Can you train resilience into grad students or postdocs?

September 13, 2016

As I’ve noted on these pages before, my sole detectable talent for this career is the ability to take a punch.

There are a lot of punches in academic science. A lot of rejection and the congratulations for a job well done are few and far between. Nobody ever tells you that you are doing enough.

“Looking good, Assistant Professor! Just keep this up, maybe even chill a little now and then, and tenure will be no problem!” – said no Chair ever.

My concern is that resilience in the face of constant rejection, belittling and unkind comparisons of your science to the true rock stars in a Lake Wobegon approach can have a selection effect. Only certain personality types can stand this.

I happen to have one of these personality types but it is not something of any particular credit. I was born and/or made this way by my upbringing. I cannot say anyone helped to train me in this way as an academic scientist*.

So I am at a complete loss as to how to help my trainees with this.

Have you any insights Dear Reader? From your own development as a scientist or as a supervisor of other scientists?

Related Reading: Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?
*well maybe indirectly. And not in a way I care to extend to any trainee of mine thankyewveerymuch.

71 Responses to “Can you train resilience into grad students or postdocs?”

  1. baltogirl Says:

    We do actually provide specific guidelines for achieving tenure through yearly evaluations of our current assistant professors . So they don’t need to sweat if they are meeting these clearly established goals.
    But getting grants (obviously one of those goals) is another story. We try to help the assistant profs by pre-reviewing their grants in-house, but these days there is so much randomness in the process that I just try to encourage them by saying, “if you send in a great product with exciting preliminary results and you still can’t get funded, it’s not you- it’s them. Just keep on sending them in, and one day you WILL hit that magic combination of reviewers who actually care about your topic, and the sweet spot in your research question (great prelim. results but not yet published). ”
    Of course, getting that first grant is not nearly as hard as getting the renewal…


  2. The New PI Says:

    I think more than training resilience into someone who doesn’t have it, you can bring it out and hone it. I feel like in grad school I was pushed to my limits and I was shown that I could do things I didn’t know I could do. I am very grateful for that. But I’m always worried that trying to do the same for my trainees may hurt them…


  3. scitrigrrl Says:

    As I said on twitter, I’m not sure resilience is a universal good.
    I was born stubborn, and sometimes rejection brings that out in me.
    Sometimes (ahem, usually) rejection leaves me in a blubbering mess that really doesn’t want to look at the rejected manuscript/grant ever again.
    As for my training – like you alluded to, DM – some of my resilience training involved experiences my students will not ever find in my lab, and that’s a good thing.

    So I’d LIKE to focus on “coping” rather than “resilience”.
    One thing that helped me was the constant reminder that the rejection of my WORK was not a reflection on my SELF.
    Another thing was more about coping tactics – one of my mentors would say “take 24 hours, cry, rant, scream at the ocean, have a glass of wine, go for a run, do whatever you need to do to work through the disappointment. And then we’ll get back to work on [revisions/submitting elsewhere/etc]”.

    Does it work? I dunno. And since it’s STILL confounded by the traits of people who choose this career path on their own, I’ll never know.


  4. Former Technician Says:

    Some of us were taught resilience by not being the preferred child. Some by not meeting some other parental expectations. Unfortunately, this seems to have been lost in the recent crops of undergrads, grads and post-docs. The change in child-rearing to “no one loses” is not realistic and does not prepare anyone for real life. I’m not sure how easily resilience can be taught to individuals who have known no hardship, not even minor ones of losing sport or academic contests. Competition helps to develop the ability to “take punches” without taking them personally.

    I certainly benefited by not being the preferred child and having a highly competitive sibling. Trying to get the elusive approval from my mother certainly added to my resilience. The best part of beating your head against a wall is when you stop.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    I feel like in grad school I was pushed to my limits and I was shown that I could do things I didn’t know I could do.

    I feel more as though the adverse things that occurred convinced me that I could take a punch and come back swinging albeit in a smarter way. I don’t know that those experiences provided me with this dubious state of mind. It feels a lot more as if the pre-existing mindset let me survive it all. And frankly, I would be a lot happier and more successful if a few of those shittier things didn’t ever happen at all, in my best estimation.

    So how could I intentionally subject postdocs to hardship to hone or bring out their resilience?


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    The best part of beating your head against a wall is when you stop.

    If I am hearing you properly you are saying that you learned not to seek others’ approval and (I assume) came to value your own self-approval much more highly. Perhaps I am projecting here, but I agree that this is a huge part of what lies behind resilience. Genuinely not caring, at some level, about what other people think of you because you are confident in yourself and your own opinion of your work.

    And see…. this kind of person is commonly viewed as an arrogant asshole. Which, to circle back around, some people might suggest is precisely what the culture of rejection and belittlement in academic science is selecting for.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    One thing that helped me was the constant reminder that the rejection of my WORK was not a reflection on my SELF.


