Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Reflections: Cumberland Lodge & the theme of perseverance

Dr Steve Joy

Last week, I had the pleasure of being a guest at Cumberland Lodge, an academic retreat that is elegantly sequestered in the Great Park, Windsor. Just to be at this gloriously peaceful venue felt restorative for mind & body. And my reason for being there? I was speaking at this year's Life Beyond the PhD conference. Here are some reflections on that experience - particularly around the theme of perseverance.

The conference was attended by PhD students & postdocs - at all career stages, from all disciplines, from institutions all over the UK. The aim was to prepare participants for 'an increasingly interdisciplinary academic life' as well as to show them 'that PhDs have demonstrable value both inside and outside academia'. I was there, you won't be surprised to learn, to contribute to the latter objective. And, happily, I was the bearer of good news: evidence shows that people with PhDs are employable outside the academy, provided that they are willing to translate the value of their research experience into relevant non-academic language. But that's not what I want to write about today.

As with all good conferences, there was lots of time for conversations with the other participants. A lot of our discussions were focused on the process, or perhaps the mindset, of conducting research. How to overcome the inevitable, numerous rejections from journals, funders, and employers. How to maintain momentum when all the research seems to be going down the pan & nothing's working. How to keep writing. How to deal with conflicting advice. How to manage a supervisor who has strong but opposing views about the direction to take the research. How to keep on keeping on. In other words, how to persevere.

No matter the ostensible topic under discussion, I found that we were never far from perseverance. It came up over & over, and there were some strong emotions coming out. There's nothing new in this insight. It oughtn't even to have surprised me that the topic was such a constant, though I confess that it did. After all, in today's academic culture, the lived experience of most researchers is profoundly about resilience, persistence, perseverance - even for those who are enjoying their work & feel that they're 'on track'. It's no coincidence that Vitae's Researcher Development Framework (RDF) lists perseverance as a key characteristic of excellent researchers - one that they will continue to develop over the course of their careers.

So, what is there to be made of my experience at Cumberland Lodge? One thing that comes to my mind is acceptance. First, let's accept the place of perseverance in academic careers. My view is that many early career people feel tremendous guilt about saying, 'You know what, academia can be a very painful & stressful profession at times.' In part, I think that this comes from academia's powerful vocational undertow: it's not your job, it's your identity; it's not what you do, it's who you are. Whatever the cause, it's clear to me that many people feel unsafe voicing doubt or stress, as if their peers & colleagues aren't needing to persevere because their careers are all on bump-free ever-upwards trajectories towards tenure & Nobel prizes.

Secondly, let's accept how perseverance makes us feel & where it comes from. It is tiring when we have to steel ourselves to a setback of whatever kind, but I think that it's even more draining (insidiously, over a longer duration) when we try to dismiss how we feel & move on passively. Don't brush it under the carpet. Accept the disappointment & discouragement when you don't get the job that you really wanted & worked really hard for, because in that moment it is disappointing & discouraging. Accept the perplexity & irritation of readers' reports that seem entirely to have missed the point of what you were trying to say, because in that moment it is perplexing & irritating. You can't just turn off how you feel in these situations, but you can control what you do next. Focus on that. Do you understand why you were unsuccessful? Nothing is ever an all-out 100% failure, so what went well? But nor is anything ever an all-out 100% success, so what could you do differently next time?

Perseverance isn't dispassionate immunity to setbacks, and it isn't despondency or resignation. It's acceptance of how you feel, because that's how you feel. It's acceptance that everyone else has probably felt this way at some point before. And it's acceptance that next time can always be different.

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