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Mind Matters: Resilience

(Credit: NSF/ Paul Thompson and Arthur Toga, UCLA)

The pursuit of a career in science is uber-demanding. Slogging through 6 or 7 years of graduate school, then a postdoc or two, can be exhausting, even for dedicated high achievers. In the current economic climate, prolonged uncertainty about prospects for future employment compounds the stress.

Scores of articles and forum posts on Science Careers (including some previous Mind Matters columns) have described stressors commonly experienced by science trainees: the mismatch between job demands and rewards; lack of support from mentors, supervisors, and employers; the frustrations of scientific setbacks; pressures to compete and excel; the precarious work-life juggle; limited job opportunities -- to list a few.

Taken together, these studies suggest that it's possible to mitigate the ill effects of workplace stress.

Most trainees are unprepared for what they encounter in graduate school. "For the first time people don't treat you like the future superstar you always thought you were," one scientist says. "You don't make much money, you work extremely long hours, and you begin to worry that you don't have a future. It's a bit like being a starving artist but without the personal affirmation you get from those occasional, limited artistic triumphs."

Why do some succeed while others fail or fade away? Some chalk it up to luck, others to talent. Still others believe that some people are just born to succeed, with immutable innate abilities. However, a growing body of research and practical experience suggest that personal resilience is one reason that some people succeed but others don't. Two trainees come up against negative research findings, or face a string of rejections from journal editors and grant-review panels. Their challenges are similar, but one feels defeated while the other is inspired to try harder. Guess who wins?

The concept of personal resilience

Much of the early research on the psychology of resilience focused on at-risk children, adolescents, and families. But a growing number of studies look at the role of resilience in the workplace. Their findings suggest that some people are more adept than others at bouncing back from adversity. There is still controversy about the extent to which resilience is innate or learned,1 but there's widespread agreement that humans can increase resilience and learn to handle workplace stressors better.

A cursory look at what we know

Harvard Medical School's recent Seventh Annual Symposium of the Science of Learning focused on the implications of resilience research in teaching medical students and residents.2 Several presentations summarized the adverse physiological effects of chronic stress on body parts and systems: the immune system, circulatory system, bones, muscles, and cognitive functioning and mood. "The good news: These ill effects are reversible," says Bruce McEwen, a professor of neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University in New York City.

At the same meeting, George Everly, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, said that in the wake of war, natural disaster, and severe abuse, social support networks are the best predictor of "immunity to stress," along with optimism, perseverance, responsibility, and integrity.

Debra Jackson and colleagues published a literature review on personal resilience as a survival strategy for nurses.3 It proposed five self-development strategies: Building nurturing professional relationships and networks, staying positive, developing emotional insight, achieving life balance and spirituality, and becoming more reflective.

A 2005 dissertation looked at factors that enable resilient doctoral students from nontraditional backgrounds to overcome adversity.4 The study found that resilient students were more likely to come from families who are supportive of their education, believe in a higher power, have a sense of purpose, have mentors during their graduate school years, view obstacles as challenges, and give back to their communities and to others.

Science and engineering attract a sizeable proportion of international students, who face additional stressors: use of a new language, distance from home and family supports, immersion in a new and different culture, and sometimes racism and xenophobia. In one of the first studies to examine resilience among international students,5 researchers found that a high level of resilience was the best predictor of adjustment in international graduate students.

Taken together, these studies suggest that it's possible to mitigate the ill effects of workplace stress.

How to raise your resilience

The Road To Resilience, a publication developed by the Practice Directorate of the American Psychological Association,6 identifies 10 ways to build resilience:

-Make connections with people who can provide social support (e.g., mentors, friends, and colleagues)

-Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable and maintain a long-term view toward the future

-Accept that change (and the need to adapt to it) is part of living

-Focus on small steps and realistic goals that can be accomplished on a regular basis

-Take decisive action rather than wishing problems would go away

-Look for opportunities for self-discovery; learn lessons from stress and adversity

-Nurture a positive view of yourself that allows you to trust your instincts

-Maintain perspective and don't blow things out of proportion

-Take care of yourself mentally and physically

-Meditation and spiritual practices are helpful to some people.

In a literature review of the psychosocial factors associated with resilience to stress and stress-induced depression, Steven Southwick and colleagues produce a similar but shorter list of important factors:

-Positive emotions, such as optimism and humor

-Cognitive flexibility


-Social support, including role models

-Active coping style, including exercise.

Moving from why to how-to

Turning these research findings into a personal plan of action is challenging. It may entail:

-Learning more about resilience (from books and online)

-Digging deeper (to examine your past and current responses to stress, what worked and what didn't, and how your approach might be modified)

-Working closely with trusted friends, family, and mentors to figure out new ways of thinking and responding to stress

-Practicing meditation and or/mindfulness

-Joining support groups at your place of work or seeking help from career coaches or mental health professionals.

In the Harvard Business Review, Martin E.P. Seligman, often called the father of positive psychology, had this to say: "We have learned not only how to distinguish those who will grow after failure from those who will collapse, but also how to build the skills of people in the latter category."

Educational institutions need to play a greater role, too, in helping trainees adapt to stress and build resilience. An innovative example is the CareerWISE Resiliency Training Program at Arizona State University, which provides interactive online resources to support female graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics Ph.D. programs. The Earth Institute ADVANCE program at Columbia University aims to foster resilience among more senior women. While both these programs focus on women, the benefits of enhanced resilience aren't limited to those with two X chromosomes. More such programs are needed.

1 Jackson D., Firtko A. & Edenborough M. (2007) Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: a literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing 60(1), 1-9.
3 Jackson D., Firtko A. & Edenborough M. (2007) Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: a literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing 60(1), 1-9.
4 Nilsen, Andrea Rose-Anne. The tenacious women of La Verne: A case study of factors that enabled resilient doctoral students from nontraditional backgrounds to overcome adversity and meet their goals, Dissertation Abstract: 2005-99001-121.
5 Wang, J. A Study of Resiliency Characteristics in the Adjustment of International Students at American Universities, Journal of Studies in International Education 2009, P. 22-45.
6 Also available in Spanish:

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