7 Secrets to help you build academic resilience

7 Secrets to help you build academic resilience

You must have come across the word “resilience” in many situations where the intent is to inspire or motivate someone to pursue their goals with persistence and determination. Resilience is the ability to beat the odds and bounce back despite failures. It also refers to the ability of a substance or object to spring back into its original shape.

Did you know that the concept of resilience is also applicable to an academic setting?

What is academic resilience?

Academic Resilience refers to the ability of students or researchers to make the effort to succeed despite adverse circumstances by changing existing behaviors or developing new ones, such as discipline, practice, or planning.

Resilience among humans can be explained using the metaphor of the human immune system, which is the human body’s inbuilt mechanism to deal with adverse physical circumstances. Our immunity is strengthened when we follow a wholesome diet and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, researchers can increase their resilience, and consequently their chances of publication success, by making conscious efforts to practice writing and strengthen their skills in expressing ideas and views. Academic resilience contextualizes the construct of resilience and reflects an increased likelihood of educational/academic/publication success despite adversity (Martin & Marsh, 2008a: 2008b). 

In this post, I’d like to talk to you about the importance of academic resilience for early career researchers and share a few tips that could help you navigate the challenging research and publication journey.

A hypothetical case of two researchers who handled their issues differently

I always wonder why one researcher is more resilient than another, why different researchers deal with difficult situations in different ways. Let’s try and understand this with an example that most researchers would be able to relate to.

Take the hypothetical case of two university students—Rizwan and Mishal—who are non-native speakers of English. Both are passionate about writing, not just because it is part of the thesis requirement at their university but also because they are keen on communicating their research.

But both face the same problem—they struggle to write in English. As a result, they produce draft after draft of their paper and receive comments for further revisions. With each iteration, they experience myriad negative emotions: disappointment, fear of failure, anger, frustration, and sadness.

Eventually, they reflect upon their situation and adopt different coping strategies. Rizwan gathers the courage to deal with the problem, by taking extra help from his supervisor and senior colleague and commits to making greater efforts in writing his paper. Meanwhile, Mishal tumbles into a downward spiral of negativity, sulks, and continues performing poorly. Rizwan and Mishal faced the same adverse circumstances.

Why did one of them bounce back while the other did not?

The ABC of academic resilience

Well, one factor that supersedes the influences of genes, childhood experiences, and opportunity or wealth when it comes to “belief in self” is resilience. Decades of research show that the biggest influence on resilience is within our control, i.e., our cognitive style or the way we think. What does this mean in the context of academic research? This means that researchers tend to adjust their cognitive style by learning through their experience.

Let’s analyze the above example using the ABC model i.e., Adversity-Belief-Consequence model (Shatte & Reivich, 2002). On the surface, it might be easy to assume that the reason for Rizwan and Mishal’s unhappiness is the negative feedback about their writing. But the facts could be less obvious. Many researchers mistakenly believe that facing an adversity, e.g., receiving unsatisfactory feedback on a thesis draft, leads to a consequence, e.g., feeling unhappy. In principle, every adversity that researchers face leads to certain beliefs about that situation, which in turn triggers a reaction or consequence. In short, the ABC model explains why Rizwan and Mishal coped differently with the same challenge.

Challenges faced by non-English speaking researchers and how academic resilience can help

Studies show that resilience has a positive influence on the academic performance and success of researchers of any age, which in turn influences their social and emotional wellbeing. Writing to express and explain ideas is at the core of an early career researcher’s academic journey. Given the intense competition in today’s publishing world, academic resilience is a prerequisite to succeed. However,  for early career non-native English language speakers (ECNnLS) conveying ideas and sharing their findings in English is an overwhelming endeavor. This is because navigating through professional and personal challenges is critical for ECNnLS to build their identities and gain the requisite skills to write as fluently as native English speakers. Things are complicated by the fact that English language competency is not the only thing early career researchers struggle with. They have other challenges pertaining to developing academic skills that they need to overcome.

