Of mantras and men

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Every now and again I engage in a deeply self-destructive behaviour. I liken it to a vice that preys on my insecurities and undoubtedly makes me feel utterly terrible after doing it. I sit in front of my computer and effectively stalk people I know from circles of academia. I look up their publications on Pubmed, I search for them on Research Gate, and I make myself feel terrible in the process.

And that is because comparison is the thief of joy.

I sit there and look at how many papers they’ve published, where they are published, whether they are first author… No stone unturned. I engage myself in finding out if they have reached the lofty academic appointment of lecturer yet. I sit there and beat myself up emotionally for having not published 30 papers already, for failing to get a Nature paper, stupidly convincing myself of injustices and favouritism. It is truly ridiculous that I compare myself with people who are 3 or 4 years further out of their PhDs than me, searching for cracks and holes in their CV, I gain little other than sinking feelings of insecurity.

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But in this competitive environment I am not alone. Fractions of those awarded PhDs make it to an academic appointment. Postdoctoral positions attract hundreds of applications for one job. Many of these openings aren’t even advertised formally. So much emphasis is placed on success that it becomes difficult to distinguish or comprehend how people have actually worked to get to where they are now. The benchmark is set so high it is often impossible to reveal how people have struggled to get to senior positions, they are portrayed as near gods amongst mere men.

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“Professor Blahblah obtained their PhD from the best University in the world, getting first author papers in the holy trinity of neuroscience journals, they were awarded a scholarship to the other greatest university in the world before they even submitted their thesis and they then published 100+ papers, the majority of which are in top tear journals including Nature, Science and Cell, received awards for effectively everything at each stage of their career and were constantly funded and then received a Nobel prize…”

You never hear the underdog stories. The people who have worked their arses off in less than favorable situations and managed to climb the steep mountain to academic seniority.

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“Dr Blahblah managed to get their PhD in normal time, they published a couple of papers from their thesis in respectable journals but it took a while. Because of funding cuts they had to apply for a postdoc doing something they didn’t really understand for 6 months and struggled to set up assays as parameters seemed to forever change, or just not work consistently. With research funding running out due to project grants getting rejected they devoted their spare time to applying for further jobs, writing fellowships for every university in the country and received repeated rejections in terms of job applications, fellowships, grants and publications. One particular low blow was getting sniped last minute by a rival lab group who published a similar paradigm in Science, thus decreasing the novelty of their publication. Their job frequently put huge strains on their relationships and caused more than a few sleepless nights, with constant worries that they were not performing to standards expected of them… “

Openness to sharing moments of weakness, failure and frustration is rarely seen across all levels of academic researchers. Surely failing to get funding repeatedly must ruffle one’s feathers eventually? The level of stiff upper lippedness in academia rivals that of 1930s Britain.
I need to see a successful human being who has achieved their goals through hard work, not some shiny superhero that I can never become. I want to hear that experiments went wrong, that grants got rejected, that things weren’t peachy at home/

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There needs to be more mentoring within academic departments. Senior academics need to provide early career researchers with advice in a candid, helpful and honest manner. Postdocs are few and far between in laboratories, and sharing your hopes and fears with a peer directly can lead to more by way of competitiveness. I turn to friends who are in senior positions for honest advice and perspective, and sometimes they tell me what I don’t want to hear, but really that is great, because as a scientist I just want to find out the truth.

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