    This is the closest I have ever come to a viable action plan on training for resilience. It comes out in my blogging about the NIH grant game, btw, in my continued assertions that “writing better grants” are not the issue. Also in my assertions that great, awesome and highly fundable proposals exist way down in the 30th percentile of scoring.


  8. Postdoc, partially gruntled Says:

    I’m coming at this purely from a technical/experimental resilience perspective – I have no idea how I would handle extended periods of failure with grant writing and don’t intend to find out.

    My PhD advisor strongly believed that if one was doing cool shit that no one had done before, one was definitely going to fail at times. Sometimes, even for extended periods of time. You were expected to do a lot of amazing things, but more importantly, you were expected to fail better over time. Discussions of troubleshooting were encouraged at lab meetings, thesis committee meetings, etc. and this philosophy was extended to permanent staff and ‘senior’ trainees. One of the most encouraging things he ever said to me was, “Well, good. You are doing the right things. It will work eventually.”

    I will note that my PhD advisor is one of the Olds, so his take on science is oblivious to the funding struggles and pressures that small/new labs experience. As a PD in one of those small/new labs, I am finding that this attitude is not well-tolerated and it makes me miss the good ol’ days a little bit. I am curious to see how some of the junior/mid-career PIs answer this question!


  9. Next Grant Says:

    not entirely the topic of this post, but since you mentioned “great prelim. results but not yet published”, my question: great preliminary data is no longer great after publication or no longer preliminary? I guess the latter. Then, no longer good to support the experiments you are proposing in your grant?


  10. I don’t think you can train resilience into a grad student. I don;t know if it is something you are born with, or something learned young, but I think that by the time someone has reached 20, they have it or they don’t. You can (and I try to) teach helpful/constructive coping strategies (which I try to do), the resilience and desire to use said strategies is there or not.

    Not only do I find it helpful to remind people that a rejection is for the work, not for them, but I also remind them that a rejection is the opinion of 2-3 people, not everyone.


  11. Liz Says:

    I’ve been lucky to never experience real hardship- my parents and scientific supervisors and mentors have all been wonderful people. I have in science (like everyone?) coped with unfortunate circumstances. I was surprised to see in my reviews for an (unsuccessful) fellowship application that ‘resilience’ was something that came through in my letters of recommendation.

    In difficult situations, my approach has always been pragmatic. Time moves only in one direction, so I lay out my options, decide, and execute the next course of action. ‘Giving up’ or ‘deciding I’m not cut out for science’ aren’t options, because they aren’t concrete. Taking the steps to look for another job is an option (sadly marrying into money is not), but it’s never been close to plan A yet.

    Of course, there are sometimes tears and often a step back to wallow before the pragmatism begins, but I like this approach because it isn’t about character. It’s something that anyone can do, and I encourage this style of planning with concrete next steps in my trainees.


  12. Arlenna Says:

    You know: I think years of hardcore classical ballet training (while having a functional but not ideal body for it, and thusly being repeatedly told I would not be successful at it as a career) probably is what established my resistance. And that started at age 9, not age 19 or 29. I’m not sure there is anything positive we can do to influence our trainees’ resilience. All we can do is be transparent about the need for it and show them what it’s like to do this job, while making sure we aren’t one of the assholes.


  13. Arlenna Says:

    Resilience not resistance, stupid phone.


  14. Old Biddy Says:

    I’m pretty stubborn and determined, but what helped me as I made the transition into doing research as an undergrad/1st year grad student was a professor I had sophomore year for a synthetic organic chemistry class. He told us that appx 10% of the reactions he did worked, and that was a pretty good average for the field. Hearing that made me realize that there was going to be a lot of hard work and that it was a matter of persevering.


  15. becca Says:

    You can model realistic optimism. You can share coping skills, with the recognition they aren’t all universal. You can model a personal narrative that assumes self efficacy. You can listen for and reinforce such narratives in your trainees. You can see them as competent and always learning, and tell them you see them that way (also, that you see yourself that way). You can view burnout or mental challenges like depression or anxiety as analogous to over training athletic stress injuries, and encourage them to view them in the same way and above all to seek good treatment (with the understanding it is not necessarily just a matter of a quick conversation with a doctor and some pills). You can pay attention to where progress has been made and provide recognition of that. You can share models to understand success that involve both luck and effort, but emphasize effort. You can teach them mechanics of breaking down large goals into smaller tasks. You can steer them to other people who are good at these things. You can respect the complicated lives people lead, and that the amount of willpower it took them to show up may be greater than you had to contend with (see as a precaution: fetishization of “grit” by educators). You can respond to requests for help with an assumption there’s a way to be an effective team. You can assume people *are* changing, no matter what you do, so you might as well try to help them change in ways that are good. You can avoid toxic fixed mindsets about your own capacities and the fundamental attribution error when it comes to judging other people’s abilities.

    You can also, of course, decide only some of those things fit with your core capacities and only some are worth the time given the payout.


  16. DJMH Says:

    becca I think I’m going to print that out and stick it on my computer monitor.