Writing comes naturally to many but for a majority of people it is a struggle. The process could be frustrating sometimes and could even affect the social, emotional, and physical well-being of a researcher – imagine not being able to communicate your research clearly and dealing with journal rejection each time you try! The struggle to write and the inability to cope with the stress could stem from various reasons.

To start with, for most non-native English language speakers (NnELS), English is either a second or a third language, which complicates the writing process further. For instance, native speakers (NS) enjoy a natural advantage when it comes to writing in English because they are immersed in the language throughout their lifetime. However, for their NnELS counterparts, writing could well be akin to navigating a maze of multiple blind alleys. For instance, they are not sure what each pathway may lead to, i.e., how to gain competency and fluency in the language and where to seek help from. Second, there are different styles and genres of writing that writers can adapt to but these types are never discussed or taught during school or university education. A third and more complex challenge manifests when you consider that writing research papers is essential for researchers to establish their own identity as contributors to existing knowledge in the field.

In consideration of these factors and based on my own experience, I feel that NnELS face several setbacks and experience high levels of stress in the course of their research careers, especially when trying to publish their work in an international English-language journal. To build academic resilience, researchers need to rely on an interplay of thinking, feeling, and executing. In this post, I intend to share some tips to help researchers deal with setbacks or stress better. The idea is to help researchers build academic resilience and succeed in their publication endeavors.

Gaining inspiration to publish or to conduct research starts with the first step of knowing your passion. You also need to embrace it with the strong belief that you can achieve your goals with focused efforts and persistence.

If you are learning to become a resilient researcher, you may find following tips useful. I have listed them based on my own struggles and learnings as a researcher and author.

1. Give yourself a pep talk – there’s nothing wrong with it

Publishing a paper in an international English-language journal is a journey of trial and error. Therefore, for NnELS, academic writing in English is a stressful pursuit. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. It is a process but not a very systematic one. It comes naturally when we are ready (at least in my experience), but the fact is that practicing writing skills is quite a messy business to deal with. I would even go as far as saying that it might even seem “chaotic and too jumbled at every end”. If it looks like you don’t have any direction, focus or logic per se most of the time when you begin. To start with, give yourself a frequent pep talk; I’ve found this quite useful in helping me understand what needs to be written or to organize my thoughts in a logical sequence. I do not intend to generalize, but in my experience, most writers take time to embrace self-pep talk as one of the strategies to get into writing. Trust me. It works.

2. Meditate

Meditation is another way of finding the inspiration to write. I am not talking about the high-intensity meditation at the spiritual level. I am talking about small pockets of time that you can use to sit back and focus your thoughts. Most writers get to experience ‘eureka’ moments in their careers during meditative moments. The key lies in focus. Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet space, close your eyes, and pay attention to all the thoughts and ideas that are flowing in your head. Take a pause and revisit all the ideas you might have discussed earlier, heard somewhere, read about or that you might have just thought of while doing something else (e.g., while cooking your favorite recipe). Meditation can take different forms like contemplation, thinking about things, musing, pondering, reflection, consideration, prayer, deliberation, study, rumination, and above all, concentration. So find your niche through regular meditation.

3. Face the fear of writing

Developing confidence in your ability to write helps build academic resilience. Why am I saying this? Because writing requires confidence. Once you are confident about writing, it becomes passion and comes naturally to you even when you are writing a paper for publication in an international English-language journal. Most researchers are afraid of writing because they fear failure. The fear of failure is directly linked to an individual’s self-worth as a valuable person. However, the question is, how can you could achieve this? Is there a formula to help you develop confidence in your own ability to write? The answer to this perplexing question is not very simple. Most writers/researchers tend to learn with experience (and meditation) about what approach helps them increase their own confidence levels and use that method to overcome their fear of writing.

