Building Resilience Throughout a Career

How do you develop resilience? This was a question I was asked recently by a mid-career researcher. Not, please note, someone just setting out, but someone who was already well-established. This problem is ubiquitous and does not go away just because of seniority. Academia – though one might say all of life – has pressures from every direction and surviving these pressures is inevitably going to be a challenge. Students – again at any stage – will recognize the problem of competing demands pulling them in every direction simultaneously. Problem sheet/essay versus laundry versus catching-up with lecture notes/thesis-writing versus a social life….Everything needs attention. Resilience is talked about at school as well as university; self-help books and articles in the popular press abound, and yet we all face up to the challenge on a regular basis and not necessarily successfully.

I am not going to attempt to solve the problem, although I think there are some things that one should – except in the most extreme circumstances and only temporarily – avoid. And one of these is to work 100 hours a week. The THE devoted a feature to this topic of massively long hours recently, stimulated by an off-the-cuff tweet from Mary Beard. The trouble is, for many of us in academia, some of the things we do will bring joy. Too often these are the things that get squeezed out by the mundane but urgent.

One can enjoy teaching, but not necessarily the stress of preparing a new lecture at 24 hours’ notice because there has been no time to prepare it any earlier due to all the other tasks on the to do list. Writing lectures gets squeezed in between preparing exams (and any student who thinks their examiners don’t spend huge amounts of time preparing, checking questions are unambiguous, not to mention correct, needs to think again); pastoral care; departmental admin and of course research. Life is full of deadlines, and sometimes it is simply impossible to make all of them. But you cannot turn up empty-handed to deliver a lecture! One of the authors in the THE feature refers to the fact that writing – as in this blog – can either feel a terrible burden or indeed a joy. How to squeeze it in amongst everything else, feeling the joy and not the burden?

Lee Cronin is one academic who believes that working long hours is the only way to get cutting-edge science done. Last summer, in an article on the long hours culture, he wrote

Some people have suggested that large teams are not productive and force people to work longer in a type of sausage factory. This argument, constructed using anecdotal evidence, is not proven. Personally, I’d posit that small teams can also be sweatshops and sausage factories. And bullying, sadly, can take many forms beyond the expectation of long work hours.

The sausage machine allegation was almost certainly directed at me and the post I wrote around the same time. His view on large groups was brought to my attention again in an article in a recent THE article on interdisciplinarity where he proudly talks of a group of 65 necessary in order to achieve the many different strands and disciplines needed for his projects. I understand that a diverse group of individuals bringing different skills to the table from their own disciplinary backgrounds is often crucial, but the evidence is that it is small groups that are disruptive, whereas large ones may be more incremental. As that particular article (by Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang and James Evans) on the impact of group size on outputs says

Observed differences between small and large teams are magnified for higher-impact work, with small teams known for disruptive work and large teams for developing work.

I paraphrase that sentence as: large teams are in danger of doing incremental stuff rather than the paradigm-shifting variety. It should be recognized, however, all such evidence is statistical and any group, whatever its size, may have its own recipe for success.

However, are you more likely to develop individual resilience better in large or small groups? And, how resilient is the group overall? To look for evidence on this I turned to the Harvard Business Review, where tactics to ensure teams work well together (and are well led) are often discussed. A recent article identifies four attributes of a resilient team.

  • They believe they can effectively complete tasks together
  • They share a common mental model of teamwork
  • They are able to improvise
  • They trust one another and feel safe

This article of course refers to the very different world of business rather than the academic laboratory, and yet I would hazard a guess these traits still apply. Improvisation when you can’t afford the kit and need a quick-fix, knowing how each part of a project fits together to achieve a common goal and a clear mental model of how to work together to achieve that goal – these would all still be relevant. But perhaps where I suspect many scientific groups up and down the country would fall down is on trust and feeling safe – although that in itself has little to do with group size.

I have been dismayed to hear group leaders talk about setting the same project to more than one PhD student to see who achieves the desired result first. Can you synthesise this compound by route A or B? The professor’s favourite team member will be the one who gets there first, and the outcome may bear little relationship to inherent skills. Safety will not be the first emotion a student feels in such a situation. They will certainly not develop resilience when things go wrong, because they will always be looking over their shoulder and worrying a peer is going to win the prize. That anxiety, verging on fear, will additionally not lead to constructive working relationships amongst the team members themselves. And in terms of lab safety, trust is also vital if people are to be willing to speak up about potential risks – again a fact well-established in diverse situations (read, for instance, Margaret Heffernan’s Wilful Blindness for a wide-ranging discussion).

Just as with a developing child, who will not develop future resilience if they get criticised every time they fall on their face (perhaps literally), so with a student learning lab skills. When things go wrong, they need support and advice not the worry of someone else ‘beating’ them to a result on the adjacent bench. Otherwise they will not develop confidence and the ability to bounce back from those future set-backs that are bound to occur. The mid-career scientist who asks me about resilience may or may not have suffered from this sort of early-career angst, but they are still full of worries that they do not know how to prioritise, they do not know what to do when one of the balls they are juggling gets dropped, and they are constantly on edge that that dropped ball will in some sense be terminal for their career.

Academia needs to be more forgiving, but the pressures leadership are put under by successive governments makes it hard for our cultures to permit that. Each of us individually needs to do all we can to support those around us. To reiterate the HBR article, resilience develops best in teams which trust each other and where every individual feels safe – regardless of team size. We all have a responsibility to try to ensure that can happen, because it is self-evident that many laboratories and teams up and down the land are failing at this.

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