  17. wally Says:

    My postdoc mentor does this very well. She is very transparent about her awards, acceptances and her rejections. She is massively productive, and has a large productive team, so there are a lot of rejections. I’ve had trouble finding funding for my postdoc projects – and have gotten quite a few grant rejections, and she has been very helpful in reframing these for me and supports my work and my perseverance. She tells me stories about rougher times for her – particularly when she was more junior, and by example shows that she never gives up. She supports everything I want to do or try – and trusts my judgment while also helping me shape my ideas to improve their level of success.

    Women in particular tend to lay the blame for failures inside themselves – and I am particularly guilty of this. It can help to have a mentor who helps reframe things – it’s not you, it’s the vicissitudes of academia.


  18. Newbie(ish) PI Says:

    My graduate school advisors took the opposite approach of what I think you’re proposing. They completely protected me from any worries they had about funding or publishing. My job was to learn, do experiments, and interpret results. If an experiment didn’t work, we sat down and discussed what we learned, and if there were any small things that did work, we made a figure. Before a paper ever got submitted we made a list of the journal hierarchy that we would target, so if it got rejected, no big deal, on to the next journal on the list. I think they built resistance into me by not making me feel that any one experiment or paper was a make or break moment. Somehow, everything magically fell into place without me ever feeling the real stress of my PI, and I left with multiple first author papers. However, I don’t think this idyllic experience can exist any more (even though this was only 10 years ago). The first conversation I’m required to have with rotating students is how many years of funding I can promise them. Students now are much more sophisticated than I was, but I’m not sure this is a good thing.


  19. karrassment Says:

    I really hope you can teach resilience. I’ve also always thought mine came from tough experiences as a kid in a harsh sport with intense coaches. As a new PI I see new students take failure in the lab so hard. It’s scary to think how they’ll take rejection at the manuscript/fellowship/grant stage. I am trying, like people have said above, to reset their expectations and normalize failure and rejection by talking about it. I know it made a big impression on me when I asked my postdoc mentor how he could be so calm waiting to hear grant scores – he said it was because the odds of a positive outcome were so low. Hearing that kind of thing from someone I considered very successful was pretty powerful. In my experience it has been so much about getting back up again that I think it’s almost all about getting back up again. I don’t think it would be possible to over state it. Whether it’s arrogance, or head-in-the-sand (like I’m not counting how many times this has been rejected), or stubbornness or Polly-Anna optimism or whatever, something has to make you get back up. Luckily, I do think there are those different approaches that work for different personalities. I just keep trying to say and show how commonly I fail so students will be less likely to think they’re just not up to the task. I do worry sometimes though that doing that undermines their confidence in me, especially since I’m so new. Maybe in 5 years I’ll know!


  20. MoBio Says:

    Interesting discussion but what I’m wondering if there is any data out there on measures of resilience and to what extent it may be ‘hard-wired’ (innate) vs to what extent resilience can be augmented or diminished with experience.


  21. prof-like substance Says:

    I’ve had trainees watch what I was going through, especially in the early years, and actively decide on another career path. This is not a bad thing, and I do strive to be honest with my students so that what they see is not the “Facebook” of being a PI. If this is not for them, I want them to be planning their exit strategy ahead of time and not be pushed out of the plane.

    The challenge for me is always providing a balance, because the highs and lows of this career can be rather extreme and highlighting one of the other is a bit of a disservice.


  22. Dennis Says:

    I don’t know how to teach resilience. I am actually quite resilient when it comes to the ‘not caring about other people’s opinion’ part. My parents taught me self-respect, but also an insatiable urge to self-improvement and to do things the right way. I compare myself to others, my standards are higher than that, anyways. I pity people who think just because kids are loved by their parents unconditionally, they wouldn’t have a drive to self-improvement. What a miserable way of being. The only person I compare myself to is yester-me, and I gotta be smarter than that asshole.

    But, I had an ‘adviser’ who straight up threatened to end my career before it had begun. One is highly dependent on recommendation letters, so I feel forced to act the way advisers expect it; Even if I know they are pushing me in the wrong direction, and too hard, or they are following some obsolete convention mindlessly.

    Today, as I have been in several labs and had some collaborations, there are some people who I can always trust to write me a strong letter. But the first adviser(s) will be the most important for a long time, and thus they easily excite existential angst in students.

    Maybe it helps to keep that in mind.


  23. Dennis Says:

    *I don’t compare myself to others


  24. drugmonkey Says:

    I think they built resistance into me by not making me feel that any one experiment or paper was a make or break moment.

    This seems to me like an excellent and actionable suggestion for PIs.


  25. Becca, all those things are things good mentors do to varying degrees, and they help trainees finish. I don’t think they build resilience. To me resilience is not the ability to use coping strategies to deal with adversity (which can be taught to grad students or postdocs). It is the desire to use coping strategies to deal with adversity (which I don’t think can be taught).


