Thursday, April 4, 2019

On being happy in academia

tl;dr: Don’t take your research too seriously.

I like reading blog posts with advice about how to survive a PhD, things one wished one had known before one started a PhD, and other similar topics. Here goes my own attempt at writing such a blog post. I’m not a PhD student anymore, so I can’t talk about my current PhD experiences, nor am I a professor who can look back and list all of the personal mistakes and successes that have led to “making it” in academia. It has been a bit over 4 years since I finished my PhD and started working as a post-doc, and comparing myself now and then I realise that I’m happier working in academia now. This is not to say that I was ever unhappy during my time in academia, but some changes in attitude have lead to – let’s say – a healthier relationship to my research. This is what I would like to write this blog post about.

Don’t let your research define you
In the end, all of the points below can be summarised as: Don’t take your research too seriously. Research inevitably involves successes and failures; everybody produces some good research and some bad research, and it’s not always easy for the researcher to decide which it is at the time. So there will always be criticism, some of it justified, some of it reflecting the bad luck of meeting Reviewer 2 on a bad day.

Receiving criticism has become infinitely easier for me over the years: after getting an article rejected, it used to take at least one evening of moping and a bottle of wine to recover, while now I only shrug. It’s difficult to identify exactly why my reaction to rejection changed over time, but I think it has something to do with seeing my research less as an integral part of my identity. I sometimes produce bad research, but this doesn’t make me a bad person. This way, even if a reviewer rightfully tears my paper to shreds, my ego remains intact.

Picking a research topic
Following up from the very abstract point above, I’ll try to isolate some more concrete suggestions that, in my case, may or may not have contributed to my changed mindset. The first one is about picking a research topic. At the beginning of my PhD, I wanted to pick a topic that is of personal relevance, such as bilingualism or reading in different orthographies. Then, becoming more and more cynical about the research literature, I started following up on topics where I’d read a paper and think: “That’s gotta be bullshit!”

Now, I’ve moved away from both approaches. On the one hand, picking a topic that one is too passionate about can, in my view, lead to a personal involvement which can (a) negatively impact one’s ability to view the research from an objective perspective, and (b) become an unhealthy obsession. To take a hypothetical example: if I had followed up on my interest in bilingualism, it is – just theoretically – possible that I would consistently find that being bilingual comes with some cognitive disadvantages. As someone who strongly believes in the benefit of a multilingual society, it would be difficult for me to objectively interpret and report my findings.

On the other hand, focussing on bad research can result in existential crises, anger at poor researchers, a permanently bad mood, and from a practical perspective, annoying some people with high statuses while having a relatively small impact on improving the state of the literature.

My conclusion has been that it’s good to choose topics that I find interesting, where there is good ground work, and where I know that, no matter what the outcome of my research, I will be comfortable to report it.

Working 9-to-5
My shift in mindset coincides with having met my husband (during my first post-doc in Italy). As a result, I started spending less time working outside of office hours. Coming home at a reasonable time, trying out some new hobbies (cross-country skiing, hiking, cycling), and spending weekends together or catching up with my old hobbies (music, reading) distracts from research, in a good way. When I get to work, I can approach my research with a fresh mind and potentially from a new perspective.

Having said this, I’ve always been good at not working too hard, which is probably the reason why I’ve always been pretty happy during my time in academia. (Having strong Australian and Russian cultural ties, I have both the “she’ll be right” and the “авось повезёт” attitudes. Contrary to popular belief, a relaxed attitude towards work is also compatible with a German mindset: in Germany, people tend to work hard during the day, but switch off as soon as they leave the office.) At the beginning of my PhD, one of the best pieces of advice that I received was to travel as much as possible. I tried to combine my trips with lab or conference visits, but I also spent a lot of time discovering new places and not thinking about research at all. During my PhD in Sydney, I also pursued old and new hobbies: I joined a book club, an orchestra, a French conversation group, took karate lessons, and thereby met lots of great people and have many good memories from my time in Sydney.

Stick to your principles
For me, this point is especially relevant from an Open Science perspective. Perhaps, if I spent less time on doing research in a way that is acceptable for me, I’d have double the amount of publications. This could, of course, be extremely advantageous on the job market. On the flip side, there are also more and more researchers who value quality over quantity: a job application and CV with lots of shoddy publications may be valued by some professors, but may be immediately trashed by others who are more onboard with the open science movement.

The moral of this story is: One can’t make everyone happy, so it’s best to stick to one’s own principles, which also has the side effect that you’ll be valued by researchers who share your principles. 

A project always takes longer than one initially thinks
Writing a research proposal of any kind involves writing a timeline. In my experience, the actual project will always take much longer than anticipated, often due to circumstances beyond your control (e.g., recruitment takes longer than expected, collaborators take a long time to read drafts). For planning purposes, it’s good to add a couple of months to account for this. And if you notice that you can’t keep up with your timeline: that’s perfectly normal.

Have a backup plan
For a long time, I saw the prospect of leaving academia as the ultimate personal failure. This changed when I made the decision that my priority is to work within commutable distance of my husband, which, in the case of an academic couple, may very well involve one or both leaving academia at some stage. It helped to get a more concrete idea of what leaving academia would actually mean. It is ideal if there is a “real world” profession where one’s research experience would be an advantage. In my case, I decided to learn more about statistics and data science. In addition to opening job prospects that sound very interesting and involve a higher salary than the one I would get in academia, it gave me an opportunity to learn things that helped take my research to a different level.

Choosing a mentor
From observing colleagues, I have concluded that the PhD supervisor controls at least 90% of a student’s PhD experience. For prospective PhD students, my advice would be to be very careful in choosing a supervisor. One of the biggest warning signs (from observing colleagues’ experiences) is a supervisor who reacts negatively when a (female) PhD student or post-doc decides to start a family. If you get the possibility to talk to your future colleagues before starting a PhD, ask them about their family life, and how easy they find it to combine family with their PhD or post-doc work. If you’re stuck in a toxic lab, my advice would be: Get out as soon as you can. Graduate as soon as possible and get a post-doc in a better lab; start a new PhD in a better lab, even if it means losing a few years; leave academia altogether. I’ve seen friends and colleagues getting long-lasting physical and psychological health problems because of a toxic research environment: nothing is worth going through this.

Having a backup plan, as per the point above, could be particularly helpful in getting away from a toxic research environment. Probably one would be much less willing to put up with an abusive supervisor if one is confident that there are alternatives out there.

Choosing collaborators
Collaborators are very helpful when it comes to providing feedback about aspects that you may not have thought about. One should bear in mind, though, that they have projects of their own: chances are, they will not be as enthusiastic about your project as you are, and may not have time to contribute as much as you expect. This is good to take into account when planning a project: assuming that you will need to do most of the work yourself will reduce misunderstandings and stress due to the perception of collaborators not working hard enough on this project.

Be aware of the Imposter Syndrome
During my PhD, there were several compulsory administrative events that, at the time, I thought were a waste of time. Among other things, we were told about the imposter syndrome at one such event (also, we were given the advice to travel as much as possible, by a recently graduated PhD student). It was relatively recently that I discovered that many other early-career researchers have never heard of the imposter syndrome before, and often feel inadequate, guilty, and tired from their research. Putting a label on this syndrome may help researchers to become more aware that most people often feel like an impostor in academia, and take this feeling less seriously.