Resilience

In the main blog, we posted slightly abridged versions of Emily & Rachel's guide to emotional resilience for early career researchers. Here, we're pleased to be able to share the full article:

I. Does academia complement or conflict with who you are?


Everything in life has its stresses, and academia isn’t necessarily more stressful than any other professional sector. But academia does have particular contours of cost and benefit, some of which we readily talk about while others are easier to ignore.

Opening a conversation is often the key to igniting personal reflection and action, and it’s in this spirit that we offer a five-part overview of resilience, self-awareness, and identity in academia.

It will address two simple questions:

If staying in academia is so hard, why do so many people want it?
If you do want it, how can you work towards it whilst preserving your sanity?

And it will propose and elaborate on two simple answers:

Because it still offers so much that is intellectually and personally appealing.
By being honest with yourself about what it's really like and what it really takes.

The overview arises out of our personal experience as researchers juggling a range of academic and entrepreneurial activities, and our professional experience in support roles to early career researchers. We distil what we’ve learnt in our collaboration with wider groups of researchers in temporary and permanent positions about the value of acknowledging the daily joys and struggles of academia, and of thinking collectively about how to carve out a sense of personal achievement in what often feels like a maelstrom of incompatible values – or how to decide you can’t or don’t want to any more, and do something else.

A lot of what we’ll be thinking about is crystallised in the notion of resilience. Resilience is a dynamic, interactive thing. It’s about an agent acting and reacting in a context. In the career context, being resilient might mean optimising the dynamics that mediate between yourself and the context you’re operating in – or else deciding they can’t be satisfactorily optimised, removing yourself from the context, and finding a new context where they can be.

One route to optimisation is through enhanced understanding. So let’s start with the contextual side of things. What is a university like? Here are some distinctive qualities of the academic environment.

  1. The university is not (yet) a primarily commercial institution. What its real goals are is less clear and possibly more flexible than for a company whose existence depends on revenue or shareholder returns.
  2. The two main planks of a university’s purpose are teaching and research, and the relative significance of the two, and their interplay, vary between institutions.
  3. The purpose of both teaching and research is always changing and being renegotiated.
  4. Many people who study at university come straight from secondary education.
  5. Many people who work at universities also studied at university (often also straight from school).
  6. The progression rate from undergraduate to graduate study to postdoctoral and other temporary positions to permanent lecturerships and professorships is now less a funnel or pyramid than a drawing pin.
  7. Research and teaching are often treated as vocations more than as jobs.
  8. The importance of administrative and other supporting activities and roles within the university is often downplayed or dismissed relative to the ‘core’ activities of research and teaching.
  9. The importance of professional training is often downplayed or dismissed relative to the ‘core’ activities of research and teaching.

What do these characteristics mean for the psychological impact of studying or working at a university?

On the one hand there are the benefits:

  1. A research degree or a job involving research, teaching, or both may give you freedom to explore interesting and difficult questions without needing to demonstrate their commercial relevance.
  2. Exploratory research may generate new insights and methods that really change the world.
  3. Teaching lets you stay in touch with those at earlier stages of their careers and to ‘give back’ in a tangible way.
  4. Supporting roles within the university (whether carried out by academic or other staff) help make the research and the teaching happen more effectively and more happily.

On the other hand there are costs:

