Vulnerability, Strength and Success
I’ve been doing a series of career guidance sessions with my research team, and this past week we talked about how to structure a successful career path as a scientist. As part of that, I gave my thoughts on how to maximize chances of that “success” (traditional definition; getting a decent permanent job as a researcher, and doing a good job at it); without knowingly being a jerk or insincere. This process led me to re-inspect my own career for insights — not that I’ve been on perfect behaviour, but I do routinely reflect on choices I make.
I asked myself, “What does success mean to me?” to see what my answer was today. That led to me writing up this story of my career path, as an example of the twists and turns that can happen in the life of a scientist. I originally intended to share this story just with my team, but then I decided to turn into a full-on blog post, in my ongoing personal quest to open up and share my thoughts and experiences with others. For those who have read my advice to PhD students, there are some commonalities, but plenty of this is new.
Where my last post was partly about publicly exposing vulnerabilities in other scientists, this one is about privately finding one’s own vulnerabilities along with the strengths, and sharing them publicly. The story is about me, but the key points are more about how “success” can evolve in science (N=1 plus anecdotal observations of others).
Growing Up in Grad School
As an undergraduate student, I was clueless about my career until I applied to graduate school a second time. The first time I tried applying, I didn’t even know how to really go about it, or what I wanted to do beyond some sort of biology. Yet to my credit I was curious, creative, a swift learner with a great memory for science, and broadly educated in biology and other fields (thanks, parents and past teachers!). I read and watched “Jurassic Park” and lots of Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin or palaeontology books, and I just tried to actively learn all I could, reading compulsively. I even resolved to quit non-science reading for a few years, and stuck to that. I realized that a research career combining evolution and biomechanics was of interest to me, involving vertebrates and maybe fossils.
I got into grad school in 1995 and had a great project to study how dinosaurs moved, but I felt inadequate compared to my peers. So I dedicated myself even harder to reading and learning. I didn’t pass my first orals (qualifying exam; appraisal/defense) but that helped me to refocus even more resolutely on deep learning, especially to fill gaps in my knowledge of biomechanics methods that I’d later use. During this time I also learned website design and HTML code (mid-90s; early WWW!), working with several others on Berkeley’s UCMP website in my free time. I intensively networked with colleagues via email lists (the long-lived Dinosaur listproc) and at a lot of conferences, trying to figure out how science worked and how to go about my project. That was a powerful initial formative period.
It was a gruelling struggle and I’d had serious health problems (a narrow escape from cancer) around the same time, too. I frequently, throughout the 1990’s, doubted if I could make it in the field. I looked around me and could not see how I could become successful in what I wanted to do (marry biomechanics and evolutionary biology in stronger ways). I was so scared, so uncertain of my own work, that I didn’t know what to do—I had a project but had no clue how to really implement it. So two years passed in semi-paralysis, with little concrete science to show for it, and I gave a lot of *bad* internal seminars in Berkeley’s Friday biomechanics group. However, those bad seminars helped me to become a better speaker. I had a terrible fear of public speaking; on top of having little data, this experience was brutal for me. But I used it as practice, bent to the task of bettering myself.
A change in my career trajectory happened as my research slowly took root. I wrote some book chapters for a dinosaur encyclopedia in 1997, a simple paper describing a little dinosaur in 1998, then another paper on taxonomy published in 1999. [For those wanting to find out what any of these papers I mention are, they are on my Publications page, often with pdfs] These papers at least showed I could finish a research task; when I was younger I’d had some bad habits of not finishing work I started.
I visited a lot of museums and hung out with people there, socializing while learning about diverse fossils and their evolutionary anatomy, implementing what I’d learned from my own dissections and literature studies of living animals. This led to a poster (actually two big posters stacked atop each other; plotting the evolution of the reptilian pelvis and muscles) at a palaeontology meeting (SVP). This poster turned a few heads and I suppose convinced some that I knew something about bone and soft tissue anatomy.
Then in 1998, I did a 4-month visiting scholarship at Brown University with Steve Gatesy that had a big impact on my career: Steve helped me consolidate ideas about how anatomy related to function in dinosaurs, and how to interpret data from living animals (I did my first gait experiments, with guineafowl, which went sort of OK), and I loved Brown University’s EEB department environment. For once, I felt like a grown-up, as people started to listen to what I had to say. In retrospect, I was still just a kid in many other ways. I didn’t really achieve a lot of what Steve asked me to do; I was unfocused, but changing steadily.