  26. jipkin Says:

    I think this whole line of thinking is dangerous. How can you know what “resilience” is in order to train it? If you end up training one kind, how do you know you aren’t punishing those who might express their resilience or coping or whatever in another way? Might some trainees respond to certain challenges differently than others? How predictive, for instance, is how you respond to grant failure of how productive you are as a scientist?

    “Perhaps I am projecting here, but I agree that this is a huge part of what lies behind resilience. Genuinely not caring, at some level, about what other people think of you because you are confident in yourself and your own opinion of your work.”

    This strikes me as an implicitly gendered view of how resilience might manifest itself. The “stoic confident male” type. But I’m here to tell you I’ve seen examples of people who actually care deeply about what people think about them, are often hurt because of it, and whom I would nonetheless consider incredibly resilient based on how they survived very tough situations and even thrived, despite bouts of misery.


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    Yep, exactly why this issue troubles me so much, jipkin


  28. Luminiferous Aether Says:

    “Genuinely not caring, at some level, about what other people think of you because you are confident in yourself and your own opinion of your work.

    And see…. this kind of person is commonly viewed as an arrogant asshole.”

    Sounds like CPP.


  29. sel Says:

    Careful with assumptions about what constitutes a gendered trait. Why do you assume “stoic” and “confident” are male traits? I read “Genuinely not caring, at some level, about what other people think of you because you are confident in yourself and your own opinion of your work” and recognized that as essentially how I work. Would you assume I’m male? You’d be wrong.


  30. UCProf Says:

    I’m not so sure resilience is a good trait, especially in trainees.

    I knew a guy in grad school. I am so much more resilient than he was. He gave up on academic science, where I persevered through the tough times.

    Now, I’m a tenured professor managing a $250k/year research program. He is a senior scientist probably making 2 to 3 times my salary and managing something like a $10 million/year research program.


  31. aspiring riffraff Says:

    Former never going to be a real ballerina here as well, also credit the dance training. I think sports/dance/martial arts/etc training is really important. Also, working a crappy job through high school/college seems to be important, though it might not be the job per se, but rather the home life that led to the necessity of getting the job…


  32. David Says:

    Came across this via google:

    They give 10 ways to build resilience. A lot of overlap with the suggestions above. Maybe the most important part, for today’s discussion, is, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”


  33. bacillus Says:

    I think it is important to be able to recognize when your resilience is working against you. Consciously you might think yourself able to to shrug off the brickbats ad infinitum, but sometimes, unknowingly, at a cost to your mental wellbeing. Been taking Zoloft and Welbutrin for the past 6 years for biting off more than I could chew.


  34. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes, I know one successful woman in science so therefore there cannot be any disparities to worry about.


  35. jipkin Says:

    “Why do you assume “stoic” and “confident” are male traits?”

    I don’t – I do think that “stoic confident male” is an archetype that people can cast others into (see: popular culture, for one).

    I also don’t think that caring about what others think of you is necessarily any predictor of resilience. You can be male or female and be anywhere on the care-not care spectrum and be just as likely to be resilient as anyone else.


  36. babyattachmode Says:

    I’ve thought about this quite a bit and wonder if you would want to affect this if it does not make more sense to try and change the environment rather than trying to change the people in the environment? For example by giving regular feedback to grad students and post-docs so they become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. This would mean that reviewer comments aren’t the only time when they get (negative) feedback about their performance. Also by creating the feeling of being in a team rather than being individual postdocs all fighting for the same scarce TT positions. I think there are many things institutions and PIs can do to empower grad students and post-docs rather than try to toughen them up.
    And now that I write it, I realize that the end result may be the same, so maybe this was what you were alluding to anyway?


  37. Grumble Says:

    “Genuinely not caring, at some level, about what other people think of you because you are confident in yourself and your own opinion of your work.

    And see…. this kind of person is commonly viewed as an arrogant asshole.”

    Not all self-confident people who don’t give much of a shit about what other think are assholes, and I think that’s especially true in science.

    More specifically, I don’t care how much of the scientific community values my work, or how highly they value it. I know my work is good and that it is meaningful and that some people in the field get it, and that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what my students, post-docs and technicians think. I value them and their contributions, particularly intellectual contributions, deeply. I don’t think anyone calls me an asshole.

    You can learn to be resilient to constant criticism without becoming an arrogant prick.


  38. neuroslurpy-ologist Says:

    Longtime lurker, first-time poster, but +1000 to babyattachmode’s point.

    I wonder how much of ‘training resilience’ in this sense is cultivating healthy management practices in terms of meeting with your trainees, providing regular feedback, encouraging communication/team building, etc. Which (from my limited new postdoc perspective) don’t really seem to be the things you’re hired or get grants for. Certainly (hopefully?) these facets help in the long run success, but it’s not like a tenure-track prof is hired primarily based on demonstration of their abilities to manage a lab, mentor trainees, or work well with others, right?

    At risk of stating the obvious, it would also seem that it’s easier to be resilient/learn resilience to professional criticism, rejection, etc. if you have the privileges of outside support (monetary, family, etc.). If you’re alone and living paycheck-t0-paycheck, or drowning in debt, spending tons of hours in the lab every week, I would guess (though I can’t speak from direct experience), it’s much harder to stay calm and carry on in academia in the face of persistent professional setbacks.


