10 Priceless lessons I learned as a young research scientist

10 Priceless lessons I learned as a young research scientist

I am Elodie Ekoka, a PhD student at the Wits Research Institute for Malaria, University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and I’d like to share a few simple life lessons I have learned thus far in my PhD journey. Although I am still at the early stages of my research career, I am flattered that I was invited to share my experiences. This post is for all the young researchers out there struggling to succeed while navigating the complex academic world.

As you will notice, most of my tips have nothing to do with clichéd bits of advice like “achieve high scores,” “work hard”, “read extensively,” etc. Yes, these are important, but I have come to realize that they only comprise a (small) fraction of the attributes that could lead you to success in a research environment. So what are the other attributes?

In this post, I’d like to share with you some aspects that could make or break your research scientist career. I call them aspects because these are a mix of things — habits, beliefs, attitudes, etc. — that you need to consciously develop to make sure you stand strong throughout your research journey.

Why am I sharing these tips with you?

There’s a story behind this. It is not uncommon for students to change disciplines, but when this change happens at the research level, things could get very difficult. I am currently a PhD student, but this is my second PhD journey. I dropped out of my first PhD (in plant genetics) and after a short break, I enrolled for a PhD in malaria vector control, specifically mosquito functional genetics. Had I not developed some of the attributes mentioned in this post, I would have had a far more difficult transition. This experience has taught me a lot and has made me stronger first as a person, but also as a researcher. Experience is definitely a great teacher and I trust that sharing mine will help you deal with your challenges and struggles as a researcher. So let’s get started!

1. Believe in yourself

A couple of years ago, after taking the Clance IP test, I discovered that I was dealing with the Imposter Phenomenon or IP — a tendency to doubt my intellectual capacity, despite demonstrated competence (Clance & Imes, 1978). Although the people around me would remind me that my achievements showed that I had what it takes to be a researcher, I couldn’t believe them. In short, I lacked self-confidence. I am not the only victim of this feeling. Many researchers’ productivity is affected by this syndrome, and IP is more common among high achievers, people with the perfectionist personality type (Cowie et al., 2018; Parkman, 2016).

Whatever the cause of your IP (a toxic work environment, a stressful personal life, etc.), your focus should be on dealing with it and regaining your confidence. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who believes (or doesn’t believe) in you. YOU have to believe that YOU have what it takes to become a researcher.

So how do you deal with IP? Mount and Tardanico (2014) recommend four easy steps: “focus on facts, challenge your limiting beliefs, get clear on your strengths, and talk about your IP” (Mount & Tardanico, 2014).

I have started celebrating each small success I achieve — for example, writing this article, which happens to be my first blog post. I also try to tackle new challenges more regularly, especially in the areas where I feel less confident. I now spend more time with people who remind me of my strengths, and I guess I talked about my IP in this article! I don’t expect my IP to disappear overnight, but I believe that as I continue to use these four steps, I will gradually overcome it. And so will you If you persist!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who believes (or doesn’t believe) in you. YOU have to believe that YOU have what it takes to become a researcher.
 
2. Don’t compare your journey to that of other researchers

No two researchers are the same and no two research journeys are the same, even though academic aspirations could be similar among researchers. What you go through, what you experience, is unique. So don’t compare your progress with anyone else’s. You need to have YOUR own goals, which could be completely different from your fellow researchers’.

Once you’ve identified your own goals, STAY FOCUSSED on them and try to create a timeline-based plan to reach them. We all have different paths. Mine included dropping out of my first PhD, working for a while, and registering for another PhD in a different institution. I cannot compare my path to somebody who didn’t go through the same steps, because it would only lead me to self-pity and depression. I cannot despise my path either, because it has helped build my character and confidence. I chose to embrace my path and make the best out of it — this has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

Your journey is yours alone. Embrace your path and make the most of it.
 
3. Create the research lifestyle that makes YOU happy

I learned this tip by following other female scientists on Instagram, especially Samantha Yammine (@science.sam). She is a PhD student at the University of Toronto who is really passionate about science communication. I noticed that although her PhD is her main focus, she is always involved in activities she loves, like writing blog posts/articles, tutoring, speaking at conferences and events, educating the public on social media, etc.

This was eye-opening for me, as I realized that I shouldn’t see a PhD as something that occupies all facets of “my entire life.” Rather, I should also incorporate side projects. I started asking myself: “What aspects of research interest me the most? Writing? Laboratory work? Mentoring/Supervising others? Teaching? Attending conferences? Participating in science competitions?” I discovered that I enjoy writing/editing, performing laboratory experiments, and attending networking events (e.g., open days) the most. As a guest author for Editage Insights, Research Assistant for NICD, and PhD student for WITS, I have created for myself a combination that allows me to explore all the aspects of research that I love.

Do not settle until you create the environment that makes YOU feel the most alive as a researcher.
 
4. Network and surround yourself with the relevant people

Here, I would specifically like to talk about how to network when you are an introvert like me (I assume extroverts don’t need tips!). Thanks to social media, networking is easier in our era than it was before. I personally like to connect with other scientists on Instagram and LinkedIn, but you can use any platform that you feel comfortable with. I have met incredible scientists/strong women on Instagram (e.g., @elmira.mi, @lisaellenjones, @soph.talks.science, @karlaaaxoxo, or @latina_scientist) who continually inspire me to strive for success. You will be amazed by how many people share experiences similar to yours on these platforms and are willing to exchange ideas.

Alternatively, you may attend events in your field (open days, workshops, conferences, etc.). Although it may be scary and overwhelming at first, you will notice that people will naturally come toward you and start a conversation. My tip is to stay true to yourself while you network (whether on social media, in person, or via email). Overall, understand that staying around people who inspire you and pursue the same career as yours will ultimately keep you motivated.