  1. Teaching might be lauded as a noble ideal, but in practice it’s now typically the poor sister to research (attracting less status and financial reward), even though it necessarily takes up a lot of time. This can result in an unwinnable battle to maintain research activity during teaching-heavy terms, or to squeeze teaching into the gaps where research allows. This doesn’t help the quality of either type of work, nor the sanity of the person juggling them.
  2. As student fees and calls for universities to demonstrate the ‘impacts’ of their research increase, commercial pressures are creeping into an environment not designed for them, whether through the student gradually becoming the customer or by research proposals having to sell their outputs before the project even begins. This can make for profound conflicts of interest and uneasy shifts in motivation and purpose.
  3. Many people studying and working at universities have never really asked themselves whether they want to be there, or what they might do if they weren’t.
  4. By definition many of our tutors or senior colleagues are those for whom the academic career path has been a success.
  5. Any given PhD student or early-career academic is extremely unlikely to progress to a permanent academic position, let alone a full professorship. But not least for reasons 3 and 4 above, it’s very easy to assume that I will be the exception, and that everything will work out if I just do good enough research, get the right teaching experience, and keep my eye fixed on the prize.
  6. Because professional training is often (erroneously) seen as unnecessary for those who want to pursue an academic career, opportunities for expanding one’s professional skills and horizons can be limited, poorly publicised, and/or underused.
  7. Because the education/higher-education environment is the only one many people have ever known, and for reasons 3-6 above, staying within it often becomes the unquestioned default, and broadening one’s gaze to other possibilities can feel daunting, require a lot of cognitive-emotional effort, and be undertaken far later than is ideal.
  8. Because the real reasons why we do research and teaching are often more taken for granted than clearly articulated, and because those reasons are often tacitly assumed to be selfless ideals that elevate researchers and tutors above mere jobs or even careers, other professional possibilities are often dismissed before they’re even considered.
  9. Because the real reasons why we do research and teaching are often more taken for granted than clearly articulated, and because those reasons are often tacitly assumed to be selfless ideals that elevate researchers and tutors above mere jobs or even careers, the rest of life are often perceived as less important, sometimes to the point where the social and physical aspects of being human are seriously neglected.
  10. Because academic jobs and grants are a scarce resource, the inclination to sideline other aspects of life is legitimised.
  11. Because academic jobs and grants are a scarce resource, collaborative endeavours can be sacrificed to suspicion, defensiveness, and personal gain, and papers and other outputs can be rushed out before their natural conclusion, reducing satisfaction and sense of purpose.
  12. Because teaching and research are often valued more highly than other activities within the university, social/professional hierarchies are often entrenched between ‘academic’ and ‘admin’ staff (in some institutions some academics even resist being called ‘staff’ at all, or calling their ‘studies’ mere ‘offices’…), and career opportunities within the university ecosystem are thus often not appreciated because the connections between activities aren’t appreciated.

You’ll doubtless be able to add your own ideas to all three lists. The fact that the costs one has come out so much longer than the benefits doesn’t, on its own, necessarily mean anything for you personally: one single benefit may outweigh all the costs. But it may be helpful for you to consider the lists and how they reflect your own experiences of university (or don’t), and then to explore how you might mitigate the costs of staying in this environment, and/or whether other environments might have equal or greater benefits to you with fewer costs.

In particular you might want to consider the personal qualities that make you more or less resilient within this context: qualities that make you more or less able to take advantage of its benefits, and more or less able to absorb, accommodate, or resist its costs.

Some character traits, skills, and habits that might increase your resilience are:

  • Self-organisation (incl. time management) and self-motivation
  • Patience
  • Attention to detail
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Conscientiousness (manifested in e.g. willingness to work long hours with little work-life separation and for relatively low pay)
  • Integrity
  • Creativity
  • Networking and leadership skills
  • Ability to work within institutional structures

Absence of any of these might decrease your resilience. Of course, this list is neither exhaustive nor unique to academia; all of them (and many more) will serve you well in many other contexts too. Some are learnable, some less so. We are malleable, but not infinitely.

Take a good long look at this list and ask yourself how many of these characteristics you really have (as distinct from those it’d sound nice to have). Ask how many you feel you could – and want to – work on enhancing. Then assess which of them really are valued and supported in your current role. Ask, too, whether there are life circumstances, such as illness, caring responsibilities, financial or geographical constraints, that are currently reducing any of them. Perhaps, too, there are some which have themselves become traps: they may have begun life as qualities being rewarded, but now feel like they’re on the way to being compulsions that drag you down (like attention to detail intensifying into anxiety or perfectionism, or conscientiousness into low self-esteem or a life that contains nothing but work)?