In 1999, I gave a talk at SVP that was well received, based on that research with Gatesy, and then I gave it again at SICB. I had a few prominent scientists encouraging me to apply for faculty jobs (e.g., Beth Brainerd was very supportive)– this gave me a new charge of excitement and confidence. I finally began to feel like a real expert in my little area of science. That talk became our 2000 “Abductors, adductors…” paper in Paleobiology, which I still love for its integrative nature and broad, bold (but incompletely answered) questions. Yet when a respected professor at Berkeley told me before my University of Chicago faculty job interview “You act like a deer in the headlights too often,” I knew I had a long journey of self-improvement left. And a lot of that improvement just came with time– and plenty of mistakes.
Momentum continued to build for my career in 2000 as I took my anatomical work into more biomechanical directions and passed my orals. I gave an SVP Romer Prize (best student talk) presentation on my new T. rex biomechanical modelling work, and I won! I felt truly appreciated, not just as an expert but as an emerging young leader in my research area. I’ll never forget the standing ovation at the award announcement in Mexico City—seeing people I saw as famous and amazing get up and cheer for me was such a rush! Then I published two lengthy anatomical papers in Zool J Linn Soc in 2001, which still are my most cited works — even more than some of my subsequent Nature papers.
Evolution: Postdoc to Faculty
Also in 2001, I was awarded a NSF postdoc at Stanford to do exactly what I’d long wanted to do: build detailed biomechanical models of dinosaurs, using the anatomical work I’d done before. That was it: I saw evidence that I had “made it”. But that took about six years; toward the end of my PhD; to truly feel this way most of the time, and in some ways this feeling led to youthful overconfidence and brashness that I had to later try to shed. I feel fortunate that the rest of my career went more smoothly. I doubt I could have endured another six years of struggling as I did during my PhD. But it wasn’t easy, either. During my postdoc I had to force my brain to think like a mechanical engineer’s and that was a difficult mental struggle.
The year 2002 became a wild ride for me.
First, my T. rex “not a fast runner” paper got published in Nature, and I was thrown into the limelight of the news media for two weeks or so. Luckily I was ready for the onslaught — one of my mentors, Bob Full, warned me, “This will be huge. Prepare!” I handled it well and I learned a lot about science communication in the process.
Shortly after that publication, just before my wedding’s bachelor party, I developed terrible leg blood clots and had to cancel my party—but I recovered in time for the wedding, which was a fantastic event on a California clifftop. I enjoyed a good life and seemed healthy again. I kept working hard, I got my second paper accepted at Nature on bouncy-running elephants, and then…
Then I had a stroke, just before that Nature paper got published.
Everything came crashing to a halt and I had to think about what it all meant—these were gigantic life-and-death questions to face at age 31! Luckily, I recovered without much deficit at all, and I regained my momentum with renewed stubborn dedication and grit, although my recover took many months, and took its toll on my psyche. I’ve told this story before in this post about my brain.
I started seeing therapists to talk about my struggles, which was a mixed blessing: I became more aware of my personality flaws, but also more aware of how many of those flaws wouldn’t change. I’m still not sure if that was a good thing but it taught me a lot of humility, which I still revisit today. I also learned to find humour and wonder in the dark times, which colours even this blog.
In winter of 2003 I went to a biomechanics symposium in Calgary, invited by British colleague Alan Wilson. Later that spring, Alan encouraged me to apply for an RVC faculty job (“you’ll at least get an interview and a free trip to London”), which I said no to (vet school and England move didn’t seem right to me), but later changed my mind after thinking it over.
I got the RVC job offer the day before my actual job talk (luckily colleague David Polly warned me that things like this happened fast in the UK, unlike the months of negotiation in the USA!). I made the move in November 2003 and the rest was hard work, despite plenty of mistakes and lessons learned, that paid off a lot career-wise. If I hadn’t taken that job I’d have been unemployed, and I had postdoc fellowships and faculty job applications that got rejected in 2002-2003, so I was no stranger to rejection. It all could have gone so differently…
But it wasn’t a smooth odyssey either—there were family and financial struggles, and I was thousands of miles away while my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s and my father swiftly fell victim to cancer, and I never was 100% healthy and strong after my troubles in 2002. Even in the late 2000’s, I felt inadequate and once confided to a colleague something like “I still feel like a postdoc here. I’m a faculty member and I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded.”
