The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (of STEM Work)

If you don’t experience a major setback, road block or utter failure in your research or project, do you even STEM?? Hahaha… ugh. We’ve all been there. One day you are flying high! Your research/project is humming along like a well oiled engine. You feel like you are saving the world, you are making a major impact, and you just feel like a superhero of STEM. Everything is GOOD. Then BAM! An unexpected setback slams into you and everything comes to a screeching halt. Your whole world freezes. When I first started graduate school, my advisor told me that the first rule of research was to expect that anything that has the potential to go wrong, will very, very likely indeed go wrong. And boy does it go WRONG sometimes ☹ When it does, you pretty much want to curl up under your bed covers and never come back out.

The most recent time I felt this was a just a few months ago, when I faced a major setback (one in a long line of setbacks I might add) in my research. For those of you that know me, I have been working hard on my Master’s for over two years (nearly three actually) now, and have experienced roadblocks and ditches of every kind imaginable. I had my initial thesis project fall through and had to start all over from scratch. I’ve had a faculty advisor and committee member unceremoniously quit the university out of the blue, leaving me to scramble to find a replacement. I’ve had many, many issues with class scheduling. Right as I was getting ready to submit my IRB application (the documents needed to get legal approval for any research involving living things with a backbone) the president of the IRB approval board quit and was not replaced FOR NEARLY EIGHT MONTHS!!! Meaning my project was on hold that ENTIRE time. I mean, you name it, I’ve experienced it! Each time I felt so worthless and stressed and thought of throwing in the towel.

It can be really easy to succumb to these feelings and host the pity party of the century. But you cannot let these feelings win! You choose STEM for a reason. You are passionate about you do. You want to make a difference. And despite what your inner voice is whispering in your ear, you are worthy of this career path. Picking your self up out of the fetal position and regaining some momentum is HARD. Through trial and error, I’ve found a few things that help me mentally get through these dark times.

  1. Acknowledge that the setback sucks. Just like your parents taught you, ignoring a problem is not going to make it go away. It will just fester in the back of your mind and grow into a humongous boogey man. As much as you wish, it’s a problem, and it’s in the way. So acknowledge it as the sucky thing it is for a few minutes, hour or day. But don’t let it consume you! Get the tears out, have that bubble bath with sappy music, each a special treat, binge your favorite movies/shows, go for a long run or work out. What ever it is that you do when you feel like garbage, do it! But don’t wallow in it long term. Once you acknowledge it and do something feel good, take a deep breath and get back into fighting mode.

 

  1. Brainstorm what you CAN do. Ok, so you’ve encountered this big setback that is sitting like a massive boulder in your way. What else can you do? You can do this alone, or together with your advisor, manager, parent, friend or significant other. Someone with an outside perspective. Think, is there another way to go about the project? Was it perhaps a fluke, and just starting over from a certain point will yield different results? Is there a different project you can work on in the meantime while you figure things out with the initial one? The whole time my thesis was on hold due to the IRB mess, I worked on the literature review of my thesis paper, applied for scholarships, started this blog, and worked by butt off at work teaching marine science to kids. To me, one of the worst parts about setbacks or roadblocks is not knowing what to do with myself. I need to feel productive in some way. Brainstorming something else to work on in the meantime can be a game-changer in improving your outlook. Even if it’s progress in another area of your life, just feeling like you are moving forward with SOMETHING, ANYTHING, can be a huge deal. And sometimes, while you are busy accomplishing other things, that big setback magically doesn’t seem so scary any more.

 

  1. Break down to-do lists into small, daily tasks. When you do start over or take your research in a new direction, it usually comes with a mile-long to-do list. You instantly feel so behind and start to doubt if you can ever get back on track. You work like a fiend, but don’t feel any better off. Your list just keeps growing! Instead of a big master list with complete tasks, break it down into lots of smaller itty-bitty tasks. Don’t put things like “finish thesis chapter 1” on a master list. Rather, put something like ‘research and summarize two peer reviewed articles to include in chapter 1” in your smaller, daily list. These smaller, easier, day to day lists can make the grind more manageable! Every little task you finish will make you feel accomplished and productive, chipping away at the mountain of overwhelming self-doubt. I like to use a desk calendar at work under my key board, and a small book style calendar in my personal life. I use brightly colored pens, high lighters, stickers, anything to make the tasks look cheerful! Find something that works for you! Crossing things off a list is pretty much one of the best feelings in the world, so try giving yourself that boost as often as you can with smaller tasks that can be finished quickly. Your mental health will thank you!

 

  1. Talk to colleagues, follow online, or read about others in STEM. Pretty much everyone who has studied or worked in STEM has experienced problems of some type. It’s inevitable! It’s life. Nothing ever goes smoothly all of the time. It can feel very isolating when it happens. But you are NOT alone! Reaching out to others or reading up on your heroes can be eye opening. In today’s age, there are even large online social media communities of STEM researchers and professionals who are very transparent about their experiences, the good, the bad and ugly! Go give a few a follow. I have found wonderful support and inspiration from STEM people all over the world. However you choose to go about this, learn what struggles others have encountered and what they did to over come them. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn some tips on what to do with your own problem! But at the very least, you’ll learn that you are definitely not alone, that everyone goes through setbacks at some point. They survived, I have (thus far 😉) survived, and so can you!

If you live the STEM life, there is little else worse than encountering a major setback or road block in your research or project. I have learned the hard way what works for me in pushing forward. Eventually you will too. The most important thing to remember is to not give up, and find some way, anyway, of moving forward. It might be a crawl at first, but any progress is still progress! Somewhere, there is going to be flower among the cactus needles. What methods have you found work for you during those dark days? Let me know!

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