Why the "Usual Approaches" to career challenges often make very little difference in the long run.
Research careers hold out the promise of freedom to pursue interesting and world-impacting research. Yet in the current environment, it is easy to find oneself often stuck, frustrated, and losing sight of why you started this career in the first place.
These issues frequently impact female and minority researchers even more acutely. With less of a willingness (or ability) to “sacrifice everything” just to meet the milestones of success set forth by the powers that be, there is substantial, disconcerting drop-off in ongoing career participation at the higher rungs of success. However, regardless of gender or minority status, these pressures negatively affect all researchers.
The natural reaction for most researchers is to deal with these pressures by alternatively acceding to them — and then sometimes fighting back against them.
On the acceding side, approaches include trying to be more productive, trying to get more papers and grants out the door, and trying to be seen in a positive light by peers and those evaluating promotion and tenure. Unfortunately, this often ends up in a hamster-wheel where you never seem to quite “catch up” to where you “should be.” “Success” is always on the horizon, and though sometimes it may seem to come closer, it never stays close.
On the fighting side, it’s natural to take up the torch with difficult collaborators, colleagues, or even those on your team who seem like they’re on the opposite page of where you want them to be when it comes to the research moving forward. It’s easy to get angry at seemingly “stupid” and/or “lazy” reviewers who don’t seem to do the work they should be doing to deeply evaluate your proposals and manuscripts. It is easy to get aggravated at all those who seem to play politics so well, thinking you didn’t get into research to play politics: you got into it to do research.
I’ve been there and tried both of those approaches. I experienced that things just continued downhill — even though I had managed to bring in large amounts of grant funding.
After years of acceding to their demands and seeming to just be a door mat who was trampled all over, I decided to fight.
Those fights were initially satisfying to no longer feel like a door mat, but they never seemed to get me anywhere. Instead, the fights just begat more fights. It was so frustrating!
It can be easy to feel stuck in between accession and fighting back — with neither seeming to work — and to ultimately become cynical. I have witnessed several friends and colleagues do exactly that: when they hit their 50s, they are jaded and just want to retire from this career that once seemed to hold so much promise. That’s sad for me to see — and it's unnecessary.
It wasn’t until I had my early-mid-career crisis, during a fight with my department over several issues of space and funding (even though I had worked very hard to bring in over $950M in grant funding), that I sent my resignation in. I lost my cool in one of the “fights”, and threw away my tenured job in one fell swoop.
Is that the solution? Just quitting and finding something (or somewhere) else?
Unfortunately, quitting that institution and moving to another did not solve my issues, despite my hope that it would. I landed with the same “fight or accede” mentality at the next institution, and it produced the same results the next time around. I ended up quitting the new job a few years later, also feeling very disappointed over similar issues to what I’d faced before.
My quitting two universities in a row — and throwing away the research career I’d trained for decades — led to a deep period of introspection.
During that period, I came to know one thing:
The one problem common to all the negative experiences I’d had was me.
I was the problem — not those other things or people.
Research careers are about as challenging as they get. When faced with the inevitable challenges, neither fighting back, nor acceding and trying to “make them happy” works. Quitting the job — after decades of investment of time and money leading up to it — is just another “accession.”
In my case, when I quit I was both ‘fighting back’ to say “screw you” by taking the funding with me, and I was acceding to the exhaustion.
There are many clients I’ve worked with since then who are at various stages of this fight or accede process; some are nearing readiness to quit, some would never dream of it. Yet in either case they’re often working very hard, sacrificing family and life balance to try to make a research career work to chase the ever-receding horizon of “recognition” (aka “external success”).
In the early years of my introspection after quitting the real problem came into focus: I and most people, when faced with these challenges, try to change the outside world to improve the situation.
I saw this too, while working with clients who were showing up with similar external problems like what I had faced.
They had problems with space, funding, collaborators, their team, and so on — and often appeared to be in endless loops of either fighting these things or acceding to them, sometimes alternating between the two.
The real problem is that it simply doesn’t work to try to “force change” on other people.
Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like we’re asking them to change, when we often are.
For example, when we want our promotion/tenure committee to “like us,” we are actually trying to exert a sort of “mind control” on them. It may not seem nefarious at first glance, yet frustration is the inevitable result when the committee doesn’t agree with our designated plan for how they should think about us.