Do you think it’s possible for you to mitigate the costs of staying in an academic environment? If so, how?
Or might other environments have equal or greater benefits to you with fewer costs? If so, which?
Overall, what changes – to your circumstances or how you respond to them – might make your working life richer, calmer, or whatever else you’d like it to be?

Remember that you can seek support in thinking through these questions and their implications from Careers Advisers at your University or mental health services.

II. Feedback dynamics


Now, we offer a way of modelling these interactions in more visual, dynamic terms. Seeing things drawn as well as written can be helpful in understanding the underlying structures (it’s not just about me…), and in adopting a fresh perspective on choices available to you.

Once you start thinking of yourself, your life, and the world as a feedback system, it can become an addictively satisfying way of seeing the bigger picture. Feedback dynamics are fundamental to pretty much any system you can think of – biological, technological, institutional, psychological… This means that grasping some feedback basics is crucial to understanding how instability arises within and between the systems that make you you – and equally crucial to working out how a happier stability can be reinstated.

Let’s start by looking at what happens in the case of a system where there is no feedback, i.e. an open-loop system. Imagine a car:


Figure 1

The fuel is an input into the system which is used to control the output, the car’s speed. If there were no other factors to worry about, we could confidently assume that x amount of fuel would result in x mph. But this is a car in an environment: there are things like wind and gradient which need taking into account, and which are beyond our control; we can call them disturbances (or in the technical context, perturbations).

Whether we’re thinking about a car or your career, disturbances are guaranteed. This means we need to measure the output and check whether it’s really what we think it is, and if not, make some adjustments. This is feedback control:



Figure 2

Here you have an aim in mind – the speed you want the car to be going – and you design a controller to make that happen. The cruise control measures the difference between the actual speed and the desired speed and uses that value (the error) to adjust the fuel and therefore the car’s speed. And if the controller is designed well, then things like wind speed and road gradient (the external disturbances) can change but the speed will still remain near-enough 70 mph. Then we say that the system is robust. Robustness, in feedback engineering, is roughly equivalent to what in a psychological system we might more colloquially call resilience.

So, let’s move on to a system that encapsulates some of what we might care about in the academic context:



Figure 3

Let’s imagine that what you’re aiming for is something like a balanced and fulfilled life (the set point), and the controllers are major work/life sub-systems like job and family. They collectively determine factors like the amount of time you spend doing different things, which have effects on variables like your happiness and your professional effectiveness. When an error is detected between the reality of those variables and the state you’re aiming for – that balanced life – an adjustment is made in your job and family (or whatever other components are important in your life). Making an adjustment could involve altering the hours spent on each component, as well as effort invested, material resources acquired, social resources drawn on, and many less easily measurable variables.

In this system, disturbances beyond your control might be anything from having to take up the slack for an absent colleague to coping with a deadline or a family emergency. The test of the system’s resilience is how well it maintains something like a balanced life despite those disturbances. And that will depend on factors like how timely your responses are, and how well the controller(s) learn from past responses which ones are most likely to work best given a particular disturbance or error type. All these characteristics are in turn shaped by a starting state of the system: everything that’s defined by prior conditions like your personality traits, childhood upbringing, and socioeconomic conditions.

When a disturbance intrudes on the system, there are two ways for things to go: into a spiral of self-propagating instability, or towards a reinstatement of stability.

Consider these two possibilities for your life as an early-career academic. Say you’re starting at the enviable point of a balanced life, and then something changes, and a chain reaction gets started, maybe something like this:

Balanced life → colleague falls ill → work hours increase → work quality decreases →work hours increase → family time decreases → happiness decreases → life less balanced → work hours increase to meet targets → happiness decreases further →etc. etc.

One can imagine that another disturbance like, say, a grant rejection somewhere in this cycle would increase the instability even further. But stabilisation is always possible. Maybe in as straightforward a way as this:

Balanced life → colleague falls ill → work hours increase → work quality decreases →work hours increase → family time decreases → happiness decreases → life less balanced → partner notices decrease in happiness and makes you take a weekend completely away from work → life more balanced → happiness increases → work quality increases → etc. etc.

