How to build resilience, Mongrel-style

I often include the hashtag #beresilient in a hell of a lot of posts. Out of context, this can just sound like empty words, or yet another useless hashtag in the world of overhastagging (if you don’t know what this is, then you don’t have an Instagram account and a few stupid friends – congratulations, you are not missing out on anything). However, I feel very strongly about resilience, and I think it is *THE* top quality that one earns whilst doing a PhD, and certainly the one I am proudest of. The other day I was in a Planning your Career workshop, and I think I made my point about it – resilience is what lets you actually finish your PhD.

But resilience is not something that comes along and naturally occurs. It’s got to be built slowly. Not only that: everyone will react differently to the challenges that a PhD poses, so whilst some people might learn a lot from the difficulties and build a wall of resilience, others will either ignore the learning opportunities, or, if push comes to shove, they might even quit their PhD. I have found plenty of challenges along the way – being self funded from the very beginning, having to go part time, working zero hours and job instability, working full time and having no time for anything, anxiety issues, stomach ulcers, journal publication rejection, countless funding rejections,… to name the most important! This does not mean that I consider myself an expert in resilience or that the following list will be useful for everyone. I feel I know what I am talking about a little bit, and some people might find it helpful. As I always say, I think full timers particularly can learn a lot from Mongrels, so here is my contribution.

These are put together in no particular order:

1. Have a can-do attitude. Try everything.

At that Planning Your Career workshop, the presenter made a really good point that a lot of vacancies in the current job market are filled not by those more prepared, but by those who work the hardest. Putting that into context, if you think that you don’t have the right person specs to, in this case, apply for a job (when you probably do, being a PhD candidate) then somebody else down the chain might give it a shot and get it. Just try everything. If you have an interest in it, and might help your research, then apply for it – whether it’s a grant, a research trip, a conference, or a Tesco Clubcard. The fear or procrastination loop that the whole “oh, I’m never gonna get it” starts is the most toxic element of the dark side of the PhD. Get out of it and fast!

2. Fail miserably at something after trying really hard – and bounce back from it.

Perhaps not immediately, but you need to put these failures behind you and let them be your springboard into better things. As one of my supervisors told me once after my first article was rejected for publication, “the first pancake always has lumps in it”. Most times even the second or third pancake has lumps in it, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it another shot and have a great pancake in the end, right? There’s a lot of motivational posters out there about how success in life is not measured by how little times you fall, but how many times you stand back up after falling. Or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and other cheesy songs.

The thing is, all those cheesy posters and songs are right on the money. If one failure leads to giving up, then that attempt will go in vain – you will not learn anything, you will not improve the quality of your work, you will not give yourself a chance to learn from it. It also means that, the second time you fall (because you will), you will know how to take it – with a pinch of salt, and then keep going. Which leads me into point 3

3. Go back to your mistakes, analyse them, reflect on your practice, take away what is important, learn from them, and then DISCARD them.

This is a process I follow from my refereeing ‘career’. I totally hate watching myself referee on video (because you can’t change what you have done), but it is a great way of correcting mistakes and discussing with your peers. Mistakes happen in basketball all the time, whether you try your best to avoid them or not. You can minimize their presence or their impact upon your overall performance, but you cannot get rid of them – so embrace them as they come.

It is very easy, particularly in refereeing, to get stuck in a mental loop following a mistake. That is why sport psychologists earn a good living! You know how much this affects the game and you know you could have done much better. You think about ways you should have acted around it, and reenact it in your head a million times. The thing is, this spiral will only make you miss the next calls, creating an even worse scenario of nor just one bad call, but three or four in a row. It’s really important at that point to pick yourself up no matter what, and concentrate on what comes next – the next call is your most important. I think there is a lesson there than can be transferred to PhDing – if you made a mistake or failed at something, learn how to do it better (reflect on how you could improve), and then discard the situation.

4. Rejection is part of life. Don’t take it personal.

I can definitely speak for this one. That article I was speaking about before is perhaps one of my biggest failures. The editor of the journal knows me (I met her in a conference and she really liked both my presentation style and my topic), and to a point wanted me to learn as much from this rejection as possible. She said they normally don’t send the specific comments when they reject articles (maybe they don’t reject that many), but that these will be useful for me to improve the text. Well, the comments were harsh. They ripped through my text and my researcher persona like a school of killer whales. They thing is, I sort of agree with what they were saying – but they had no tact whatsoever, perhaps not expecting me to ever read it.

It was hard to not cry my eyes out and keep my head held high. And it was very difficult not to take the comments personally. The thing is, someone had reviewed my article, and thought I was inaccurate about things I said, which is fair enough. As much as what I write is part of who I am and undoubtedly integral to my research, those words were not said to attack me at a personal level. There’s nothing wrong with me per se, it’s just the assertions I was claiming to be factual were perhaps too risky. And it took a bloody long time to get that paper written in the first place, and then rewritten to a standard that my supervisors felt it was adequate. So being torn apart by an external reviewer hurt a lot. But it was nothing personal. The moment you understand that it’s not really an attack on your research, but ultimately a way to make it better, you will be able to move on having gained resilience in the process.

5. Stick to your priorities and your plans – but be ready to embrace change at a really short notice!

I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted my PhD to go before I even started it, and of course that went out the window when I didn’t get any funding. Then I have made up probably a million plans – writing plans, research plans, idea plans and thesis plans… They have all changed several times, and adaptability has been the key. Reducing full time hours to part time hours and readjusting to having more (outside) responsibilities was also an important step.

The key learning here is that plans are there to help you get towards your goals, but they are not rigid structures: planning is essential but plans are useless, according to the Vitae website. This is good advice. You need both overall vision and minute planning, but as research (and other life events) goes along, you have to be ready to change all your plans at very short notice. In recent times, I am trying to follow an idea that I had after chatting to one of my supervisors. I have already spoken to other two people and tried my new proposed structure and change my conception of the original idea several times. This might change the entire focus of the thesis. And I am zero worried about that.

6. And finally, keep the ball rolling, no matter what.

There is nothing in life (and in PhDing) you can’t put behind you and learn from in a positive manner. Life won’t stop because your proposal was rejected. Reinvent yourself and move on – give it another try, why not. Just keep the ball rolling. And above all, be resilient.

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