Guest post by Casey M. Imperio (CNSTA)
As the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many fields are beginning to restructure how they view work-life balance. That theme was prevalent for cognitive neuroscience trainees at the 2023 CNS conference in San Francisco. At the CNS Training Association (CNSTA) panel, five esteemed researchers shared their trajectories to their current careers, as well as how they have worked to balance their career aspirations and personal lives – covering everything from time management to coping with imposter syndrome.
Time management is key
Sabine Kastner of Princeton University had her first child while in graduate school in Europe. She didn’t have a great support system to help with childcare, but urged trainees to lean on any support that they have in these situations. Kastner, recipient of the 2023 Annual George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience, attributed her success to time management, saying:, “If you only have four hours in the lab, make those hours count”.
Marie Banich of the University of Colorado Boulder added that devoting the time of day when you are most productive to your lab work can set you up for success. Banich advised trainees to set boundaries around that time; for example, if you are a morning person, devote your mornings to lab work.
Finally, Scott Marek of Washington University told trainees to give themselves a break when they miss the mark. Marek noted that this will inevitably happen but urged trainees to not be too hard on themselves and to roll with the punches.
Find something that gives you joy
In addition to balancing work and home life responsibilities, the CNS trainees were interested in how they could alleviate feelings of guilt when they need to take a break. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that burnout culture is falling to the wayside, and that we are all more productive when we take breaks.
Sara Festini of the University of Tampa told trainees to find something that they enjoy doing and to be sure to make time for it in their lives. To take a mental break from academic work, Festini, for example, teaches tap dancing; she even looked up dance studios before moving to Tampa.
Banich supported this idea, stating that it is important find something you love and devote some time to it, while being honest with yourself about how much time you devote to that activity. Banich stated that sometimes, when a problem seems unsolvable, interruptions and resets can be helpful.
Kastner summed up the panelists’ advice on taking breaks in one clear statement: “Don’t feel guilty about taking a break; it’s healthy for your brain. You are brain scientists; you have to do something healthy for your brain,” Kastner also recommended that trainees do something active because physical activity will engage the brain in a different way.
Roll with the punches
Also in the conversation was how the panelists stay motivated when faced with things like imposter syndrome and rejection. Caterina Stamoulis of Harvard Medical School said that rejections in neuroscience are unavoidable, and that sometimes you need to try a new approach to get past that rejection. Stamoulis said that the ability to make new discoveries motivates her to keep going.
Marek said that he has never truly gotten over his imposter syndrome, but that with time, it gets easier. At some point, he said, you have to realize that people who are ahead of you in your career are supposed to know more than you, and that’s okay. He stays motivated because research is his passion and believes that getting paid for your hobby is a great thing.
In terms of rejection, Festini’s advice was that while it’s easy to take rejection personally, especially when you’ve devoted all your time and energy to a project, it is important to keep moving forward. Festini suggested that trainees look at rejection in a positive light and learn from the experience.
Know your interests
Finally, trainees were curious about how having broad interests can impact your career. Many trainees wanted to know if it is better to stick to one research program or is there a way to unite their interests under a common goal.
Stamoulis, who comes from a background in physics, said that having broad interests is okay, but using a specific methodology can help link them together. While a trainee should change fields if they need to, they should look at how to value their skill sets rather than their knowledge base.
The other panelists echoed this sentiment, saying that a body of research should have a story that connects multiple interests. Kastner advised trainees to not be swayed by what’s popular in science or what others are telling them to do, but instead to find a personal interest and motivation
As a final piece of advice to end this recap of the 2023 CNSTA professional development panel, Banich said: “There is the luck you make, which you make by hard work, and there’s the luck you take, which is when an opportunity is available, and you take it. It’s all about knowing when to walk through the door that is open in front of you”.
Casey M. Imperio has just completed her doctoral training at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she conducts research on how to improve metamemory and memory using transcranial direct current stimulation. She has been a member of CNSTA since 2022 and is currently its vice president.