This example reminds us of a couple of other things too. First, nothing about you happens in isolation from anything around you: the system is ‘You’, yes, but also Job, Family, or whatever else comes in the controller box for you. Second, our own successes and failures of resilience affect the other systems that involve other people: if your partner also takes up the slack for you by doing more than their fair share of household tasks, or has to cope with your lowered mood often or for extended periods, their resilience will be reduced and the likelihood of unstable, self-reinforcing feedback will also grow.

Every feedback diagram we might draw is always nested within infinite others which expand to represent the dynamics of the whole universe. We represent feedback dynamics with a resolution that’s relevant to the context, and we could always zoom in or zoom out.

For our purposes here, the feedback system that is the university interacts with the one in Figure 3 in obviously important ways. The university’s set points might be financial and reputational; its controller might be the Vice-Chancellor; some of its inputs might be students, staff, and income; some outcomes might be degrees, jobs, and expenditure; and so on. We can envisage the interlocking of this and your system along these lines:



Figure 4

Any of the university’s functions can act as inputs to the ‘personal’ system, whether in terms of how university priorities affect one’s working habits, or admissions affect research/teaching productivity, or recruitment patterns affect job/grant success, or any number of other iterations.

Feedback dynamics can span the personal/institutional divide in both stability-enhancing and stability-reducing ways. An example of self-correcting, stability-enhancing feedback might be when recognition of and protest at collectively unsustainable working habits prompts an institutional review and an attempt at greater or changed regulation. An example of self-reinforcing, unstable feedback would be when your perfectionism and anxiety disrupt your teaching and research activity, generating institutional pressures on you which you’re unable to meet, resulting in a breakdown. (See Troscianko 2017 for an example of how feedback loops are manifested in mental and physical illness.) Here, stability is ultimately restored, but only by a radical adjustment like your withdrawal from the exacerbating context.

The capacity to turn potentially unstable dynamics back into stable ones will depend a lot on you: on self-insight, on the willingness to change and the knowledge that change can’t be infinite. A good way to begin is to be open-eyed towards the things you can’t change, to make your peace with them, and then to identify the factors you can change and address these pro-actively. Sometimes a large change is needed to restore your equilibrium – moving closer to where you work, say – and sometimes an apparently tiny thing is enough: logging out of your email more often while you work.

Take a moment to reflect on the dynamics of action and reaction in your life right now. Maybe even sketch a feedback loop or two to help you! You can then base your perseverance within the university system on genuine acceptance of its realities, and make better-informed decisions about when and how to persevere within it, and when and why to call a halt to the perseverance, remembering that there are other options out there.

* Scroll to the bottom for a technical appendix on feedback


III. Understanding yourself: distinguishing between assumptions and reality


Assumptions interfere with understanding. That’s nowhere more true than when it comes to yourself: your life, your character, what matters to you. In a podcast series on ‘Overcoming a sense of academic failure’, one of the threads that ran most strongly through our contributors’ reflections on their own professional paths is just how easy it is to find yourself treating other people’s expectations of you as your own – without even realising you’re doing it. Taking on inherited expectations reduces your resilience by forestalling clear-sighted appraisal of the dynamics in play between you and your working environment which we considered in the first two sections.

It’s not hard to understand how and why ambitions-by-default take hold in academia even more than other fields. You go to school and internalise what your teachers expect from you; you become an undergrad and internalise what your tutors expect from you; then your doctoral supervisor, then maybe your PI… All this is seamless: your teachers want you to get to a good university, your tutors want you to get a good degree, your supervisor wants you to get your doctorate, your PI wants you to publish good papers. Each of these ambitions directly supports the next, and all of them make a good deal of sense within the system they inhabit. By definition, too, most of the time they are articulated and furthered by people for whom this trajectory has worked out: people who ended up as PIs or permanent lecturers in what may have been very different economic and professional times.

