Guest post by Richard T. Ward
Although members of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) experienced this year’s annual meeting in the safety and comfort of their homes rather than together in Boston, that did not prevent them from connecting from around the world to share their scientific work and insights. In fact, one common theme emerged throughout the conference and the CNS Trainee Association Professional Development Panel that was applicable for anyone developing their careers, especially during the current times: perseverance.
Can Only Juggle So Much With Two Hands
Amy Janes, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, began the panel discussion by encouraging students not to “add too much too soon” when taking on new opportunities. As trainees, it can be extremely difficult to balance our workload and determine just how much more we can squeeze into our already tight schedules. The push for collaboration across labs, while desirable, may become too overwhelming if we simply agree to every project.
“Wait a week before you say yes to an opportunity to think about it,” Mariam Aly, an assistant professor at Columbia University, added. Realistically, it is impossible to take on every project that comes our way. All panelists agreed that it is important to carefully consider the people we will be working with, if the project fits into our overall goals, if the collaborators are good people to work with, and, ultimately, what our responsibilities will be.
Failing to delicately balance which projects and collaborations we dedicate our time to can often lead to quicker burnout, which can be particularly frustrating not only for trainees but even faculty. “Recognize when you burnout and give yourself time to recover,” Aly said, noting that burnout is often inevitable but can be alleviated based on how well trainees manage their time—including giving themselves the time to recover.
“Time management is so critical, especially as you go on to take more responsibilities,” says Theodore Zanto, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The panelists went on to discuss various strategies they use to ensure that they manage their time appropriately across projects, preventing themselves from becoming too overwhelmed by their workload and allowing themselves to efficiently work. “
When you set time aside for something, make sure to commit to that,” adds Robert Ross, associate professor at the University of New Hampshire. It is easy to become distracted in our daily life, , but it’s important to set aside time specifically to complete our work without interruptions.
Find the people who you can trust and who will support you; provide that same trustworthiness and support in return as well.
Come to Terms with Rejection
Many trainees were once the top of their classes in undergraduate school and then go into graduate school or obtain a prestigious post-doctoral position. After so much success, having an application for an award or fellowship being rejected for the first time may feel disconcerting, panelists discussed. “Learning how to deal with rejection is not something you can be prepared for until it happens,” said Kara Blacker, a human performance researcher at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory.
The other panel members concurred with this statement, highlighting the nature of how competitive academia has become in terms of not only publishing papers but also obtaining grants and faculty positions. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best…It isn’t worth it to work yourself excessively,” said Aly.
While it may sound discouraging to become comfortable with rejection, panelists said is important to recognize this reality of the field, not only in academia but also in industry. It is also important to take care of yourself and to remember you are not alone. The panelists explained how their peers often served as a strong support buffer for setbacks. “You need to try to focus on those 10 good colleagues,” Blacker said. Social support is a key factor in mental health and continues to serve a role in your career. Find the people who you can trust and who will support you; provide that same trustworthiness and support in return as well.
Perhaps more importantly, it is essential to recognize your own accomplishments and self-worth. “You need to be your own advocate,” Zanto said, highlighting the importance of speaking up for yourself and learning to become independent. You know your skills better than anyone and your research area better than most. Be confident in yourself, even when facing rejection, and continue speak up for yourself. And remember, Ross said: “Imposter Syndrome doesn’t go away,” so it is essential to remind ourselves of our skills and capabilities.
As trainees, we often find ourselves becoming caught up with trying to master novel techniques and skills to give us a competitive edge. While these skills can be admirable, they are fruitless if we lack the ability to efficiently communicate our findings not only to our peers, but also to the public community.
Apply Perseverance and Communication
The panelists went on to discuss essential skills necessary for trainees to master across all levels before moving on to obtain tenure-track positions. When asked what skills they found the most desirable, the panelists didn’t highlight specific technique or technical skills. Instead, global skills such as, problem-solving, perseverance, and determination, as well as the ability to communicate your science to a non-expert were emphasized by Ross and Blacker.
As trainees, we often find ourselves becoming caught up with trying to master novel techniques and skills to give us a competitive edge. While these skills can be admirable, they are fruitless if we lack the ability to efficiently communicate our findings not only to our peers, but also to the public community. After all, one of the many goals of science is to better understand a phenomenon and teach it to others. “Give yourself the time to think through people’s experiments,” Aly stated, when providing insight on how to efficiently communicate and work as a mentor.
“Managing time, managing people, and managing your priorities are essential skills,” Zanto said. The panelists further expanded upon this idea that being a faculty member, or even a lead researcher in industry, involves some form of efficient management strategy. It may be hard to realize this fact during our trainee days because we feel so overloaded at any given moment, but many trainees will one day be in a position where they are managing their own lab or research team. Therefore, it is critical that we learn ways to effectively manage groups of people working under us, whether those be undergraduate students in a lab or even training new graduate students.
Make a Choice – Academia or Industry?
As more Ph.D.s are produced than the demand for such positions across universities, scientists are increasingly faced with a dilemma between continuing in academia or pursuing industry positions. The panelists ediscussed how the decision between academia and industry is largely personal. Our own personal goals and passions, they said, should dictate which direction we chose to pursue in our careers.
“In the end, I love science and the creative flexibility to study what is interesting personally to you and share it with the world,” Zanto said, highlighting one of the many reasons he chose to remain in academia, despite various industry opportunities presented to him in Silicon Valley.
“What kept me in academia is the students and knowing that if I teach 100 students about neuroscience, and only two of them go on to become neuroscientists, [then] I feel like I am making a large contribution to the field,” Ross said.
But sometimes, our career path may be altered outside of our own control. “I decided to leave academia [and] to work for the Department of Defense because, after 72 applications for positions, I received 0 offers,” Blacker explained. Indeed, Zanto said, adaptability is important: “Change with the times, if industry becomes more commonplace, then so be it.”
“Make sure to reach out to experts that can help you find out how to take these alternate paths,” Aly said. Janes agreed, adding that all faculty across academia must become realistic with the ever changing field and provide students with the opportunity to expand into non-traditional academic career trajectories.
I left the panel thinking: The future is unknown, and we will face many difficult challenges on the road ahead of us. But as scientists, we’re already familiar with the unknown. We have a knack for adapting to the unknown and for continually pushing forward. This ability to adapt and continue to persevere through such challenges will ultimately ensure that we end up where we need to be in a successful career, be it academia or industry. As a close friend once said to me, “you are your team’s best player.” We must remember to take care of ourselves and have the confidence that we can succeed, no matter the odds. As trainees, we must continue to persevere.
Richard T. Ward is a Ph.D. student studying affective neuroscience in Dr. Christine Larson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.