  39. qaz Says:

    Just as courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the perseverance in the face of fear, resiliance is not the absence of caring, but rather the perseverance in the face of negative reviews from someone/about something you care about. This means it’s really about coping strategies.

    I think it is possible to teach those coping strategies. What I’ve found however is that it can be hard to teach someone to want to apply those coping strategies.


  40. Anonymous Says:

    When I was in grad school I had a really hard time with distinguishing that the rejection/failure of my WORK was not a reflection on my SELF (see scitrigrrl). It took a significant amount of personal growth and inner child work to learn this distinction, and it is a constant process. But 16 years later, as an Associate Prof at a PUI, putting together my application for promotion to full, I am much better at this than I was before. I do believe change is possible. Now, I recommend therapy to any student I think it will help (see becca); and it’s so gratifying when the students come back and tell me that it did help.

    When I was having a hard time, and before I had honed my coping skills, what kept me persevering was keeping my eye on the prize, i.e., the end goal of what I wanted for my career. A number of commenters have noted some version of this, the “wanting” to be resilient (see qaz). I’m at a Jesuit university, so we talk a lot about vocation. I spend a lot of time counseling students to reflect upon what is really important to them before choosing a career. What are your core values—what difference do you want to make in the world? Being clear on what really matters to you helps you know whether you are in the right place or not. It helps when making the decision to weather the hardships in service of the larger goal, or to get out and try something else that more closely aligns with your values. I’ve done both things.

    I interact solely with undergraduates, and I certainly have this conversation with all that say that they want to get a PhD. However, I don’t think it’s ever too late to have this conversation; people are always growing and changing (see becca).


  41. Grumble Says:

    @Anonymous – Do you think there is a male/female difference in the tendency to internalize criticism (i.e., interpret criticism of one’s work as criticism of one’s self)? This wouldn’t surprise me, and I wonder if it has something to do with the precipitous drop in number of women on the trajectory from grad student to professor.


  42. Elephant Says:

    @Grumble — I think there is, on average a male/female difference in the tendency to internalize criticism, but I also think there are many exceptions to this tendency. In my own case, I tend to internalize criticism a lot, and I need to consciously make a strong effort to limit myself from doing this. I’m male. And, of course, I know many women who are “tougher” than I am in this respect. I tend to dislike framings of these sorts of issues as “male” or “female” traits, since it adds a level of generalization that doesn’t help anything, and leaves people who don’t fit the generalizations by the wayside. I often fail to see why one shouldn’t just discuss people’s traits, rather than “male” or “female” issues.


  43. qaz Says:

    A question highly related to the desire for resilience is ambition. One of the things I’ve been observing is that it is often really hard (if not impossible) to train ambition. If someone is ambitious, they will often find ways to be resilient. If they are not ambitious, then it is often easier to quit and do something that requires less resilience.

    I feel I can teach the coping strategies. What I can’t figure out how to teach is ambition. Even when I can convince someone that they *can* play in the majors, a surprising number of people don’t want to.


  44. NeurallySound Says:

    Qaz- Why is ambition equated with playing in the majors? There are plenty of demanding and valuable careers outside of academia that require a lot from a person, including resilience, if not the exact combination required by academia. Choosing to leave because you don’t want to put up with this shit isn’t a lack of ambition, it’s choosing which battles are worth fighting.


  45. drugmonkey Says:

    Fascinating point to raise qaz. I feel no real obligation to change ambition. That feels like trying to change a personality to me. I think of resilience as helping someone to realize their personality (goals, ambitions,etc).

    I’m not sure this is anything other than a gut feel. I’m going to ponder this.


  46. tenure track Says:

    I’ve read just about every book and major study out there on women in science, imposter syndrome, self-confidence, resilience, etc., because I have chronically doubted my abilities. I’ve had lots of therapy too. I spent so much of my time in graduate school underperforming and wracked by angst about whether I belonged. My successes felt like flukes, and my ignorance seemed unbounded and shameful. Why this is relevant:

    (1) I’ve read in many sources that there are substantial differences in men’s and women’s propensities to internalize v. externalize criticism. Obviously, there’s within-group variation, but I think the difference in the means is probably relevant to retaining women in science. I wish I could remember specific citations.

    (2) I love qaz’s comments and think qaz is on to something. Ambition might be critical. It does not have to be “selfish”–it just has to be a strong desire to achieve something. I also have NO idea how to cultivate it in others, although I’m trying. The only thing that kept me going most of the time was ambition, and it wasn’t personal ambition so much as the desire to do good and useful research in a certain area. Now I want to do good work and be a good mentor to my trainees, and I want to get tenure so I don’t have to worry so much about how much people like me in any given year.

