What makes a great scientist? Part 2: Perseverance

perseveranceIf you want an easy, straight forward career, scientific research and academia are likely not for you. I am sure all careers require dealing with rejections and numerous hurdles, but few will keep you waiting for a first permanent job until you are close to 40 (or older) and require a constant competition in which rejection is the norm (for fellowships, grants, students, mentors, publications… You name it, you can get rejected). So one thing that great scientists have in common is perseverance. They pushed through to “make it”. Of course, there are probably a few geniuses out there who do not struggle. The rest of us, mortals, do.

Some people can naturally cope well with rejection (or Do they?) but we all can improve our baseline. In a recent commentary published in Science Andy Tay said “I believe that it’s OK to be stressed, upset, frustrated, and even to harbor self-doubt. The important thing is to harness these feelings so that they lead to something productive.” Rejection and failures are going to happen, what you learn from these and how you move on is what makes the difference. Or to quote a good movie “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”.

An important part of moving on is based on learning the difference between rejection to the idea/project/paper (“rejecting you”) and rejection “by chance” or “wrong venue”, call it stochasticity, bad luck, poor fit. This distinction is of course, not always easy to make. It gets easier with experience (after many rejection and some successes) and can be helped with trustworthy feedback. It also requires self-honesty. Surely we don’t always write revolutionary ideas (even if we need to sell them as such to get funding or to publish) nor are we perfect for every job we apply to. So think about what you were aiming to get and try to find where that fits in the continuum of “bad idea” to “bad luck”.

Sometimes you can have a truly brilliant study and not be able to publish it in Science or Nature (presumably the “ultimate goal”) because they already filled their “ecology papers quota”, or because the reviewers who read your manuscript just dislike it (or you), didn’t understand it, or undervalued it. In this case, the learning experience can be summarized as: shit happens. Don’t beat yourself too much over this rejection and move on. You can also consider if that journal (or job or funding body) was the best fit for your study (CV or grant). Maybe a different venue will lead to the much-wanted publication and the flurry of citations and news pieces (or job or funding).

The more difficult pill to swallow comes when rejection falls closer to “bad idea” (the “rejecting you” rejection). Much like uncorresponded love, this one hurts. But if you can move past the absurd idea that “if you try hard you can do anything” (no, you cannot), you may actually manage the pain. I am not particularly hurt that Brad Pitt never found me attractive (of course, he actually has never met me, so there may be hope!). Managing expectations is a great way to deal with rejection. Not everything you will do will be great; the hope is that something will (and won’t be rejected “by chance”).

Perseverance is not about “never quitting”, but about knowing when to quit.

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