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Reducing Science-related Stress

The author presents a list of things learned through hard experience to help him with his own imposter syndrome, and help him to feel less stressed out about science.


Being a scientist can be pretty stressful for any number of reasons, from the peer review process, to getting funding, to getting blown up on the internet.

Like a lot of academics I suffer from a lot of stress related to my own high standards and the imposter syndrome that comes from not meeting them on a regular basis. I was just reading through the excellent material in Lorena Barba’s class on essential skills in reproducibility and came across this set of slides by Phillip Stark. The one that caught my attention said:

If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.

I love this quote because it shows how being open about both your successes and failures makes it less stressful to be a scientist. Inspired by this quote I decided to make a list of things that I’ve learned through hard experience do not help me with my own imposter syndrome and do help me to feel less stressed out about my science.

  1. Put everything out in the open. We release all of our software, data, and analysis scripts. This has led to almost exclusively positive interactions with people as they help us figure out good and bad things about our work.
  2. Admit mistakes quickly. Since my code/data are out in the open I’ve had people find little bugs and big whoa this is bad bugs in my code. I used to freak out when that happens. But I found the thing that minimizes my stress is to just quickly admit the error and submit updates/changes/revisions to code and papers as necessary.
  3. Respond to requests for support at my own pace. I try to be as responsive as I can when people email me about software/data/code/papers of mine. I used to stress about doing this right away when I would get the emails. I still try to be prompt, but I don’t let that dominate my attention/time. I also prioritize things that are wrong/problematic and then later handle the requests for free consulting every open source person gets.
  4. Treat rejection as a feature not a bug. This one is by far the hardest for me but preprints have helped a ton. The academic system is designed to be critical. That is a good thing, skepticism is one of the key tenets of the scientific process. It took me a while to just plan on one or two rejections for each paper, one or two or more rejections for each grant, etc. But now that I plan on the rejection I find I can just focus on how to steadily move forward and constructively address criticism rather than taking it as a personal blow.
  5. Don’t argue with people on the internet, especially on Twitter. This is a new one for me and one I’m having to practice hard every single day. But I’ve found that I’ve had very few constructive debates on Twitter. I also found that this is almost purely negative energy for me and doesn’t help me accomplish much.
  6. Redefine success. I’ve found that if I recalibrate what success means to include accomplishing tasks like peer reviewing papers, getting letters of recommendation sent at the right times, providing support to people I mentor, and the submission rather than the success of papers/grants then I’m much less stressed out.
  7. Don’t compare myself to other scientists. It is very hard to get good evaluation in science and I’m extra bad at self-evaluation. Scientists are good in many different dimensions and so whenever I pick a one dimensional summary and compare myself to others there are always people who are “better” than me. I find I’m happier when I set internal, short term goals for myself and only compare myself to them.
  8. When comparing, at least pick a metric I’m good at. I’d like to claim I never compare myself to others, but the reality is I do it more than I’d like. I’ve found one way to not stress myself out for my own internal comparisons is to pick metrics I’m good at - even if they aren’t the “right” metrics. That way at least if I’m comparing I’m not hurting my own psyche.
  9. Let myself be bummed sometimes. Some days despite all of that I still get the imposter syndrome feels and can’t get out of the funk. I used to beat myself up about those days, but now I try to just build that into the rhythm of doing work.
  10. Try very hard to be positive in my interactions. This is another hard one, because it is important to be skeptical/critical as a scientist. But I also try very hard to do that in as productive a way as possible. I try to assume other people are doing the right thing and I try very hard to stay positive or neutral when writing blog posts/opinion pieces, etc.
  11. Realize that giving credit doesn’t take away from me. In my research career I have worked with some extremely generous mentors. They taught me to always give credit whenever possible. I also learned from Roger that you can give credit and not lose anything yourself, in fact you almost always gain. Giving credit is low cost but feels really good so is a nice thing to help me feel better.

The last thing I’d say is that having a blog has helped reduce my stress, because sometimes I’m having a hard time getting going on my big project for the day and I can quickly write a blog post and still feel like I got something done...

Bio: Jeff Leek is a professor at Johns Hopkins, where he does statistical research, writes data analysis software, curates and creates data sets, writes a blog about statistics, and works with amazing students who go do awesome things.

Original. Reposted with permission.