    (3) Little bits of encouragement here and there can do wonders. I’ve never confided in any of my superiors for fear of appearing weak, but peers and anonymous kind souls on the internet have had a real impact. For instance, xykademiqz wrote a beautiful post on this topic a few years ago:

    It’s good we’re talking about this.


  47. tenure track Says:

    To clarify, ambition has been helpful to me because it made me realize that feeling and/or looking like a fool might be necessary to get work done. I can also endure extended periods of rejections as long as I believe progress is still possible. It helps me shift the focus from myself to the work, and meanwhile I can pat myself on the back for working toward something cool and potentially important.


  48. Grumble Says:

    ” I often fail to see why one shouldn’t just discuss people’s traits, rather than “male” or “female” issues.”

    In this case, it’s because there’s a real “female issue” (which affects all of us, male and female): the very small number of female science faculty. I agree with you that generalization is dangerous, and that there are always going to be exceptions, but if there are generalizable male/female differences in career decision-making, we should discuss them openly.

    “What I can’t figure out how to teach is ambition. ”

    Can’t be taught, sorry. At least not by college professors. You might be able to do it with your children, but I find even that to be very difficult. The trick seems to be to expose them to many different experiences, which maximizes the chances that they get interested enough in something that they really enjoy it, want to do better at it, and become ambitious. Enrichment of this sort works within specific academic pursuits (e.g., biology class in middle of high school: if the teacher sets up lots of different angles through which to view biology, it maximizes the chance that any given child will develop an interest) and across a child’s life (outside-school activities).

    But with college kids and beyond? Come on. Either they bring their own ambition or they don’t – and if they don’t bring a threshold level, they don’t belong in school. I’m not in the business of teaching my grad students how to be ambitious. I can show them the road, but they need to bring their own engine.


  49. Rheophile Says:

    On resilience, and the personality types it selects for:

    “If I had feelings, I probably wouldn’t have even survived.” –Richard Nixon on losing the Presidency.


  50. B Says:

    Definitely fits with my own career narrative. I probably have a good personality for absorbing constant frustration. That’s partly developed from having a fair amount of (academic) stress as a kid. Graduate school felt like more of the same.


  51. jmz4 Says:

    “Why is ambition equated with playing in the majors?”
    Just my 2¢, but I think it is a very particular type of ambition.
    As to qaz, i don’t think it is worth trying to instill, unless you think they are truly exceptional. It doesn’t make them happier, and it isn’t like there aren’t a shortage of people with the endogenous ambition.

    I do wonder more broadly about the kind of traits we select for with this grueling gauntlet, and what (if anything) we leave behind when we do so.
    Is there a trade off for resilience?


  52. qaz Says:

    @NeurallySound – Ambition is about a lot more than academia, but it is always about playing in the majors in whatever field you want to go into.

    Choosing to leave because you don’t want to put up with shit is exactly about a lack of ambition. Being the best at anything means putting up with shit and developing coping strategies, whether you are in academia, writing, running a business, changing policy, or actually playing in the NFL. One can make a great life for oneself without ambition, but one cannot play in the majors (in any field, academic or otherwise) without ambition.

    @DM – this is exactly the issue. I see people who could be great, but lack ambition so they take a quieter job, and then tell me years later with regret “I coulda done that, couldn’t I?”

    @JMZ4 and Grumble – The problem is that there are lots of potentially great people who really can contribute in the majors and change the world for the better, but get shut out not because they don’t have the chops, but because they don’t have the ambition. Often that lack of ambition reveals itself as a lack of resilience, but the more I see this, the more convinced I am that it is a lack of ambition to learn the coping strategies necessary to have resilience rather than a true lack of resilience. I am also convinced that we are (as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it in that great interview about being pushed away from astrophysics) “leaving a lot of talent behind”. If I could convince these kids (college/grad, but still kids) that they *could* be as ambitious as the (much less talented) ILAF compatriots, I think they could contribute more to the world than a lot of their ILAF compatriots.


  53. I agree with qaz, Being ambitious doesn’t have to mean staying in academia. It is possible to be ambitious and choose to teach in high school. How ambition plays out depends on the desired goals–it is about the desire to be successful and/or achieve goals, not about the desire to be a PI on the TT. Most of my grad students never wanted to stay in academia (this is common in my field–I didn’t want to stay in academia as a student), but that doesn’t make them not ambitious.


  54. NeurallySound Says:

    That was exactly the point I was making. Students can have high ambition without the desire to stay in academia. I had wrongly assumed in qaz’s original comment that they meant the majors to mean academia. I disagree though that not wanting to put up with the shit and low chances of success in academia is a lack of ambition, it just means your ambition is for something different.


  55. qaz Says:

    To be fair, I meant something a little different from what @ProdigalAcademic is saying. Teaching high school is important and can be an important contribution to society, but it is not ambitious. It takes skill and patience to teach high school and I (both personally and professionally) value it. What I mean by ambition is the idea that you are going to “stand out”, that you are going to change the world. (And, yes, I mean that literally.) I mean that if you are going to write novels, then those novels are going to be read by more than your close family. Instead, you are going to try to make those novels best sellers (*). In academia, this means becoming a scientist who discovers new things that contribute to our knowledge. It usually means being a PI at a TT-level institution. (**)

    * Some novels can change the world without being best-sellers [like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce]. Many of the most important poets of any generation have not been best-sellers. But I think everyone knows what I mean here.

