges, no matter how tough. As highlighted in the popular ‘The Superpower of Resilience’ by Sule Kutlay Gandur, “We don’t break if we bend.”
In this piece, I have laid out my advice on building resilience as researchers, and turning adversity into advantage.
Define “research success” in the right way
Definition doesn’t limit, it only specifies direction. While many people define “research success” based on achievements made within the shortest time frame, in reality success in research is progressive. It comes in simple but meaningful packages and steps taken in the right direction. It is doing the little things right daily, while aiming for the ultimate goal – not necessarily the amount of work done. Researchers that measure success in terms of amount of time invested, resources expended, and data generated often overlook value added and competence built.
Resilience gets the work done with purpose in every step, even when it seems like protocols are failing. Resilience is bound up with the true definition of research success: “little is much, when it is done right”. While research data might point us in a different direction from what was proposed, the biggest benefit is always the lessons learnt which we can take forward. Pressure sets in when a researcher’s ideal vision of research success is default and fixed, and not evolving and translational. Resilience is built when research success is framed in the right way, and is purposeful.
Keep the approach simple
Achievable research goals are rooted in simplicity – and this activates your capacity for resilience in the face of any challenge. Simplicity in research means knowing what is not for you. No matter your research goals, you don’t have to take every opportunity that comes your way. Not all research tools are relevant to achieving your aspirations and executing your plans.
Failure is usually inevitable when things are too complex, whereas most failures can be avoided through simplicity when setting out your research goals. For instance, if you are aiming to achieve 9 out of 10 points on a gradient scale, start by achieving 1 out of 10 successfully before advancing to the next stage. The approach it takes to achieve 1 unit is what’s needed for 10 units – you just have to do it ten times. This simple repetitive approach not only builds resilience by allowing you to celebrate and acknowledge each success, it also improves your mastery of the art. It is easier to build a sense of ‘stick-to-it-ability’ when you’ve given yourself the opportunity to develop and hone your skills and gain confidence in your methods.
Challenges are not problems
Encountering problems often creates fear, and fear can often bring about failure. True resilience sees obstacles and adversity as challenges, not problems. The difference is that challenges might be demanding, but they generate the positive energy you need to get the work done – whereas “problems” might mean you tell yourself something is impossible to achieve.
Perspective matters, and building resilience in research involves seeing challenges for what they are and not how your fear distorts them. For instance, a failed experiment or a rejected manuscript is not a problem, it’s a challenge that enables you to learn how not to conduct an experiment or present research data. It is a ‘failing-forward’ challenge, which puts you a step ahead and wiser. However, if you allow it to sink you, it becomes a problem – yet it is only false evidence appearing real. Challenges in research are inevitable, so don’t see them as problems, see them as giving you an advantage in developing the research skills and resilience you need for success.
You can’t control everything
It is called research because it won’t always go according to your plans, and the actual outcome might not necessarily reflect your proposed outcome. Most times you don’t determine this, the process does. You need to know that you can’t control everything in research, and in fact it’s to your advantage to allow the mysteries to take their course.
Don’t waste time and energy complaining about what you don’t have direct control over. Focus your attention on things you can change. For instance, if a reviewer rejected your grant application, there’s no benefit in worrying about it as you can’t change the outcome. You can choose to learn from it though. Knowing the difference between what you can control and what creates distance between the two, and that’s where success lies.
Resilience is essential in achieving outstanding research success. Failure is not a stopping block, rather a stepping stone. Failure doesn’t mean you have to give up on any of your research dreams. Though it might feel like a loss or a setback, it can also be progress in terms of skills and knowledge acquisition
Whether you’re a budding or established researcher, focus on the right definition for success, keep your approach simple, don’t act too quickly and try to do everything at once – instead, build a lasting and impactful research legacy with resilience at its heart.
Abiola Isawumi is a Postdoc Fellow with the Mosi Lab at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP). His research interests are in antimicrobial resistance and hospital acquired infections.
He has been an academic guest at Harvard and a visiting research associate at Queen’s University. He won the reputable Gordon Research fellowship in 2018 and Nature Communications Biology Early Career Award for 2019/2020.
Read our interview with Abiola here.
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