Bad things will happen. Strategies on how to deal with them.

7 Jan

By Pleuni Pennings & Gina Baucom

Yesterday I was talking to two students from my CS class. I asked how they were doing and they said: Not good, we are stuck and frustrated. So, I talked to them about how being stuck is a normal part of coding and that they need to find strategies for themselves to deal with being stuck. I shared some of my own strategies. Two of my favorites are (1) taking a break to walk over to the other building to buy coffee and (2) taking a piece of paper and writing down what I am working on to get my thoughts organized.

Just like I know that students who are learning Python will get stuck, I know that all of us will have to deal with all kinds of shit that will happen during our career. This is especially true for those who are underrepresented, like women, people of color and LGBTQ folks (and most of all, those who intersect these categories).

You may not get accepted in a PhD program. Your paper may get rejected, or take forever to be accepted. You are overlooked for a prize. You may not get the job, the grant, the raise, the sabbatical you applied for. Worse: someone else who is less qualified will get those jobs and grants and raises. Then, if you do get the job or the prize, someone may say that you only got it because you’re a woman / person of color — you name it. You may not get invited to be part of collaborations, even when you are obviously the right person for it. People may say nasty things about you. You may be bullied or harassed. You may be asked to do more work than your colleagues, and the work you do will not be recognized.

One hears: “Rejection is part of the job. Better deal with it.” But how? How do we deal with the shit that happens? 

Even if rejection and disappointment are part of our job, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. Discrimination and unfairness should not be part of anyone’s job so that hurts double.

It’d be good if we learned strategies on how to deal with the bad things that happen. Of course, if something happens that needs reporting to police or the Title IX office – that should happen. But in this case I am thinking about things that are not illegal, but still really bad. How do you process super unfair (or maybe just shitty) things so that you can move forward? 

I brought this up with Gina, we talked about it, and thought it might be helpful to write a blog post about general strategies that we developed for dealing with really bad or annoying shit during our careers thus far. So, here are some of our strategies.

It’s OK to be angry

Know that it is OK to be angry and sad. When bad news arrives, often by email, you may want to take the day off, call a friend, cry, eat ice cream or walk along the beach. The last time I (Pleuni) did this was when I didn’t get a job that I had applied for. For me, job rejections are the hardest, because when I write that application letter, I not only imagine myself in a new department and with new colleagues, but I imagine myself in a new city, with a new life. To write a convincing letter, I need to imagine that new life, but when I get the rejection, I lose that imagined future.

Know why you are here & remind yourself of this

We think it is useful to try and create an inner compass by writing a personal statement for yourself. For example, you may write that you enjoy science, discovery and working in the lab, and that your goal is to make discoveries and share the joy of lab work. Now, if your paper is unreasonably rejected, go back and read why you are doing what you are doing, and schedule some of that science / discovery / lab work in your near future. It’ll remind you that the paper is only a part of why you are there. Beronda Montgomery has written about related things such as creating your own tenure rules. 

Fight

Even if rejection is part of the game, you can still fight rejection – at least in some cases. Paper rejections are a clear example of when you can fight the decision. Sometimes grant rejections and tenure rejections can be appealed too. Editors can change their mind and rebuttals are sometimes successful. No need to just roll over. Also, if you decide to go for another journal, consider making your paper bolder and aim for a more prestigious journal. 

Take time for your life outside of science.

Your hobbies, your family, your friends. Read a book, go for a hike, talk to a friend. 

Find your people in academia

Twitter and Facebook are good places to find your people, and there are groups on campus that may help you find your people as well. I (Gina) moved quite a bit when growing up, and from that experience, developed a theory that it takes at least 2 years once in a new place to *really* find your people – by that I mean the people that get you, celebrate with you, will be honest with you, and will forgive you when you screw up, i.e. real friends. Don’t give up trying to strike up friendships. It is true that it becomes more difficult to make friends as you get older, but it is so important that you have people that check in with you, and people that you check in on. 

Talk to a therapist

Speaks for itself. Therapists, counselors, coaches and others can help us deal with things! 

Be inspired by heroes

I (Pleuni) find that reading about others who overcame adversity is truly inspiring. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 30 years and he didn’t give up! Closer to home, when my work on soft sweeps was harshly criticized, it was nice to read that the original and now classic work on selective sweeps by Haigh and Maynard-Smith was also criticized in published papers.

Move

If shit tends to come from one particular direction, see if you can avoid that place. I (Pleuni) know of someone who moved to a different floor in their building to avoid certain people. It helped! Maybe it helps to work in a different lab, slightly change the topic you work on, choose a different journal you submit to? And if you decide that you need to leave the academic world, that’s OK too. There are fun and important jobs in many places. No guarantee that there is less shit to deal with, but it may be easier for you to deal with. A friend left academia to go work for the police. She prefers the shit she encounters in this openly macho world to the polite shit she had to deal with in the academic world.  

Use your anger

Some of the best things come out of anger. I (Gina) & Meg Duffy started the Diversify EEB list (this type of list now exists in many fields) to do something with the annoyance of often seeing a low number of white women and persons of color winning awards in ecology and evolution. It does seem like this trend is changing/has changed (at least for gender). 

Help someone else

When I (Pleuni) was a postdoc at Harvard and my papers were getting rejected it made me very angry. Of course, I knew that I was in a privileged situation, working at Harvard with a super friendly advisor. But the paper rejections were frustrating nevertheless, and maybe even more so at Harvard where it felt like everyone was so successful. One of the things that helped me feel better was a volunteer job I did for a little bit. I helped adults prepare for their GEDs (high school equivalent for adults). The students were mostly young black men who had spent their high school years in jail, but who were now working hard to learn math. I enjoyed the teaching, it made me forget my own struggles, and the students inspired me to not give up (they were not giving up, so why would I?)

Final note

On a final note, we want to be clear that the above examples of bad things that happen – especially bad behavior that falls under sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying – is not ever your fault. We’re not suggesting that if you are targeted with this type of behavior that you should just ‘suck it up and deal’, but instead, and depending on your circumstances, you should report to a trusted advisor or administrator. However, when bad things like that happen, similar to other bad things like grant and paper rejections, we still have to process it so that we can move forward. The above suggestions are the ways in which we have learned to process a range of bad experiences, some of which are common to every scientist and others that are largely experienced by white women, persons of color, and other minorities (those marginalized by racism, sexism, homophobia). We hope that you find these tips helpful, and if you have other solutions, we’d love to hear them. 

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