I wrote this in 2016… it still rings true
I got asked by a postgrad student a few weeks ago about some of my experiences as a researcher. I kind of felt like I wasn’t the person to be asking as I worry that if I should actually impart advice to people that might actually listen to me, and I’d somehow feel responsible if things went tits up based on my advice. However, when I was new to the whole research thing I often blundered about in a vaguely directionless manner (both literally and metaphorically) and nuggets of advice were invaluable to me. Also, thinking about it, I started my PhD almost 10 years ago. I’ve grown up a lot, I’ve had a lot of experiences, and I’ve managed to work a few things out.
1. Accept that you’re crazy
Don’t tell me you’re in the lab at 10.30pm on Friday night because of “science”. You’re in the lab rather than a pub with your mates, or dancing in a club, or collapsed on the sofa watching Netflix fisting popcorn into your face, or in bed doing that sleep thing that is essential for mental health, because you’re crazy.
My perfect Saturday night
The sooner that you can accept this fact, the sooner you can progress to the other things I have indicated below. I’ve done plenty of quite frankly ridiculous things during my career in academia. I’ve driven to work at 2am because I was worried about a mouse I’d done brain surgery on, I wrote my thesis in 16 hour shifts or until the sun came up, I’ve marked so many exams my hand has cramped and my fingers bled, I fell in a watermaze trying to fish a rat out of a pool of crap filled water, I inadvertently put kisses at the end of an email to my PhD supervisor, and I also called my PhD supervisor “dad” once by accident (hmm, maybe I should talk about this to someone professional)…
Utilise your crazy as a basis for creativity and passion for learning. Have weird unique ideas. Tell people about them. Laugh about all the dumb shit that goes wrong on a daily basis. Mental health actually comes with accepting that you do crazy things because you are passionate about your job, and believe in what you are doing.
Stop being a judgemental douche and accept that everyone here is in the same boat that’s sailing off to the looney bin. Plus you can legitimately use “I’m solely responsible for a colony of genetically mutated mice” as an excuse to get out of jury duty.
2 Appreciate the little things
This is one thing I don’t do very often as the little awesome things get clouded in all the huge shit storms, or the daily crap that life throws at you. But I’ve realised that for the maintenance of my own mental health I sometimes have to take a step back and think “hey, I kicked arse at that”.
I spent my PhD looking for validation that what I was doing was ok, as I really didn’t have much confidence in myself. I judged myself too harshly on things in the past. I felt like paper getting rejected was basically the end of my career, and I would nit pick at things like a grammatical error in a publication with my name on. I didn’t celebrate the big things, or the little things, and in a job where you are constantly criticised and under scrutiny this got me down to breaking point. I don’t want to write down the celebratory worthy shit I didn’t acknowledge, I felt that it was never noticed by people in my department, so I shouldn’t take pride in it. This is shit. Don’t be me or my stupid brain. Who cares if your head of department doesn’t send you a congratulatory email when you win a prize. Buy yourself a new dress / bottle of expensive whisky / get your hair done – and every time you look at it remind yourself that you kick arse.
Leading a lab group taught me a lot about how I wanted to be treated, and in turn how I should treat myself. I like drinking and being sociable, so to celebrate getting papers accepted champagne and pizza is called for. I got an award last year and got to take friends with me to the ceremony where we got dressed up and drank free booze and celebrated things we achieved. Simultaneously, if you see someone else is doing well – TELL THEM. When I see someone I know just got an amazing paper – I congratulate those people.
Also, free food is good food. As is free wine. Never turn it down.
3 Nobody is perfect, you in particular
As an extension of point 1, stop taking yourself so seriously. Take your job seriously, take your career seriously, take science seriously. But really, when you think about it, we’re all just cogs in a machine. I don’t want to have a heart attack at 42 because I’ve worried so much about the quality of my immunohistochemistry staining or whether I should have submitted a paper to a more highly regarded journal.
Sometimes things go wrong. One time a rat conditioning chamber actually set on fire while I was in the room. I don’t even know how that happened. I’ve learnt that if the machine makes a cracking noise as you use brute force to get something to go in to it, you’ve probably broken it. The lesson here is to stop pushing when you reach resistance, take a step back, and discover that the well plate is round the wrong way.
Ok, the lesson here really is don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t admit to making mistakes. You are human, and sometimes stuff goes wrong. The correct way to handle these situations is to fess up, have a cry (inward or outwardly – I favour the latter), then go down the pub, get drunk and laugh about yourself.
Furthermore to this, as I’ve now experienced mess ups from the supervisory angle, by telling your supervisor of said mess up, nine times out of ten something can be done about it to ameliorate the detrimental impact, or at least stop it from happening again. Win!
4 Don’t shy away from opportunities
Pre-2007 I’d never been on a plane by myself and I was really nervous about everything from how I was going to get to the airport, to how the hell I was meant to get through customs. I put on my big girl pants and went to America for a neuroscience conference where I knew no people. I was terrified. Guess what, I made some awesome friends that I still hit up for beers and crash space when I’m in America. I actually enjoy going to conferences, it’s the highlight of my work, but I used to worry about not knowing people there and looking like a no mates loser. Well, as we now know, from point 1, most of us share a mutual crazy, so just go chat to people.
Also, take business cards with you. Academia still uses these. Get really pretty ones made, not just scummy bits of shitty card with streaky printing on. People will coo over them, and if they don’t – point out how awesome they are. Someone important might remember you.
5 Stop comparing yourself to other people
I’m a competitive person, but I’m not going to lose sleep over the fact that there are people who are younger, cleverer, better funded, more cited and have incredible labs at top unis. I’m basically happy in the fact that I have a job and I get to do interesting research. A major component of my job is that get paid to play with rats and talk about science. I like both of these things. Imagine working a monotonous admin job you don’t care about. Suddenly having to do 4 hours of putting a rat in a box and then making pretty pictures during analysis isn’t so bad.
I used to sit and Pubmed search people I knew and get all sad that I didn’t have as many publications as them, and that I didn’t have a Nature paper, and then feel shit about myself. 99% of getting a Science/Nature paper is luck. Lots of people with Science/Nature papers are boring weirdos who live in laboratories thinking that they aren’t crazy, but there are also awesome people who have worked really hard and got lucky at the same time.
If I want to get competitive really my main strengths are that I’m really good at holding my booze and I have had some amazing drunken adventures. Further to this, I’m actually a pretty decent person, who cares about what they do and the people around me.