Worried, overwhelmed not sure if the struggle will pay off? Here, I want to introduce you to the topic of resilience. It is a quality that you can train and grow over time. Resilience helps in dealing with stress and overwhelm to bounce back to a happier and healthier pursuit of your goals in science. Being in science can be demanding. Stress and overwhelm are very common amongst PhDs, Post-Docs and PIs.
The latest big PhD survey in Nature in 2017 and in the Paper of Katja Levecque et al. about work organization and mental health problems of PhD students paint a fairly clear picture. PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to get mental health problems than the highly educated in the general population. The main predictors for that are job demands, your family-work relationship, job control and inspirational leadership (Levecque et al., 2017).
If there constantly are high demands, an unbalanced family-work relationship, the lack of control for what you do at work and a lack of inspirational leadership, your nervous system will be challenged. After a while, you’re at risk of losing control. Each of us have a different tolerance for stress, but even the thickest tree will fall, if the storms are too strong. Instead of just dealing with the stress and resisting as much as possible there is another way. Storms might brake trees, but they’ll have a harder time with bamboo or grass. Resilience is the power to bounce back from adversity. You feel the stress, but it does not break you, instead, you learn to let it pass. What makes us resilient and how can we use it in science? To become more resilient we can make changes on three different levels – environmental changes, cognitive changes and habitual changes. Meaning, how we prepare ourselves to feel less stress, how we think about our challenges and how we regenerate and recharge after a period of stress. One thing we can do is to work on our networks and connections to other people. The truth is that PhD students are hired to become experts. To become the person that knows the most in the world about a particular niche of a subject. Specialization creates loneliness, if the wrong system is in place. Studies such as the one conducted by Emmy Werner on the Hawaiian island Kauai show that we need at least one person in our network that tells us that we’re good enough and that we’re able when things are not going well.
We need to remember that great discoveries are rarely achieved alone. And we all depended on the help of others to get where we are now. Watson had his Crick, Daniel Kahneman had his friend Amos Tversky and Einstein was lucky to have a wife smarter than him. So, my first tip is to surround yourself with people, who believe in you, even though your work might not be successful yet. You can find those people and change your environment by asking better questions.
This is my second suggestion, seriously, ask better questions. A lot of people told me that it wouldn’t be possible to reduce my working hours as a Postdoc to pursue a second career. But simple questions and a boss, who was willing to listen and saw the benefits instead of the problems helped. I could reduce my hours to 50 %, then 40 % and finally a B.Sc. student helped me in the lab before I decided to found my own company. There are three secrets to asking. First, observe if the person you’re asking is ready to receive your question. Second, be specific and only ask for one thing at a time and third stop talking after you’ve asked your question and wait for the response. You might not always get what you want, but then you have at least as much as you had in the first place. If you hear a no, you haven’t lost an opportunity, you’ve gained some experience.
The third tip is about surprises. We don’t like all the surprises we encounter during our PhD. The ones we like are called gifts and the ones we don’t like are called problems. My advice to become more resilient is to not confuse a gift or a problem with your personality. This either leads to entitlement or to depression. Instead, see the things for what they really are. This way you’ll learn to develop realistic Optimism instead of blind Optimism or Pessimism.
My last tip is ecotherapy, which is essentially going outside to relax and recharge. I’ve met and interviewed a doctor who has founded a successful burn-out clinic. He said that sometimes, when people came to him with feelings of overwhelm and worry, he would see that what they needed, are not any pills. He was convinced that all they needed was to take a break or walk through the forest an hour a day. Research should later prove him right, but his patients just wouldn’t follow his advice. He realized that they would take the pills though, if he wrote it on a receipt. So, he decided to change the things he would write on the receipt. He wrote things like: “Take a break 3 times a day for 10 minutes during working hours.” or “Have lunch in a park.” And people would start doing it. All they needed was the permission. So, my last tip is to be your own doctor and give yourself permission to relax.
Thank you very much for reading.