What growing tough skin as a scientist really means!

If you started your PhD a while back and for some reason, you would underperform, drop out from the programme, didn’t progress as much as your coworkers or found a traditional or non-traditional job outside academia, you would have been labelled as FAILURE! Failing to prove to be successful, failing for not fitting into the culture and ultimately failing to grow tough skin. Basically, you would put yourself into 5y of extra schooling, with lower than minimum wage salary, with no security for your family and future (by no means a comprehensive guide) and then this classifies you as a failure!

Honestly, this talking is just nonsense and I personally refused to accept it!

So, let me unravel a few myths, growing tough skin in science has nothing to do with this! Science is a tough job. Doing research is hard. This is because you are discovering the things that none has done yet. You are contributing to making NEW progress, innovation and knowledge. This isn’t an easy task. Anyone that works in scientific discovery knows what this means. You turn in the lab or office every day and you already know that, most likely, you will not see any tangible progress. You pile up tons of negative experiments, unsuccessful data, contaminations, broken equipment that you end up thinking that you aren’t suited for the job. You also work in an environment where everyone is smart, has incredibly high QI and it doesn’t take much to believe that you aren’t part of the crew, you don’t deserve your opportunity and feel like an impostor for preventing someone else from being in your spot!

GROWING TOUGH SKIN means learning how to put an emotional barrier between yourself and your research. It’s about dealing with the emotional side of the job and don’t feel bad because things don’t work out as expected in the lab. Unsuccessful experiments are the norm, making mistakes is totally okay and it’s a fundamental part in the process of learning. Not having successful results on a daily basis, above all, at an early stage of your research is pretty much normal. This is science and has nothing to do with your ability and mental skills as a scientist.

I didn’t fail 100 times, I just found 100 solutions that didn’t work! Edison

Learning how to do science in a methodical, reproducible and objective way is a long process and honestly, there is no shortcut to it. Learning how to conduct experiments, making critical evaluations of your work, doing educated interpretations of your positive and negative results doesn’t come naturally. It takes time and this is why a PhD programme lasts a bare minimum of 3 years. It takes loads of mistakes, unsuccessful experiments, months of work going into the trash. And this is absolutely normal. And I repeat in case I haven’t made myself clear enough. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU ARE A BAD SCIENTIST AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO RESEARCH.

Very often in science, your output 1. does NOT equal your input, 2. does NOT define your value as a scientist, person and educator. The output, or the lack of, of your experiments, does not define who you are, how good you are at going the science and the scientific value of your ideas AT ALL. Don’t be too harsh on yourself above all when you just started your research. You will eventually get to the point where you feel confident and like you can master doing science. It takes time and you just need to trust the process!

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With this being said, what growing tough skin DOES NOT mean:

  1. Being okay with people making you feel inferior because you don’t progress fast enough;
  2. Being okay with people shouting at you because you make mistakes;
  3. Being okay with work associates and supervisors requesting directly or indirectly to work unsocial hours and sacrifice your personal life for science. If you want to work longer than you are supposed to do, it’s totally fine, but you don’t have to feel like you are forced into it;
  4. Being okay with people laughing or being sarcastic because you don’t know things;
  5. Being okay with racist, sexist or xenophobic individuals;
  6. Being okay with your advisor asking you to work for no money or doing their personal business, like doing their shopping or asking to drive their kids to school (surprised to hear so? it’s real!);
  7. Enduring in a culture of bullies, intimidation, invalidation, segregation and emargination;
  8. Fitting into the culture and doing like everyone else is doing otherwise you aren’t a good team player
  9. Don’t speak up or stand up for yourself for fear of retaliation.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but I tried to summaries what some individuals assume “growing tough skin” to mean!

Lastly, amen to social media that gave power to the people, to those that have been exploited, emarginated, emotionally, sexually and physically abused by the system. We all came to realise that you didn’t fail. Most likely, the system has failed you for not giving support, guidance and mentoring! I am done!