    ** Again, there are exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule.

    One can live a very good life quietly, teaching high school or working in a lab at a pharmaceutical company. I have friends who made it their life goal to raise their families and be happy. That’s great. They are smart and happy (and successful in that they have achieved their life’s goals). But they are not ambitious.

    Importantly, I do not mean solely academia. But I do mean ambition. I do mean playing in the major leagues in whatever field you go into.


  56. drugmonkey Says:

    The idea that most PIs in tenured appointments, with NIH grants are gong to “change the world” is comically flawed and wrong. The delusional self-arrogance part is fine, no worries there. But when we start pretending every grant and every lab is going to do Nobel work, we move into a zone that is acutely harmful for science.


  57. Grumble Says:

    Since when does a world-changing scientific result imply that it is Nobel-level?


  58. NeurallySound Says:

    With the state of academia being what it is, I’d say that you’re more likely to change the world outside of it than in. Assuming a bachelor’s degree, phd, 5 year post doc, and 7 year tenure process, if you don’t get tenure you’re minimum 40 and starting a new career. Where would you be if you instead focused your efforts and ambition in a system that’s not broken?


  59. qaz Says:

    Not every NFL player makes the hall of fame. But it is still a very select few who end up playing in the NFL. Not every actor wins an academy award or makes millions of dollars for each movie, but there’s still a big difference between someone above the title-line and someone doing community theater on their weekends for a hobby. I would argue that a PI with an NIH grant (particularly running a long-term successful research lab and publishing in quality journals) is comparable to playing in the major leagues (pick your favorite sport) or an actor with a name above the title-line.

    What I see is a lot of people who could play in the NFL, some of whom might well end up in the hall of fame, but who don’t have the arrogance or the ambition to want to learn the coping strategies to do that.


  60. AcademicLurker Says:

    Meh. Given how over crowded and under funded the system is already, I don’t see “not enough people are trying to become TT PIs” as even remotely a problem.

    I mean, I managed to snag the coveted brass ring of being tenured at an R1 institution and running my own lab. But I think back to when I was in my early 30s doing my second postdoc, and realize that things easily could have turned out differently for reasons totally outside my control. “Resilience” played only a small role.

    Picture a compulsive gambler who stays at the table and keeps playing despite losing his house, his car, and his life savings. He’s down to his last $1,000, bets on a long 10,000 to 1 shot…and wins! He’s rich! Is that the story of a person whose resilience payed off in the end, or is it the story of a person who was saved from the consequences of his self destructive behavior by dumb luck?


  61. So you wouldn’t consider Jaime Escalante (the teacher profiled in Stand and Deliver) ambitious? Ambition doesn’t mean you want to change the world, necessarily. It could be more local.

    And I didn’t move back into academia to change the world, but I wouldn’t consider myself not ambitious.


  62. NeurallySound Says:

    AcademicLurker- hear hear. Being talented and ambitious is the entry requirement, not enough to actually be successful. This blog alone covers at length the random elements that go into how well a grant does.

    Qaz- what I see is talented people who’ve decided that being a lawyer or a politician or one of a hundred other things is a more realistic venue to cultivate their ambition rather than gamble on the correct set of circumstances coming together in order for their talent on the football field to be realized into a successful career, and their football coach is grouchy that these kids don’t have the ambition to make it happen.


  63. qaz Says:

    Once again, people have attacked the straw man of “ambition=academia”. If you go back over my comments, you will see that I have not only never made that claim, I have explicitly rejected it. What I said in the beginning was that for my students who had ambition, I could teach them resilience because what they needed to learn was coping strategies, but that I had a lot of students who didn’t have ambition, and that I couldn’t teach them ambition.

    Sure, let’s give Escalante ambition – they made a major motion picture out of him. How many high school teachers can say that? But that’s the exception that proves the rule. You don’t think Escalante had resilience? That whole movie is about resilience.

    What I see are people who’ve decided that being a shopkeeper is a more realistic venue to handle their lack of ambition and resilience. I would be happy if they became a top-flight lawyer or a successful politician or a hundred other things, as long as they were ambitious about it.

    Again, the point is the people with ambition want to learn resilience. I can teach those with ambition resilience. What I can’t teach is ambition, and I wish I could.

    Importantly, several of those students who’ve taken jobs well beneath their talent levels have come back to me years later expressing regret at their choices. Escalante’s not the right example, it’s “I coulda been a contender.”


  64. Trainee of the Creepy Crawlies Says:

    Picture a compulsive gambler who stays at the table and keeps playing despite losing his house, his car, and his life savings. He’s down to his last $1,000, bets on a long 10,000 to 1 shot…and wins! He’s rich! Is that the story of a person whose resilience payed off in the end, or is it the story of a person who was saved from the consequences of his self destructive behavior by dumb luck?

