Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Developing Resilience

This month I'm going to be writing about a subject that I have, in the past, had a serious problem with personally: I've been much too willing to have my day trashed by a colleague's snide comment, or by the "constructive criticism" passed along to me by a boss--or an editor! Being too vulnerable myself, I recognize that quality when I see it in others, and it is my belief that few professions are as highly populated by vulnerable people as science.

Why does this kind of work, which requires unlimited perseverance and years of effort just to get started, attract so many sensitive people? Recently, when scanning the newest entries on the Science Careers Discussion Forum, I noticed posts from quite a few trainee scientists having sensitivity problems. In some cases, the problem is in relationships with advisors, while others have problems with inconsiderate--or cruel--lab mates and colleagues. And while it's possible to turn some of these situations around, in some cases you have no power whatsoever. Much of the time there's really nothing you can do about it--except tough it out. Often as not, resilience ends up being the difference between success and failure.

Inborn Personality Trait or a Skill Like Any Other?

In researching the matter for myself, I found that most experts believe that resilience in the face of life's problems is not an inborn personality trait. Resilience, they believe, is a set of skills and attitudes, something that can be learned and developed. This is very good news for those of us who consistently take it on the chin.

One of my resource materials was a great book called Resilience at Work by Dr. Salvatore Maddi and Dr. Deborah Khoshaba, the founders of an Institute devoted to what they call "hardiness training." Here's a quote from the book (AMACOM, 2005) that, I think, provides a good indication of why resilience training ought to be a part of the curriculum for scientists:

Hardiness is a particular pattern of attitudes and skills that helps you be resilient, to survive and thrive under stress. Simply put, these attitudes are commitment, control, and challenge. As times get tough, if you hold these attitudes, you'll believe that it is best to stay involved with the people and events around you (commitment) rather than to pull out, to keep trying to influence the outcomes in which you are involved (control) rather than to give up, and to try to discover how you can grow through the stress (challenge) rather than to bemoan your fate.

Resilience Factors

These three attitudes--commitment, control, and challenge--were developed at the Hardiness Institute after the conclusion of a 12-year longitudinal study of thousands of employees who went through the breakup of AT&T's "Ma Bell" in the early 1980s.

Maddi--a behavioral psychologist--studied those who had the resilience to survive those drastic changes and compared their attitudes to those whose careers and physical health spiraled downhill as a result of their employment changes. In studying the subjects' reactions to this major change, the authors began to see concordance in three areas. Their studies provided support for their conviction that whether stressful changes enliven or destroy depends upon how you respond to them.

Here are some examples of how successful scientists integrated Maddi and Khoshaba's three factors into their careers.

Commitment: Robert knew that if he withdrew completely from the problems he was facing, he would crash and burn in his Ph.D. program. He was 3 years into his studies and at a point where it appeared he just might have to start over again. One of the senior postdocs in the lab had suggested that he ought to quit, or leave with a master's degree. The postdoc's constant editorializing--or, rather, his message--had ceased being a mere annoyance and become a matter of real concern.

But Robert knew when he started the program that it was going to take a huge commitment and many years of effort to get where he wanted to be. He concluded that he wasn't going to let one postdoc's disgruntlement cause him to waste all his years of hard work. The commitment he made in the beginning was still valid. Independent research positions, he realized, only come to those who face down obstacles and get beyond them. One postdoc's cynicism changed nothing; it was his path and he intended to complete the trip.

Is Vulnerability Built-in to the Scientific Career Process? Comments from the Forum

Dr. Rich Lemert, a frequent adviser on the Science Careers Discussion Forum, recently put it this way: "I suspect that a large part of the problem is a side-effect of the typical pre-career path that a new scientist goes through. The scientist goes directly from high school into college, and finds that career opportunities are limited at the BS/BA level. He or she may therefore go directly into grad school, and from there into a postdoc. Throughout this process, the scientist is in a relatively subservient role; he's working on his advisor's project, and too often only has minimal input into the course of his work," says Lemert.

Lemert suggests that you can learn later in life to shed your vulnerability. "You learn with experience the knowledge that 'I don't have to take this if I don't want to; I have options.' This insight comes earlier for engineers than for scientists, because they often have interactions with industry people even at the undergraduate level. In industry, your relationship with the boss is simply 'here's what I need you to do; you're responsible for getting it done.' That's hard to find on the academic ladder."

