Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Resilience (5 of 5): having a strategy for cultivating resilience

Dr Emily Troscianko & Dr Rachel Bray

Occasionally life surprises us with an event so momentous that it seems to change everything – whether as painfully as bereavement or as beautifully as falling in love. But even events at this scale do not, in fact, change everything. Life has a habit of reverting to the easiest equilibrium: negative feedback kicks in, and old habits creep back in, whether comfortingly or frustratingly.

One thing this means is: don’t expect magic bullets. Even winning the lottery will not remove all your life’s problems (though it may remove some, and create others). The other thing it means is: it’s harder than you think to throw your life into disarray. Investigating, trying out, and even committing to a new career path is not all-or-nothing, nor all-at-once. Real change takes energy, and big turning points often come rather late in the process.

Our recent post on Plan A and Plan B suggested that it’s a mistake to imagine a discrete moment when academia is let go of and the shiny new alternative comes into force. If you imagine that, you probably imagine the Friday when you tearfully empty the desk in your old office and the Monday when you stop to pick up a latte on your nervous way to the tech start-up or whatever. But it’s likely that the real change will happen not on these conspicuous calendar dates that mark endings and beginnings, but somewhere in the middle of the process of exploring other possibilities, letting go, and putting down new emotional and intellectual roots.

In the first and third post in this series, we discussed the ease with which default career plans entrench themselves in our thoughts and our actions. We suggested that devoting some time to careful reflection and exploratory actions may be one way to convert default ambitions into real ones. This matters because if we know what we’re doing and why, we can gain a firm grasp on what the costs and benefits of doing that are, and whether and how these can be mitigated or enhanced – rather than the common alternative of finding ourselves getting more and more tired and disillusioned with no tools for asking why or what to do about it. 

So, what are some other practices you can adopt to ensure that your resilience is robust?

Above all, think of building resilience as a process.

  • Don’t assume the things that further your academic career (publications, impact, teaching, etc.) are necessarily the right things for furthering your career
  • Ask yourself ten difficult questions about you and your career, to begin to find out whether academia is still right for you
  • Make the most of your regular Professional Development Review if your contract includes it
  • Take seriously the idea of self-leadership (and don’t assume you already know everything about everyone you’re working with)
  • Think ahead: with a new postdoc or other job or freelance role, ask before you start, ‘what do I want to get out of this?’, rather than leaving it till the end to wonder, ‘what did I get out of that?’
  • Do research on recruitment trends as well as potential employers and sources of freelance income for people with your kind of skills and interests
  • Dedicate time to reflecting on your actions and achievements and their effects on your life, and to having honest conversations with friends and colleagues you trust. What do you learn if you ask probing questions of others and yourself? What do you find are the most interesting questions to be asking?
  • Make a concerted effort to meet people who live and work in different spheres from your own, and identify where your research or other skills and interests could contribute in ways rewarding for you and others
  • Explore the pros and cons of ‘keeping your passions safely on the side’
  • Take time to step back if you can (negotiating sabbaticals, chunking up vacations, building in gaps between contracts): temporarily suspending the rules lets us toy with possibilities and detours
  • Practise reworking the story of yourself and your career as you tell it to different listeners. Don’t assume that your answer to, ‘so, what do you do?’ has to stay the same, has to be spontaneous, or has to be completely honest. What happens when you play?
  • Try telling your story to sceptics as well as friendly audiences (family can be a good source of sceptics!)
  • Cherish chance encounters: carry a business card, ask for the other person’s, and afterwards email to say it was a pleasure to meet, mentioning one thing that was particularly striking or helpful for you in your conversation, and one thing you’d be happy to help them with in future
  • Find useful resources and keep a record of those you use and what you learnt from them. For starters, you could try www.research-careers.org for examples of people who have moved from academia into other sectors; this portfolio careers workbook for guidance in identifying the constituents of your working life and how to optimise them; and a workbook and audio podcasts on overcoming a sense of academic failure for emotional and practical guidance on being in academia or leaving it.
  • Keep a ‘success journal’ of your achievements (see the portfolio workbook) in which you record your projects, outcomes, development benefits, others’ testimony, and other comments. Regularly update your CV accordingly, and feel good about what you achieve. (You could also consider adding a ‘failures’ section to your CV – at least for personal consumption. See the failure workbook for more on this surprisingly cathartic task.)

But also:
  • Don’t get into the exhausting habit of constantly second-guessing yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but also to accept that the answers hold for now, and define ‘now’ generously enough to give yourself leeway to get on with living. The frequency that makes sense for checking in and re-asking the big questions will change depending on the stage of change, but a regular personal review (find a template in the portfolio careers workbook here) could be every 3 to 6 months. You might also like to do a simple scheduling recap and planning session every Sunday, and in periods of intensive change also a monthly assessment of what progress you’ve made and what needs more attention.

Overall, don’t expect clarity to come from solitary introspection alone. There are no inner depths to be plumbed, so get your hands dirty doing stuff on the outside. The neatly linear progression from doing lots of earnest self-reflection to making lists of character traits, skills, values, and needs, to discovering the perfect job match, to working out how to get it – this is a careers-advisory fiction. The reality may involve most of these elements, but almost certainly in a recursive feedback loop or massively parallel system, in which meeting people and leaving your desk or armchair plays as important a role as quiet meditation. Almost always, reflection itself is sparked by finding ourselves doing something a little differently from usual.

Have fun!


Links to all posts in this series:

  1. Does academic complement or conflict with who you are? 
  2. The feedback dynamics between you and academia
  3. Distinguishing between assumptions and reality
  4. Your working identities
  5. Having a strategy for cultivating resilience [this post]
For unabridged versions of these posts and full references, check out the Resilience Hub.











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