After successfully going through the application process, you started off your graduate program excited and with the confidence to learn whatever necessary to be successful. Perhaps now classes are not easy to navigate or your relationship with your PI is not what you expected. Although you have learned a little, you cannot quite reach your goals and are starting to feel unmotivated. As a postdoc you came into a new lab having successfully overcome all those obstacles in graduate school. Now you are confident you know how to move forward with your career. Much to your chagrin, learning a new technique has required far more time and effort than you expected and now you are panicking about meeting application deadlines. Perhaps the new lab has a different style of communicating from your previous one that leaves you feeling out of place.

Perhaps your enthusiasm is starting to look like the “trough of disillusionment” in the Gartner Hype Cycle. It is common for trainees to reach a point where they feel stuck and think they will never be able to catch up to their peers more than once. They take it as a sign they should give up. Instead, it may be a sign that they have not trained their “resiliency muscles” adequately.

Does it ever seem to you like some people seem to keep moving along with hardly anything standing in their way? This is not true; they have developed a resilient mindset to meet the challenges before them. Resilience is the ability to adapt and grow when faced with adversity. Resilience does not mean telling yourself everything will be fine if you keep pushing yourself forward without direction. Having resilience helps us navigate the inevitable challenges that arise with the intention and awareness necessary to find a constructive path forward. Resilience also includes recognizing what challenges we do not need to push through. Luckily, this is not an innate behaviour; we all can learn and improve this skill through education, self-reflection, and practice.

Skills for resilience

There are foundational skills that allow us to adopt resilient attitudes and behaviors.

  1. Cultivating self-awareness
  2. Being willing to change the situation or oneself
  3. Being willing to persist or let go of a goal
  4. Setting realistic expectations and accepting what cannot be controlled
  5. Accessing positive emotions while acknowledging and feeling the negative ones
  6. Setting boundaries for both time and commitments

Tools for building resilience

Journaling is one tool that can be harnessed to develop the foundational skills. Journaling gives yourself the chance to reflect on your current thoughts and feelings without worrying about what others will think of you. Your journal is solely for you. Journaling may be thought of as something done by scientists of the past such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, but it can help today’s scientists in a world with a different set of expectations. Revisiting previous entries can allow you to identify unhealthy patterns and personal growth over time. It is easy to forget how far we have come when facing a new challenge!

Mindfulness has been a buzzword flying around everywhere lately and for good reason. It is the second tool that can be used to build resiliency. The first step to building resilience is accepting who we are, where we are, how we are feeling, and what we are thinking. By approaching thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way, we can begin to reflect and, ultimately, take action. There are resources online to help you get started and many institutions now offer mindfulness training specifically for trainees.

We can learn about resilience from others. Building a community of people around you that you can discuss strategies for taking care of yourself. Getting feedback on how to change habits that are not serving you is incredibly useful. There is only so much introspection that can be done before outside help is necessary. There is a give and take in these relationships. Feeling connected to others by helping them as a mentor or volunteering in your community is a part of building up resilience.

The last tool that would be remiss to leave out is therapy and support groups. Perhaps you feel a certain amount of stigma around the idea of professional help. The brain may be the subject of your research, but your brain is your most important resource in the research environment for attacking the problem at hand. A neutral third party can identify maladaptive coping mechanisms (hello imposter fears!) and replace them with ones that will allow you to bring your most creative self to the bench.

Journaling Exercises

Here are a few exercises to get you started:

  1. When you faced a problem with resilience, what attitudes and behaviors helped you be successful?
  2. At a time when you were not as resilient as you would have liked, what attitudes and behaviors were counter to your resilience?
  3. Who are the people in your community you can turn to when meeting challenging times? Give specific examples of how people in your lab, program, institution, family, and non-academic communities supported you (including online).
  4. What resources do you have at your disposal for development of your project, education, career, and personal development? Talk to your community members to expand the list.

This article was adapted from a portion of the NIH Becoming a Resilient Scientist Series by Sharon Milgram, PhD, Director, OITE. You can follow her on Twitter: @SHARONMILGRAM and @NIH_OITE