4. Seek help from a mentor

One of the cornerstones of developing the resilience to publish in an international journal is seeking the help of or working with a mentor. Working with mentor, will help you learn the trick of the trade. It will also help you learn through one of the most effective technique – observation. Therefore, if you feel that you are stuck and need a way out, the best way out of the situation is to approach a mentor/supervisor for help. In addition, if you need help finding a mentor, this post, which shares 7 tips for postdocs on how to choose a mentor/PI, will certainly be of help.

5. Take a pause, sit back and unwind

Life offers multiple opportunities and challenges. At every stage, our experience will help us learn something that is essentially unique in its own ways. How to make a distinction between opportunity and a challenge is something that each one of us learns in response to the reflections that we undertake. In my opinion, it is good to take an occasional break and pause while writing. Sit back and reflect on what is happening and how the experience of writing an academic paper for a journal is shaping and leading you to think about possible causes of your failure or success. Then comes the stage where you take further action either to improve or sustain the action. Indeed, the action and the whole thinking process vary among writers.  

6. Engage in activities that will help expand your mind and change your mindset positively:

It is imperative that you indulge in activities that help you grow instead of stagnate mentally. Well, having a growth mindset implies a belief that talents can be developed through hard work, intelligent strategies, and inputs from others. If you function with this mindset, you will excel at your work in no time, be it writing or any other task in your research journey.

One way to encourage the growth mindset in yourself is by reflecting on your experiences and highlighting attributes that could be worked on to improve in future and identify those that are not workable or that will not yield the results you need. For instance, negative feedback on your academic writing is a manifestation of a developmental area such as grammar, citation, formatting, or sentence structure. If you identify an attribute that is not under your control it, causes stress. If the stress is not dealt with a growth-oriented mindset, it will lead to a setback, but you may not be able to recover from this because of the lack of belief that any efforts you make may help improve the stressful situation.

7. Set achievable targets and be your best competitor

Setting achievable targets and becoming your best competitor are practical suggestions that go a long way in ensuring academic success. Your dream of publishing in an international English-language journal can become a reality if you take small steps towards it. When I say this, I mean that you need to set short-term targets for yourself and comply with it. But why short term targets? Well, short-term targets will help highlight your focus areas as a professional researcher and at the same time will guide you to find different ways of dealing with them.

The key is to reflect and patiently gain experience through a process of trial and error. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you don’t repeat them. If you’re repeating your mistakes, this indicates that you are making wrong decisions. I do not want to give the impression that mistakes are unacceptable. Mistakes are in fact opportunities to improve or learn for ensuring that our future actions are flawless. In this sense, when we compare our present performance with the previous one, we will be able to identify that each phase has helped us evolve into an improved version of ourselves. 

The final verdict – Keep calm and write on

I’d like to conclude this post by saying that the setbacks or stressors that we encounter in our academic lives should be viewed favorably as instances that help us test our limits. Your experiences during such setbacks depend on how you attribute/associate the experiences to successes or failures. If failure is associated with self-efforts to achieve or improve the current performance then your future actions are likely to involve more efforts and to finding a new direction where you can avoid stressful outcomes. Alternatively, associating failure with others or anything above your control may lead to less efforts because your performance is subjected to the behaviour of others, which could lead to your belief that all self-efforts will be insignificant.  

The tips suggested above are non-exhaustive and daily life experiences teach us to deal with setbacks. Responses to these setbacks, such as getting feedback on our academic writing, varies across situations and researchers’ personalities. Writing in English is indeed a challenge for NnELS, especially when it expects to write right sentence structures and vocabulary to be used, but it is not an impossible goal to aspire for. If we persevere to deal with failure, make way for a growth-oriented mindset, and belief in self-efforts then our fear of failure in research can easily be converted to confidence about achieving success in due time.

References

  • Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2008a). Academic buoyancy: Towards an understanding of students' everyday academic resilience. Journal of School Psychology, 46(1), 53-83. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2007.01.002
  • Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2008b). Workplace and academic buoyancy: Psychometric assessment and construct validity amongst school personnel and students. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 26(2), 168-184. doi: 10.1177/0734282907313767
  • Reivich, K. and Shatté, A. (2002) The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles. Broadway Books.

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