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How do you build resilience?

In this guest blog post, BSI members John Tregoning and Cecilia Johansson discuss the importance of resilience in a scientific career and what strategies you can use to boost your coping techniques. 

At the recent British Society for Immunology (BSI) Early Career Training session in London, we were tasked with talking about tools to help immunologists improve their resilience. This was identified  by the BSI’s ‘Careers in Immunology’ report as an area that early stage (and middle and late stage) immunologists struggle with throughout their careers. So you probably don’t need us to tell you that a career in science can be difficult. Whatever stage you are at, there are always new hurdles to surmount and rejections to overcome. Part of the phenotype of the successful scientist is resilience: resilience in the face of experiments failing, resilience in the face of papers being rejected, resilience in the face of short term contracts, minimal wages and a terrifying lack of job security. As resilience is "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties" – how do we build/enhance our resilience?

We have identified three sources of resilience that you can draw upon: within yourself, outside yourself and outside your work.


The Struggle Within

The first source of resilience has to come from within yourself. There are a number of tricks that we think can help:

  1. Mindset. Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University; in her book MindSet,1 she identifies the strength of a growth mindset, which means looking for the opportunities to improve yourself in any situation. So instead of saying ‘reviewer 2 is an idiot’, reframe the situation to say ‘how could I have made my writing more clear so that even reviewer 2 could understand it’.
  2. Other people. Other people’s success can be a source of strength, or not: we have two different approaches to deal with it.
    1. Never compare up (John’s approach). With the internet to hand you don’t have to look very far to find a more successful immunologist than yourself. It is then very easy to slowly sink into despair as you read their endless CV of success. Don’t do this! Alice Prince at Columbia very clearly describes how people’s CVs are not an honest reflection of the route they took.2
    2. Inspiration (Cecilia’s approach). Use amazing people around you as role models. Have a lot of them and use their skills/behaviour/mindset as motivation.  
  3. Behaviour. It is not what happened, it is how you react to the situation that decides the amount of resilience needed. Your values, mindset, beliefs, and current state of mind all influence how much resilience you have: when you are super stressed and over-worked it is much harder to cope. Reflect on how and why you react to a particular situation and think of how you can improve your coping strategies.
  4. Celebrate. Make a point of celebrating successes big and small: papers, grants, experiments for both yourself and everyone around you. Apply the perspective of time to your progress: taking a longer view smooths out the lows and demonstrates an upward trajectory. Pause and take stock of the past three months, one year, five years and identify what went right.
  5. Make plans. It is difficult to assess your progress without a plan. What do you want to achieve in the next three months, one year, five years. The granularity of the detail can fade as you look further into the future.
  6. Pause and take care of yourself. In a stressful life/period, it is very easy to forget yourself. Find ways of manage your time (as time is precious and we never have enough) and your stress levels. Mindfulness (essentially meditation) can be a very helpful tool. It doesn’t need much more than closing your eyes and focusing on your breath or the background noises for a few minutes to re-wind and re-set.

All of these approaches link to good reflective practice – studying your own experiences to improve the way you work. There are times when everything can get on top of you and you have to take time to step back. However, occasionally, it is not possible to do this alone and this is where you need to the second source of resilience, other people.


Everybody needs somebody

We all need support from other people. The Ancient Greek language has multiple different words for love/ support, and while the type of support we need most will vary from person to person and with time of life, these different types provide a useful framework for thinking about our interactions with others. This support can come from both within science and from your broader circle of friends and family.

Agape refers to love from a parent to a child, but more broadly reflects support from a senior figure to someone more junior. Don’t restrict yourself to one role model or mentor, you don’t even need to have met them (e.g. CJ looks to Cheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook3; JT has learnt a huge amount from Stephen King’s book On Writing4). Take every opportunity to meet new and inspiring people. But also look inwards, most organisations (including the BSI) run mentoring programs. And remember different people will be useful for different types of advice/perspectives.

Eros describes the love of a partner. Now this is far from being a lonely hearts column, but we both draw great strength from our partners. The family network (partner, children, parents, cousins etc) is also a huge source of support.

Finally, but not least, Phillia love of a friend. Assembling a group of like-minded individuals is really important. Start in your PhD. Long hours spent moving colourless liquid around in labs are the perfect time to bond. Immunology is not a big field: as you progress with your career, it is amazing the times your paths will cross and re-cross. If nothing else, your PhD cohort are good for free beds in foreign cities. But the hope is that you can rise together on a common mutually supportive wave.5


Hit the road Jack

The final source of support is the realisation that this is just a job. If can feel all consuming, but it is still just a job. It helps to take a broader perspective. Again this comes back to good reflective practice. In parallel it is vital to have a life outside work (more work to live than live to work). This is not always easy, especially if you are juggling work and family commitments. But find outlets that you enjoy, without feeling the pressure to excel at them: bake but don’t aim to win Bake Off, run but don’t aim to win marathons. These other activities serve the same purpose as mindfulness – they break the loop when work is getting on top of you. Try to remember why you are doing/chose to do this job and the many positive aspects it brings.

A career in immunology has peaks and troughs. It’s ok to find it tricky and to admit to other people that you find it tricky. Recognising and celebrating the highs and learning tools to negotiate the lows can really help.

John Tregoning, Senior Lecturer in Immunology, Imperial College London. Twitter: @DrTregoning

Cecilia Johansson, Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Infection, Imperial College London. Twitter: @cjohansson_lab 

Further reading

You can read more articles from John on his blog: References for the article are below.

  1. Dweck, C. S. Mindset  the new psychology of success. Updated edition. edn,  (Random House, 2016).
  2. Prince, A. Omissions from a National Institute of Health (NIH) biosketch. PLoS Pathog 14, e1006896, doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1006896 (2018).
  3. Sandberg, S. Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead. First edition. edn,  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
  4. King, S. On writing: a memoir of the craft. Scribner trade paperback edition. edn,  (Scribner, 2010).
  5. Tregoning, J. No researcher is too junior to fix science. Nature 545, 7, doi:10.1038/545007a (2017).