Guest post by Gareth McCathie, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Biomedical Science.
I stumbled upon BitesizeBio in the early months of the second year of my PhD whilst troubleshooting a particularly stubborn cloning reaction and, after seeing the wide range of useful little lab tricks & practical insider knowledge, quickly bookmarked the site. When I returned to check it out in more detail I saw they also had a large range of advice for dealing with the stresses of work & PhDs, enhancing your personal development and getting the most out of your career in general. Many of these articles used a heavily introspective approach and led me to consider things that are often, intentionally or otherwise, disregarded in the scientific community. Dr Nick Oswald, the founder and MD of BitesizeBio, had written several of the articles himself and so I was delighted when he agreed to come and deliver a talk to the Faculty on how to have a happier and more rewarding work life.
Nick talked about the lessons he’d learnt during his career experiences, from the stresses of academia during his PhD, through his unfulfilling biotech positions, to his current role indulging his passion for science communication whilst being his own boss. Instead of simply talking about common pitfalls or shortcomings within each position, Nick focused on the mind-set that drove him to achieve this success.
He opened by highlighting the dangerous effect that our habits can have in blocking progress in all facets of our life. We take habits for granted. Indeed, by calling them habits we disguise what they really are; they are choices – unconscious choices that we are too lazy or unwilling to change. If we really want to change the results we see in our lives, we need to change these small but significant daily choices to put us on track to achieve new goals.
Another aspect of our daily thought process that Nick highlighted was what he calls our ‘Monkey Brain’, that part of your brain responsible for your more instinctive responses – anger, fear, panic etc. When an experiment goes wrong for example, the Monkey Brain takes over: you get annoyed, think about all the time you wasted, blame your lab mate for leaving that antibody out over the weekend, that’s definitely why it didn’t work! The problem is that none of these thoughts are helpful to you or the people around you and don’t let you move on and rectify the issue, that comes later once you’ve calmed down. Being more aware of your Monkey Brain can help you reign it in and disregard its input as fruitless, energy-sapping, distractions allowing you to move on with your work more quickly in a happier, calmer fashion.
Finally, Nick went full guru on us and urged us to try and be more Zen. Talking about the importance of the work life balance in keeping your productivity up whilst avoiding burn out, he also pointed out the futility and inherent frustration in being so results-focussed in science. As scientists, the only thing we actually have control over when we investigate a question is the process that we use to answer that question. The results haven’t happened yet, so all we can do is to focus on the process and try and gain enjoyment from an experiment well-performed rather than an experiment that produces that ever-elusive positive data. Taking more pleasure in your day-to-day ‘grind’ will keep you motivated and staying focused on the process will eventually yield the breakthrough result that you have been looking for. Nick personally experienced considerable benefits in both work and life by adopting this mind-set as well as taking time out to meditate, calm his mind and de-stress and is keen for other people to test out this way of thinking to see its value first-hand.
After the talk, Nick stayed around for a relaxed chat over lunch and students & postdocs took the opportunity to discuss how he came across these ideas in his career, how he’s implemented them in his own life and how we can start to do the same. He was also able to dispense plenty of advice from his experience in setting up & growing his business to become his own boss, hopefully rousing the inner entrepreneur in some of the attendees.
Overall it was an unusual, but very valuable afternoon that many people benefitted from greatly, and perhaps these atypical motivational / personal development talks should not be so overlooked in science in the future.
If this post has piqued your interest, the full talk is available on BitesizeBio here, and you also might be interested in Nick’s previous talk Five Principles for Creating the Career of Your Dreams.