But it’s terribly easy for them to become self-evident goals, as if they are obviously what your life should revolve around, with no question about why or to what end. If you do ask the question, the answer probably comes easily: my research matters. Quite possibly it does, but the academic way of tackling the questions or the problems your research addresses may not be the only way, or even the best way. A moment’s reflection on the number of readers any of your academic books or papers is likely to get may be the sobering spark for a train of reflection that leads you to really question, at last, what you are doing. (A similar train of thought could centre on teaching: on why your aspiration to help educate the next generation may not be most effectively realised by taking stressed-out finalists for yet another Modernist literature revision class.) Or the prompt might be the imminent end of yet another fixed-term position; another failed grant application; the impossibility of getting a mortgage; your partner getting a two-year postdoc at the other end of the country (or the world) from yours… The cue to self-questioning might also be a more positive one: having an idea for something you’d like to do that isn’t academic in nature; seeing how you could keep answering research questions by a different route; realising that a friend’s non-academic job sounds actually rather interesting.

‘All good stories hinge on turning points, dramatic moments when the clouds part and the truth is revealed’, says Herminia Ibarra in her book Working Identity. (See also her excerpted ‘unconventional strategies for reinventing your career.) But for many of the people she interviewed in-depth about their career progressions, ‘a small, symbolic moment, rather than an operatic event, jelled awareness that the time was ripe for change’ (p. 18). Quite possibly, you’ll read this and none of it will seem more than fleetingly interesting, and you’ll soon get back to the real work of writing that high-impact paper. Possibly, though, something will happen one day that will create a little jolt out of your usual mental habits, and make you see your life in a new light: ‘Suddenly, both saw themselves in a future they no longer wanted’ (p. 18). You might even dare to bring this about yourself – say by asking yourself an innocuous little question like: am I happy? Or: what do I fear?

These moments of doubt, hesitation, questioning tend to be uncomfortable more often than they are exhilarating. But the discomfort should be welcomed, because it’s a clear symptom of those assumptions being dislodged a little. It’s the beginning of what has the potential to be a lucid, honest train of thought – and action – centred on what is important to you. The train might also take the form of a ladder in which the transitions from data to selection to interpretation to assumption to conclusion to belief and eventually to action are separated out into clearer steps than usual. (Models like the ‘Ladder of Inference’ offer practical ways of formalising these progressions.). Whatever else it looks like, the defining feature of such exploration is the quality of having no pre-determined ending. It need not end with you deciding to stay in your current job/field/academia. It need not end with you deciding to leave any of those. It could end up anywhere (including in a radical change of attitude while ‘staying still’ in your working life). That’s the point.

Tactics for not taking the status quo for granted

So, let’s say you’ve signed up, notionally at least, to some self-exploration through thought and action. After all, even though it’ll steal time from the pressing demands of the everyday, it might just make you more resilient in ways that really matter: better attuned to your strengths and vulnerabilities and how they are affected by the structures of your working life. And so it might make tomorrow even better than today has been.

But how to actually do it? How to make this exploration of meanings and motivations you attach to your working life maximally constructive?

Here are six practical ways you might like to try out for moving from the theory to the practice of coming to know yourself better. They include assessing how you’re really spending your time now, preparing for the pushback you might encounter from your colleagues, and making forays into new roles.

1. Take a thorough audit of the constituents of your everyday life now. For example, keep an activity diary for a week, broken into hour-long segments. Include all your waking hours, not just ‘work’ time. How much of your week is spent doing things you enjoy and find meaningful? What are those things? (What are they really, not what you think it sounds appropriate or impressive to say they are.)

2. We can’t spend all our time doing what we enjoy and find meaningful, but the more we do, the more likely professional success and fulfilment are to result. Use your audit to identify enjoyable and meaningful activities and prompt some questions: Is your current role the only or best way of maximising the time you get to spend doing these things? Are there specific areas of your current work that are much more rewarding to you than others, and if so, could you expand them? How do the costs and benefits of your current professional role extend into the nonprofessional areas of your life (income, security, location, time for family and friends, etc.)? Whether you’re interested in a freelance career or employment or a mixture, you might find our portfolio careers workbook helpful for working through these questions step by step.