    Ouch. That hits a bit close to home.

    Training for resilience: my PI sometimes says, “Here is something you should do. It’ll be difficult, but it’s a good thing to do and will make you better, and I have every faith that you can do it.” And then the next thing is a bit harder, and the next thing is a bit harder. This has been helpful. It’s not responding to specific punches per se so much as it is putting myself out there to be punched, but it’s reinforced the idea that each challenge or hard thing isn’t a big unique crisis. It’s just one more thing to be gotten through because that’s how life goes.

    She’s also shared some of her earlier struggles, which helps. If resilience is “get up every time a wave knocks you over, ’cause they’re not gonna stop coming,” then it’s helpful to make the connection “hey, this person I look up to has gotten knocked down a lot.”


  65. I got my PhD in a lab where my Asst/Assoc prof PI protected us from many of the realities of his job (including the sting of rejection). Even though I wish he had been more transparent (I would have felt better prepared), I’ve turned out to be a pretty resilient person. I suspect this has more to do with my upbringing and childhood experiences than what happened to me in grad school.

    Nonetheless, I try my best to encourage resilience and perseverance in my students. Our lab mascot is the Honey Badger. And I am very transparent with all of them about the various details of my job, proposal writing, failures, etc. They have seen me suffer and then succeed, both professionally and personally. I do my best to lead by example. I actively discuss trying again, working hard, and not taking things personally.

    But- as is mentioned above, there is no teaching ambition. And resilience without ambition is fairly useless. Haven’t figured that one out yet.


  66. Grumpy Says:

    The reason why everyone is “misunderstanding” you is because your characterization about what the majors mean in science doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    Why would you assume a TT professor with a single R01 at a middle-of-the-road R1 is necessarily be more ambitious than a senior scientist at Genentech, a group leader at a DOE lab, or a seasoned HS teacher who is beloved by an entire town?


  67. xykademiqz Says:

    Being transparent about the job, and especially the struggles and frustrations with the constant battle for funding, have so far mostly resulted in my students overwhelmingly getting bummed out and not wanting to pursue academia. One told me the other day that the academic job is just too hard. (He’s a person who’s genius-level brilliant.) Maybe I would not have done it either if I had as much info as my students have, or if my PhD advisor hadn’t been well funded through old-boy channels. But I probably would have, because I never wanted to do anything else; I suppose that’s what ambition means.

    Indeed, I consider myself very ambitious (i.e., I’d love to be at a top-5 school), but things also change over time. As resilient as you are, getting knocked down and getting back up over and over again does take a toll. The worst thing is becoming cowardly, tempering your vision… And forgetting that grants are not an end unto themselves (as college administration would have you believe) but a means to do science. Every new proposal cycle fills you with dread, because you see you will do all this work and likely nothing will come out of it. What a waste of time. I know how to get back up after being knocked down a few times, but I don’t know how to teach myself or anyone else to be fine with what now seem like endless decades ahead of being knocked down. I mean, how much resilience are we talking here? This is just soul sucking. My students are likely smart to not want to go anywhere near this career.


  68. Dpg Says:

    I consider myself a hard cookie, but I’ve always had trouble with self-esteem and rejection. As a grad student, I once got rejected from 2 selective summer schools over the course of a few days. I was complaining/talking about it on FB, wondering about what I had done wrong in the application, whether I just didn’t have it in me and should do something else, etc. Then a former teacher, who I highly regard, write a single comment on that thread, something like “rejections happen all the time in science. You shouldn’t second guess everything each time that happens.”
    Because it came from a prof I highly esteemed, this single comment was enough for me to learn to let go. Now I still have a plan B, but don’t sweat every rejection/setback despite bits of imposter syndrome.


  69. NeurallySound Says:

    There’s a balance between being transparent and exposing students to stressors they’re not prepared to cope with yet. If someone dumped the entire reality of the funding crisis on me on my first day of grad school I probably would have had a panic attack because I hadn’t ever really thought about what I’d do if science didn’t work out. In the same vein, though, many people don’t drop students into the deep end of research without any guidance. Just like research skills, coping skills are built and developed, not an all or none deal. My PI first taught me that if any individual solution to a problem doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t matter just try another. Then it was any given hypothesis or experiment, then it was if my fellowship application didn’t work out. Start with manageable problems and build.

    However, I think it’s dishonest to not provide students with a realistic view of what making a career out of academia really means eventually.


  70. jmz4 Says:

    “Picture a compulsive gambler who stays at the table and keeps playing despite losing his house, his car, and his life savings. He’s down to his last $1,000, bets on a long 10,000 to 1 shot…and wins! He’s rich! Is that the story of a person whose resilience payed off in the end, or is it the story of a person who was saved from the consequences of his self destructive behavior by dumb luck?”
    And does anyone besides me think there is a problem with creating a whole professoriate that is selected for stubbornness and inflexibility?


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