What mindset would be helpful for a person adopt when they train as a scientist? What will help them find happiness and fulfillment in this process?
“You’re going to become jaded over time. It happens to everyone.”
This is the gist of several conversations I had with graduate students before I started graduate school. In a world where loneliness abounds, where research funding can be hit-or-miss, where 90% of experiments fail, how can a trainee in science stay enchanted? What keeps them resilient through the ups and downs of the research process? I set out to inoculate myself against cynicism by talking with mentors, cultivating good relationships with my community, and performing scientific procedures that would benefit my lab mates’ projects along with my own. I found that enchantment is more a matter of mindset than a matter of circumstance.
Mind Your Motives
Why are you a scientist?
Scientific research can be frustrating. But a strong sense of purpose will allow you to see beyond the setbacks to the bigger picture. Some people who are training in science pursued their scientific career because they have received social pressure to do so, because they feel that further training in science is a natural extension of their undergraduate studies, or because they desire the prestige that comes with scientific discovery. People who pursue science primarily in pursuit of other peoples’ approval may have a hard time feeling fulfilled, especially when the going gets tough. On the other hand, scientists can fuel their efforts through the forces of curiosity, a desire to help others, and a sense of wonder. These forces can drive them forward when they encounter stumbling blocks in their research.
Maintain a High Level of Challenge
Most trainees are excited about their research projects at first. This enthusiasm dwindles over time as they attain an acceptable level of performance with their techniques because they stop feeling challenged. The way to stay engaged is to continue working on mastering your techniques, but to also work on related skills that make you a better scientist. For instance, if you have become excellent at running experiments and debugging code, maybe you can apply your efforts to learning additional methods. If there is a technique that you would like to learn, but no one in your lab knows, you may be able to learn them from colleagues in other labs. Similarly, you can take advanced courses to learn things you can potentially apply to future research. Maintaining a high level of challenge will improve your science and help you engage with your work.
Speak on a panel for people who aspire to be where you are. Perform outreach to teach people about science. Mentor undergraduates who truly want to learn. Talking about science with people new to the field will allow you to retain a beginner’s mind for your work and to see old scenarios from a fresh perspective.
Detach Your Self-Worth from Your Results
It is easy for scientists to feel great about themselves if their experiments are going well, or to feel terrible about themselves if their experiments have been going poorly. But it is healthier and more realistic for scientists to allow their self-worth to hinge upon what they are doing to improve as people and as professionals.
We cannot control outcomes. But we can control the strategies and the efforts that we apply to our tasks. This means following every step of a protocol without skipping any. It means carefully designing experiments. It means noticing details. Putting in your best work will increase the probability of a successful experiment, but nothing can guarantee fruitful results.
Spending time dwelling on negative outcomes or failed experiments will not help you as a scientist. Your focus should be on growth, rather than grief, so that you can learn from your mistakes and apply this experience to make progress. The research process is a dive into the unknown. Your bravery in taking the plunge is an asset to the scientific community.
Find Positive Influences
Some people think it is sophisticated to express their cynical viewpoints and that positivity is naïve. A healthy amount of skepticism is vital to critical thinking. Skepticism can help you to evaluate results thoroughly and to design experiments well. Cynicism, on the other hand, has an undertone of negativity. A negative mindset hinders scientific advancements and emotional well-being because it makes people want to give up. Avoid people who bring you down. This will give you more time and energy to connect with people who bring out the best in you.
There are three areas where it is important to have positive influences: 1) your mentor; 2) your laboratory; 3) your social circle.
Your Mentor. If you have a mentor who is not supportive of your goals, even if they are famous for doing great science, this can lead to disastrous outcomes in both your graduate or postdoctoral career and in positions that you may pursue thereafter. Your primary research mentor will be an important source of reference letters, especially in your early scientific career. They need to be someone whom you are comfortable talking with and who will have reasonable expectations for your work. Some mentors lose track of how much they ask their trainees to do, and their expectations can be managed through good communications.
Your laboratory. While you may not see your research mentor on a daily basis, you will have frequent contact with other members of your lab. They are the people who will be around during your triumphs and tribulations as you work through experiments. If they are encouraging, then they will help you retain a positive mindset.
Your social circle. If you are a graduate student or a postdoc, you may be living far away from your family and the community that you have cultivated earlier in your life. Having excellent connections in the campus community will allow you to gain awareness of the university’s opportunities or to talk with others who are in similar situations. It also helps to find positive people outside of the university to socialize with on a regular basis. Some people do this by joining a group on Meetup.com. Others stay in contact with their family and friends from home, by volunteering for a cause they think is important, or through activities in a religious organization. Gaining perspectives from outside the scientific research setting can fuel your creativity and allow you to become better at communicating science. Positive influences from your social circle will help you to remember your value beyond being a scientist — as a friend, as an individual, as part of a greater whole.
Afterword (Updated in 2020)
As I reflect on my four years of graduate school thus far, I am glad to say that despite a tumultuous first year, despite the pivots of my thesis project, despite working long and hard, I have retained a sense of fulfillment with how I live my life, how I am as a scientist. Playfulness and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive. Neither are enchantment and scientific research. You can create the best of both worlds. Especially if you believe that it is possible.
This article was written during ComSciCon at the University of Michigan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ComSciCon, the University of Michigan, or Intvo. The image used for this was taken by the author using a confocal microscope.