3. What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Ask the question. Does an alternative spring instantly (happily?) to mind? Do you draw a complete blank? In both cases it might be worth doing a bit more research: book a one-to-one with a university careers adviser, chat to friends who do other things, explore sites like www.research-careers.org or the Royal Society’s Changing Expectations case studies to see what people with your background went on to do beyond academia. (Remember this kind of research is just as much research as the article-writing kind; and for your life and what you do with it, it matters more than anything.) Again, the answer may turn out to be that you’d be less happy doing anything else than this, but if so, won’t it feel nice to have properly asked the question and got this answer?

4. Don’t just explore in the abstract, on paper, online. Take a small, active step.

Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting. (Richard Pascale, Surfing the Edge of Chaos, p. 14)

Or as Herminia Ibarra puts it in her book Working Identity,

No amount of self-reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives according to criteria that change as we do. (p. 2)

So, Ibarra suggests, instead of asking the question we’d like to begin with a firm answer to (‘Who do I really want to become?’), the best way to start is by asking smaller, more testable questions, like

Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that? (p. 20)

Identify projects that might give you a feel for a new type of work or way of working: things you can do alongside your existing role before deciding whether to make a bigger switch.

This might mean taking on small freelance tasks or informal consultancy in a new area, trying out some volunteering or work shadowing, writing for new audiences or finding out about how other people have monetised ‘nonprofessional’ interests like yours. As Ibarra says, pursue these new things seriously, evaluating each new experience, but delay commitment:

Slowly ascertain your enduring values and preferences, what makes you unique in the world. Just make sure that you vary your experiments, so that you can compare and contrast experiences before you narrow down your options. (p. 170)

Ibarra also suggests that you take advantage of natural windows when you are more receptive to major change (like the period just after you finish a degree or just before you take up a new position, or on a milestone birthday), and communicate to others that you have changed (and will be making more changes). Maybe they’ll say they are changing too!

5. Remember that there are systematic psychological reasons why it is hard to even contemplate making professional changes.

Most people experience the transition to a new working life as a time of confusion, loss, insecurity, and uncertainty. […] a true change of direction is always terrifying. (Ibarra, p. xi)

Because humans don’t like uncertainty, many deep-rooted cognitive biases cause us to resist change: the sunk-cost fallacy, the mere-exposure effect, cognitive-dissonance reduction, etc. etc. (look them up and see how many of them you recognise in your own habits!).

'Better the devil you know' sums many of them up. This fallacy may be actively propounded by your colleagues: ‘Being told at 27 that I was too old to move outside and no one would hire me.’(What Do Research Staff Do Next?, Vitae/CRAC, 2016)

Loyalty and a sense of being beholden to those you work with now may also be part of the mix. (‘People also seemed to take it personally, as though by deciding to leave academia I was basically saying that their jobs were rubbish.’)

And misplaced moral and value judgements make up much of the rest. (‘Worrying whether I had made the right choice and feeling that those still in academia would look down on me.’ ‘Trying to let go of the feeling that I had failed because I couldn’t get a permanent job in academia and not letting that get in the way of the new work I have.’)

So, the first step is to recognise these reasons why what you’re doing is hard. You can safely predict that you will feel discomfort as you explore other options. It would be strange if you did not, having invested energy and thought into a (narrowly) academic future. The second step is to practise distinguishing the valid reasons for caution from the blinkers that will keep you from looking around you with an open mind. The third is to work sensitively with the valid reasons, being generous to and forgiving of yourself.

6. Remember that all of this takes time. Ibarra’s research suggests that major career change typically takes three to five years, and turning points tend to come late not early on. You have time; be patient and don’t resent the process.

7. Remember that any conclusion is OK. What is not OK is feeling it’s wrong (unjustified, self-indulgent, too frightening) to do any of this exploring.