Long-term forum participant and senior postdoc "Becky" believes that many of the qualities required to be successful in science, like a single-minded devotion to a problem, may actually feed the sensitivity problem. "I think the notion that there are 'sensitive' types in science stems from the combination of these two things--intense focus and poor interpersonal skills, but it is my belief that the culture of science amplifies the problem. I've seen too many 'sensitive' people leave the lab and succeed in other careers," says Becky.

"MPB," a science writer, sees things differently. "You seem to be assuming that scientists are less resilient than the general population," says MPB. "I have never really seen anything to make me think that is the case. If anything, many of the posts that I read on this forum make me think that a lot of these problems are caused by too much, rather than too little, resilience. Many people seem to hang on for years in positions that are taking their careers nowhere."

The Science Careers Discussion Forum is located at

Even if you have supportive colleagues and a happy, healthy workplace, everyone comes up against some kind of test of their commitment in the course of their training. In such cases, resilience operates much like a filter, removing scientists and science trainees who lack a firm commitment. Others--the ones capable of reaching deep inside for that extra bit of tenacity--make it past the hurdle. So where do you stand on the tenacity continuum? If you know your commitment is weak, now is a good time to check out other options. If you are somewhere in the middle, it's up to you to decide whether you really have the interest and commitment to push through to your destination.

Control: Susan knew that she had absolutely no control over many aspects of her relationship with her advisor. The relationship ran hot and cold--sometimes her advisor thought she could walk on water, other times he couldn't spare a moment or just glared at her with obvious disdain. Susan realized that this relationship could affect her chances at getting a good job in industry, her career goal.

Susan was a bit headstrong--she realized this--and she found it frustrating to be in such a deferential position. But as she thought about her problem, she already knew what Dr. Zhang needed: good data. She knew that things wouldn't start improving for her--that the relationship wouldn't stabilize--until she started providing the results he craved consistently. Susan realized that she had been spending far too much time dissecting her relationship with her advisor, including, especially, the day-to-day aspects that were outside her control. There wasn't much she could do about that, so why worry? She decided, instead, to focus on aspects of her grad school program she does control, like how she spends her time in the lab, for example, and how she would respond--in the most measured, professional way possible, she decided--to her advisor's social mood swings.

One thing that has always proven true, in my experience, is that if you believe that you have some power to control at least a portion of your situation, you can often manage to push yourself past its negative effects by focusing on those aspects and forgetting the rest. I like to draw up a list of the elements to the problem, and place them in one of two columns, either "Control" or "No Control." The items you can have some impact on need action taken right away, because just taking a few positive steps can make you feel better. The "no control" items go into the "Fuggetaboutit" category, as Tony Soprano might say.

Challenge: When he first saw the paper in Science, Dilip's first reaction was shock. With that one publication, he realized, several years of hard work could be headed out the window. He realized immediately that this revolutionary paper, published by a competitive laboratory, would send the field in an entirely new direction. His work with a different system could now be considered extinct.

Yet, as Dilip thought about the challenge of picking up from here, he realized that there was a lot of hope in the fact that he understood the implications of the work so quickly; this sense of perspective indicated a deep knowledge of the field that would, he realized, serve him well. Perhaps those years of work had not been wasted after all. Furthermore, he saw areas of overlap between his specialty and the field's likely new direction--areas that might not be obvious to scientists who had not been doing exactly the kind of work he had been doing. He sensed a new opportunity developing out of this change, which sparked his interest far more than he expected. He could see past today's temporary challenge, and was, in fact, excited about it.

Sometimes things that seem to be good suddenly go awry. When this happens, don't take it personally. We've all seen those bumper stickers that say something like "Stuff happens," and that's right, it does. Yet some people see negative changes as signs of their own inadequacy while others will rise to the challenge. If you'd like to be in that latter category, think about what aspects of your unfortunate circumstance you can use to your advantage. What must you do to make something positive happen from that "stuff" that that's hitting the fan . . . There's always a first, positive step. Take it.

Improving With Time

If you've occasionally suffered from a lack of resilience, join me in developing the thick skin it takes to survive in science. It won't happen overnight, but by paying attention to the three Cs--commitment, control, and challenge--of every potentially negative event, we can improve our careers and reduce the damaging effect of stress on our health.

It will be a learning process, however. I still shudder when I pick up a stack of feedback sheets after a speaking engagement, or when I submit an article to an editor and don't get an "atta boy" an hour or two later!