Since then, I’ve achieved some security that has at last washed that feeling away. That was a gradual process, but I think the key moment I realized that “I’ll be OK now” was in 2010 when I got the call, while on holiday in Wales (at the time touring Caernarfon Castle), informing me that my promotion to full Professor was being approved. It was an anticlimactic moment because that promotion process took 1 year, but it still felt great. It felt like success. I’ll never earn the “best scientist ever” award, so I am content. I don’t feel I have something big left to prove to myself in my career, so I can focus on other things now. It “only” took 15 or so years…
Ten Lessons Learned
When I look back on this experience and try to glean general lessons, my thoughts are:
1) Socializing matters so much for a scientific career. “Networking” isn’t a smarmy or supercilious approach, either; in fact, that insincerity can backfire and really hurt one’s reputation. I made a lot of friends early on — some of my best friends today are scientist colleagues. Many of these have turned into collaborators. Making friends in science is a win-win situation. Interacting with fellow scientists is one of the things I have always enjoyed most about science. Never has it been clearer to me how important the human element of science is. Diplomacy is a skill I never expected to use much in science, but I learned it through a lot of experience, and now I treasure it.
2) Developing a thicker skin is essential, but being vulnerable helps, too. Acting impervious just makes you seem inhuman and isolates you. Struggling is natural and helped me endure the tough times that came along with the good times, often in sharp transition. Science is freaking hard as a career. Even with all the hard work, nothing is guaranteed. Whether you’re weathering peer review critiques, politics, or health or other “life problems”, you need strength, whether it comes from inside you or from those around you. Embrace that you won’t be perfect but strive to do your best despite that. Regret failures briefly (be real with yourself), learn from them and then move on.
3) Reading the literature can be extremely valuable. So many of my ideas came from obsessive reading in diverse fields, and tying together diverse ideas or finding overlooked/unsolved questions and new ways to investigate them. I can’t understand why some scientists intentionally don’t try to read the literature (and encourage their students to follow this practice!), even though it is inevitable to fall behind the literature; you will always miss relevant stuff. I think it can only help to try to keep up that scholarly habit, and it is our debt to past scientists as well as our expectation of future ones—otherwise why publish?
4) I wish I learned even more skills when I was younger. It is so hard to find time and energy now to learn new approaches. This inevitably leads to a researcher becoming steadily less of a master of research methods and data to more of a manager of research. So I am thankful for having the wisdom accumulated via trial and error experiences to keep me relevant and useful to my awesome team. That sharing of wisdom and experience is becoming more and more enjoyable to me now.
5) Did I “succeed” via hard work or coincidence? Well, both—and more! I wouldn’t have gotten here without the hard work, but I look back and I see a lot of chance events that seemed innocent at the time, but some turned out to be deeply formative. Some decisions I made look good in retrospect, but they could have turned out badly, and I made some bad decisions, too; those are easy to overlook given that the net result has been progress. Nothing came easily, overall. And I had a lot of help from mentors, too; Kevin Padian and Scott Delp in particular. Even today, I would not say that my career is easy, by any stretch. I still can find it very draining, but it’s so fun, too!
6) Take care of yourself. I’ve learned the hard way that the saying “At least you have your health” is profoundly wise. I try to find plenty of time now to stop, breathe and observe my life, reflecting on the adventures I’ve had so far. The feelings evoked by this are rich and complex.
7) If I could go back, I’d change a lot of decisions I made. We all would. But I’m glad I’ve lived the life I’ve lived so far. At last, after almost 20 years of a career in science, I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin, more able to act rather than be frozen in the headlights of adversity. I know who I am and what I cannot be, and things I need to work on about myself. In some ways I feel more free than I’ve felt since childhood, because the success (as I’ve defined it in my life) has given me that freedom to try new things and take new risks, and I feel fortunate for that. I think I finally understand the phrase “academic freedom” and why it (and tenure) are so valuable in science today, because I have a good amount of academic freedom. I still try to fight my own limits and push myself to improve my world—the freedom I have allows this.
8) When I revisit the question of “what does success mean to me?” today I find that the answer is to be able to laugh, half-darkly, at myself—at my faults, my strengths, and the profound and the idiotic experiences of my life. I’ve found ways to both take my life seriously and to laugh at myself adrift in it. To see these crisply and then to embrace the whole as “this is me, I can deal with that” brings me a fresh and satisfying feeling.
9) Share your struggles — and successes — with those you trust. It helps. But even just a few years ago, the thought of sharing my career’s story online would have scared me.
10) As scientists we hope for success in our careers to give us some immortality of sorts. What immortality we win is but echoes of our real lives and selves. So I seek to inject some laughter into those echoes while revelling in the amazing moments that make up almost every day. I think it’s funny that I became a scientist and it worked out OK, and I’m grateful to the many that helped; no scientist succeeds on their own.
A major aspect of a traditional career in science is to test the hypothesis that you can succeed in a career as a scientist, which is a voyage of self-discovery, uncovering personal vulnerabilities and strengths. I feel that I am transitioning into whatever the next part of my science career will be; in part, to play a psychopomp role for others taking that voyage.
That’s my story so far. Thanks for sticking with it until the end. Please share your thoughts below.