IV. Your working identities

'No career change materializes out of the blue. […] Since we are many selves, changing is not a process of swapping one identity for another but rather a transition process in which we reconfigure the full set of possibilities.’ (Ibarra, Working Identity, 2004, p. xi)

If you’ve begun to try any of the exercises suggested here, you’ll already understand that exploring your resilience goes right to the heart of who you are.

There are several traps lurking in the realm of work and identity. The first is to believe that we should all know who we are (after all, surely we’ve been alive long enough to have found out?), and that doing things like researching new career possibilities means merely finding ways to put that peerless self-knowledge into practice. Another slightly subtler trap is to believe that there is a ‘real you’ submerged somewhere deep inside, to be uncovered through the hard dredging work of, say, trawling through other people’s LinkedIn profiles and comparing other people’s selves with your own. The myth of a persistent singular ‘me’ is a myth: from the cellular level to the level of values and personality, things are always in flux. As Herminia Ibarra puts it, ‘our working identity is not a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered at the very core of our inner being’ (p. xi). In his recent book The Mind Is Flat (2018), Nick Chater, a professor of behavioural science, marshals a wide range of psychological evidence to demonstrate that ‘the rich mental world we imagine that we are “looking in on” moment-by-moment, is actually a story that we are inventing moment-by-moment’ (p. 14). This doesn’t mean that everything about you is infinitely malleable, just that there is no single ground truth about ‘the real you’ to be unlocked by introspective effort.

Our identities are numerous, and are always constructed through the interplay between our minds, our bodies, and our social, cultural, and physical environments. Sometimes friction arises between one or more of these. The friction may be productive or not. If it isn’t, it can sometimes be resolved by making changes within the existing system, but sometimes a move to a new context is needed to restore equilibrium (see above). However difficult or frightening it is, such a move should never be considered a failure – quite the opposite.

Being alive is a process of iteratively updating our sense of what we are through feedback with what we do and where and how and with whom and with what effects. The looping iterations can be apparently small: move to a new office, realise you’re really enjoying having a far horizon to stare out at, find your mind works differently in different places and experiment with turning this to account by switching places for different tasks. And they can be apparently large: move to a new continent, feel that everything has changed, work out ways to find your feet, discover that the person you are in this place and language is definably different from that person who stepped onto the plane. But sometimes appearances are deceptive: ‘The changes that look the most profound are sometimes in fact the realisation of deeper continuity, while what seems an incremental move can mask a profound shift’ (p. 15). Likewise, every big change also starts small, or ought to: if you’re planning what you expect to be a profound shift, you should almost certainly take some baby steps first, to see how it feels, before your investments of time and energy shift into definite and substantive commitments – and risks.

Conducting modest behavioural experiments on yourself can be a revealing way to do some significant updating of your working model of who you are. For example, maybe you think you’re a night-time person. What happens if for a week you set an early alarm and do an hour of writing before breakfast? Or maybe you’ve always assumed to have to work very long hours because you’re in academia. Next week you’re going to wrap up work before dinner, make plans for your evenings and the weekend, and see what happens. This is about inquiring into who you are (and what it even means to ask the question) by changing what you do, and allowing for one to change as the other does.

Little self-experimentations of this kind can be understood as part of a grander feedback loop for your ‘working identities’, which Ibarra configures as involving transitions between exploring possible selves, lingering between identities, and grounding deep change, which in turn feeds into new explorations. And if the idea of life as feedback loop exhausts you – firstly, well, bad luck. Second, don’t worry, there are outcomes too: forms of external and internal change that are meaningful in their own right, as well as being fodder for the next iteration.

In asking, as we all do from time to time, who am I?, it can be helpful to bear in mind the tendency we have to retreat from action into reflection.