When we want grant and/or paper reviewers to be “impressed” we are also attempting mind control. We want the reviewer to see us in a positive light, yet frustratingly often they do not. Our mind control attempts fail because other people cannot be controlled in the way we would like.
When we fight back with collaborators who may seem to be taking more than they’re giving, they generally don’t change; instead we just end up with more exhausting fights. I’ve been there and done that too many times to count.
It is a self-evident truth that our power to change the world — and especially other people — is generally vain and futile. It may occasionally yield what seems like progress, only to fade and be replaced by similar problems with just another person’s face on them.
Our only true power to make changes is within ourselves.
This means changing our thoughts, our actions, and our habits to those that are more functional, to yield more of what it is we want from our career — and our precious, time-limited life.
It is not easy to do.
It is easier — albeit far less effective — to fight or accede. When a department chair tells you to “just submit more grant proposals” (regardless of quality or readiness) it may be easier to just accede to the demand.
Later, maybe you “lose it” and blow up with your department chair, fighting back and yelling at them (like I did). That doesn’t work very well, either.
Yet our only power to change is within us.
The power to identify: what is it in me that caused this situation in the first place? How did I invite this behavior from the department chair into my life? Why did I invite repeated rejection from grant reviewers?
Then, once you identify things, to go about changing those things within yourself that created the situations. That’s the only thing you can change with any reliability.
In the years that followed quitting, I identified a litany of “issues” I had had that led to the many difficult situations during those jobs — which no amount of “hard work” (acceding) or “yelling” (fighting) could fix. I realized exactly how these issues had produced the frustrating situations I experienced while there.
For example, I lacked the inner confidence, I didn't believe that I was deserving and capable enough to maintain the success I had achieved. Sure, I could project external confidence to “impress” people — and even to sometimes convince myself — but it was no more substantive than a scarecrow guarding a field.
The more grant funding I got, the worse the disconnect became between my lacking inner confidence versus the outer appearance of success. While it solved some of my problems, having more funding made others worse (like the fights with my department over space).
In over a decade of working with clients, one principle has emerged: the only lasting progress towards a more enjoyable and sustainable career (and life) comes from going to work on the inner causes of problems (like in my case the lack of inner confidence). All other forms of work produce ephemeral results. Inner work is the only thing that produces lasting results.
So, if inner work is the only way to get lasting results, why isn’t everyone doing it?
There are two major reasons.
First, it is hard work. It is much harder than the other kinds of “hard work” (like long hours) that most of us are accustomed to. That’s because our Ego really doesn’t like change. It actively resists change, and will fight back in very tricky, often inconspicuous ways. This is why so many New Year's resolutions are soon forgotten, the Ego simply doesn’t want to change, even if change is sorely needed.
Second, we humans are often very ineffective at the kind of introspection required to identify the dysfunctional beliefs and habits that have been causing us problems. Often we see them as “reality” rather than seeing them as “just a belief.” This problem is compounded by the tricks that the Ego will play to avoid change, making it even more difficult to identify and change those things that are causing us problems.
After years of work on myself, and investing in a great deal of outside-my-head help, I started seeing major, positive changes in my life. The drama and politics I used to experience diminished, and the overall efficacy increased.
In turn, I helped many clients achieve similar results — substantially increasing career and life satisfaction, while reducing the drama, frustration, and the unnecessary over-work that often goes with research jobs.
I created the Research Success Alliance to translate those results to a wider group of researchers than the small cadre I’d intensively worked with.
It doesn’t have to be a struggle. Whether you love the job and want to stay, or whether you want to get out and move on — there needn’t be such drama, challenge, and over-work/overwhelm. However, you have to commit.
The results speak for themselves:
Confidence! - This is still a work in progress, but I no longer feel that having confidence is something I can only dream of. Now I feel more comfy in my own skin and skillsets, and places where I need work, I know there are actionable steps I can take. My grant writing - writing skills in general - have improved. And I am better at attracting people I want to work with, and creating boundaries.
Tanya Garcia, Associate Professor, UNC Chapel Hill
I feel less overwhelmed, less over-worked, less isolated. and more consistently productive (instead of a "boom and bust" cycle). The quality of both my manuscripts and my mentoring and supervising has improved, and these things are a lot more fun. My work is more aligned with my core interests, and I have a clearer sense of how to view my work in terms of contributing to the broader community. —
Tamara Newton, University of Louisville
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