Surround yourself with people who will keep you motivated and make you feel positive.
 
5. Be patient. Great things do not happen overnight

This is a developmental area for me and I am still learning to be more patient in all situations in life. I tend to expect my experiments to work the first time, my papers to get written in one month, to master a new technique in one week, etc. But that doesn’t happen in research, and setting such unrealistic goals can lead you to frustration, stress, and anxiety. My advice is to perhaps talk to your mentor or supervisor about your goals and discuss their feasibility with him/her. Be flexible! Be patient with yourself but be steady. It’s okay to take your time as long as you are adopting the right approach in research and publication. There are NO shortcuts here. It’s a long journey full of patience, resilience and hard work and you’ve got to give it your best shot.

Be patient with yourself and give it your best shot.
 
6. Be humble

It’s ok to celebrate even the smallest achievements in research (because as researchers, we deal with a lot of rejections, let’s be real!) but remember that you can’t get ahead of yourself. No matter how many accomplishments I have, I don’t know everything and there are many people who have achieved more than me. But this doesn’t mean that my achievements are meaningless! It just means that I should avoid boasting about them even to myself. Another reason why you shouldn’t boast too much is because chances are that your accomplishment was a team effort. You probably got feedback from a supervisor/colleague, or input from a colleague, editor, reviewer, etc. Be sure to always acknowledge them! Finally, be humble enough to recognize that you can learn from anyone, including your students, the laymen, or your colleagues.

Give credit where it is due and be humble, always.
 
7. Take care of yourself

For a long time, I used to think that abstaining from the activities I enjoy (e.g., playing the piano, watching Suits on Netflix, spending quality time with my family, hitting the gym etc.) was a “smart” decision, as it would give me more time to focus on my research. However, as soon as I cut out recreational activities from my schedule, I felt empty. Eventually, I realized that I had to live a little in order to be a successful researcher. Now that I am living a more balanced lifestyle, I have noticed that I am way more productive and happier. What’s the lesson here? We produce our best work when we are in our best mental, emotional, and physical shape.

Take care of yourself and make time for small things that make you feel happy.
 
8. Passion is more important than talent

I think this one speaks for itself. You have to make sure that you work in an area that you genuinely love! An incredible amount of reading is required in research, so at least make sure you are reading about a topic you enjoy! Be picky when you choose your project, and don’t be afraid to speak up if there is a part that you don’t like! After all you’re investing several years of your life to a PhD, so you might as well make sure you’re in for the long haul and pursuing what truly resonates with you.

If you love it, you will excel at it. So do what you love and you will love what you do.
 
9. Set small goals regularly and celebrate when you meet them

As a first year PhD student, it will probably take me at least three years before I hand-in my final thesis. In the past, because of my excessive focus on the duration of the research, I would get easily discouraged. But I have learnt my lesson and have decided to change my approach. I now break down the three years into months and set goals for each phase. I also include goals from side projects such as writing blog articles, performing molecular diagnostic assays for NICD, or getting certificates from online courses (by the way, edX website is a great source if you are looking for additional certificates to boost your CV). With this system, I always have a few goals in view for each month and reaching them gives me a sense of accomplishment and I feel more motivated for the following months.

Take one step at a time and remember to celebrate the milestones.

10. Put a strong “village” together

There is saying which goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I think it also takes a community to raise a successful research scientist. That village, in my opinion, should include three groups of people.

The first group includes those who will teach you the basics of scientific thinking, writing, and the basic concepts of science (in my case, genetics). Here, I would like to thank all the lecturers, teaching assistants, and supervisors who have participated in my training since my undergrad days.

The second group includes those who support you emotionally and mentally throughout your journey. As I mentioned before, I took a break in during PhD studies and resumed research in a new field. This was a tough period and I was low on self-confidence. You may not go through the same situation, but your life will have its own struggles and challenges. In addition, a research career is typically filled with a lot of rejections (papers, grants, conference abstracts, etc.) or failed experiments — all this can be tough to integrate. I am extremely grateful to all the family members and friends who stood by me during my PhD transition and who always let me vent my frustrations of failed experiments on them.

Finally, researchers need a third group of people – those who teach you the soft skills necessary to succeed (e.g., how to ignore the little man, how to be humble when you succeed, how to manage your emotions, how to be strong mentally, etc.), those whose careers inspire you, and those who hold you accountable for your goals. The best aspect of my PhD transition was meeting and working with amazing mentors: Mrs. Eunice Agubuzo, research scientist at NICD, Dr. Givemore Munhenga, Senior Medical Scientist at NICD, and Prof Lizette Koekemoer, Associate Professor at NICD and Director of Wits Research Institute for Malaria. They each played a role in shaping the person I am today, and they continue to encourage me to reach my goals even today.

Your success is not your alone. Remember to be thankful to those who taught you the skills you needed and supported you at all times.
 
There! These are the 10 most important life lessons I have learned during my PhD journey. And I am sure I will add many more learnings as I continue — who knows…I might come up with a list of 100 learnings as a researcher!

What about you? Do you have any learnings of your own? If yes, do share them with me. I’d love to hear your experiences!

References

  • Clance, P. R. & Imes, S. A. (1978) The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.
  • Cowie, M. E., Nealis, L. J., Sherry, S. B., Hewitt, P. L. & Flett, G. L. (2018) Perfectionism and academic difficulties in graduate students: Testing incremental prediction and gender moderation. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 223-228.
  • Mount, P. & Tardanico, S. (2014) Beating the impostor syndromeCenter for Creative Leadership.
  • Parkman, A. (2016) The imposter phenomenon in higher education: Incidence and impact. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 16(1), 51.

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