Reflection is important. But we can use it as a defense against testing reality; reflecting on who we are is less important than probing whether we really want what we think we want. Acting in the world gives us the opportunity to see our selves through our behaviors and allows us to adjust our expectations as we learn. In failing to act, we hide from ourselves. (Ibarra, p. 168)

And if acting is revealing ourselves to ourselves, then the stakes are rather different from what we might tend to assume. The wrong move is not the one that fails to bring the salary increase or the perfect work-life balance. Amongst the people Ibarra interviewed, many of them made mistakes, and struggled with lower income or loss of stimulation. Yet:

I heard great regret only from those who failed to act, who were unable or unwilling to put their dreams to the test and to find out for themselves if there were better alternatives. The only wrong move consisted of no move. (p. 166)

Most of it comes back to an acceptance of uncertainty. You may or may not score highly on the Big Five ‘openness to experience’ scale , and it’s not bad not to: patience, routine, and specialised interests are valuable habits and preferences too. But to have any happiness in an uncertain universe, we must accept the inevitability of uncertainty – and all of us will find the level of acceptance we’re able and willing to tolerate.

One of the things that tends to happen if we rigidly resist uncertainty is that we make decisions in haste, to get the horribleness of not knowing what comes next out of the way quicker. Retreating from change might mean either staying put or taking the wrong next job or opportunity (especially accepting unsolicited job offers) to ‘stay safe’ (i.e. employed). It might also mean being seduced by the allure of the single big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Ibarra’s advice is to ‘Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution’ (p. 168). In her experience, the process of career change usually takes three to five years. This can feel like forever, but isn’t, and if one tries to short-circuit it, it often just ends up taking longer.

Nothing is ever not changing, but during times of particularly conspicuous change it can be helpful to remember that nothing inherently makes sense or doesn’t, when it comes to our career progression or anything else. Career paths that make sense are just those we manage to put convincing spin on in retrospect.

V. Having a strategy for cultivating resilience

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: as we explained above, 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.

As Diane Caldwell-Hird suggests elsewhere on this blog, 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.

Above, 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!

* * * * *

Feedback dynamics: technical appendix


The two types of feedback loop we’ve considered, the one tending towards instability and the one tending towards stability, have somewhat counter-intuitive technical names. They are positive feedback and negative feedback.

In English, of course, positive has two meanings:
1) good, or beneficial
2) greater than zero

Likewise, negative means:
1) bad, detrimental
2) less than zero

Especially when coupled with the word feedback, the evaluative meanings often trump the numerical ones. For our purposes here, this is unfortunate, since positive and negative feedback are great ways of conceptualising self-perpetuating and self-cancelling feedback dynamics. A classic example of positive feedback is the screech of a microphone picking up the sound of a speaker being used to amplify it: the microphone feeds the speaker sound back to the speaker to be amplified, then the speaker amplifies that sound and feeds it into the microphone, and so on until your ears hurt. This is positive feedback because it’s additive: each iteration adds to the last in a rising spiral. Negative feedback, by contrast, is self-cancelling, tending to damp itself down. A familiar example is the cruise control we considered at the start, which measures the actual speed, subtracts it from the desired speed, and uses this signal to compute how much more or less fuel to inject, resulting in a new speed to measure. If the cruise control is working well, the fluctuations should get smaller and smaller, rather than bigger and bigger, until a neat 70 mph is reached – and then adjust quickly again if you suddenly start down a steep hill.

References & further reading


If you want to read more on positive and negative feedback in the systems engineering (not the TripAdvisor) sense, you can do worse than start with Wikipedia, here and here.

Troscianko, E. T. (2017). Feedback in reading and disordered eating. In M. Burke and E. T. Troscianko (Eds), Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 169-194). New York: Oxford University Press. Google Books preview here.

http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/overcoming-failure/

http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2017/05/17/meditation-on-a-caltrain-understanding-where-to-travel-to-next/

https://books.google.co.uk/books?isbn=1422160653

https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/working-identity-nine-unconventional-strategies-for-reinventing-your-career

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_91.htm

https://troscianko.com

http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/freelancers/

https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/research-culture/changing-expectations/career-case-studies/

With thanks to James Anderson for the feedback engineering advice. James completed his DPhil in Engineering at Oxford in 2012 and is now a senior postdoc at Caltech.









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