How I stay sane in science and academia: My Why File

Doing science in academia involves a lot of rejection and negative feedback. Between grant agencies single digit funding rates, pressure to publish in a few "top" journals all of which have rejection rates of 90% or higher [1], and the growing gulf between the number of academic jobs and the number of graduate students and postdocs [2], spending even a small amount of time in academia pretty much guarantees that you’ll see a lot of rejection. In addition, even when things are going well we tend to focus on providing as much negative feedback as possible. Paper reviews, grant reviews, and most university evaluation and committee meetings are focused on the negatives. Even students with awesome projects that are progressing well and junior faculty who are cruising towards tenure have at least one meeting a year where someone in a position of power will try their best to enumerate all of things you could be doing better [3]. This isn’t always a bad thing [4] and I’m sure it isn’t restricted to academia or science (these are just the worlds I know), but it does make keeping a positive attitude and reasonable sense of self-worth a bit… challenging.

One of the things that I do to help me remember why I keep doing this is my Why File. It’s a file where I copy and paste reminders of the positive things that happen throughout the year [5]. These typically aren’t the sort of things that end up on my CV. I have my CV for tracking that sort of thing and frankly the number of papers I’ve published and grants I’ve received isn’t really what gets me out of bed in the morning. My Why File contains things like:

  • Email from students in my courses, or comments on evaluations, telling me how much of an impact the skills they learned have had on their ability to do science
  • Notes from my graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduate researchers thanking me for supporting them, inspiring them, or giving them good advice
  • Positive feedback from mentors and people I respect that help remind me that I’m not an impostor
  • Tweets from folks reaffirming that an issue or approach I’m advocating for is changing what they do or how they do it
  • Pictures of thank you cards or creative things that people in my lab have done
  • And even things that in a lot of ways are kind of silly, but that still make me smile, like screen shots of being retweeted by Jimmy Wales or of Tim O’Reilly plugging one of my papers.

If you’ve said something nice to me in the past few years be it in person, by email, on twitter, or in a handwritten note, there’s a good chance that it’s in my Why File helping me keep going at the end of a long week or a long day. And that’s the other key message of this post. We often don’t realize how important it is to say thanks to the folks who are having a positive influence on us from time to time. Or, maybe we feel uncomfortable doing so because we think these folks are so talented and awesome that they don’t need it, or won’t care, or might see this positive feedback as silly or disingenuous. Well, as Julio Betancourt once said, "You can’t hug your reprints", so don’t be afraid to tell a mentor, a student, or a colleague when you think they’re doing a great job. You might just end up in their Why File.

What do you do to help you stay sane in academia, science, or any other job that regularly reminds you of how imperfect you really are?


[1] This idea that where you publish not what you publish is a problem, but not the subject of this post.

[2] There are lots of great ways to use a PhD, but unfortunately not everyone takes that to heart.

[3] Of course the people doing this are (at least sometimes) doing so with the best intentions, but I personally think it would be surprisingly productive to just say, "You’re doing an awesome job. Keep it up." every once in a while.

[4] There is often a goal to the negativity, e.g., helping a paper or person reach their maximum potential, but again I think we tend to undervalue the consequences of this negativity in terms of motivation [4b].

[4b] Hmm, apparently I should write a blog post on this since it now has two footnotes worth of material.

[5] I use a Markdown file, but a simple text file or a MS Word document would work just fine as well for most things.

About Ethan White

I'm a happily married dad and a scientist. I like computers, math, stats, and good scotch. I believe in the importance of open science and a free and open web.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in graduate students, jobs, productivity, props, publishing, science, teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Actually I have hugged my reprints, but it wasn’t very emotionally satisfying. This of course was back in the days when we still got reprints on paper…

    One of my routines for helping me stay sane is I take time to celebrate the good things: positive feedback, papers accepted, student successes. The failures often demand our emotional and intellectual time, but it’s easy to be too busy to give the successes their due too.

  2. You’re an awesome mentor for academia and life in general, you can add that to the why file! ;)

  3. What a great idea! Thanks for the inspiration :)

  4. I don’t yet keep a file, but find that researching with my students really helps me see science through fresh eyes, and keeps me motivated. But, I think I’ll start recording some of these for future reference. :)

  5. Thanks Siouxsie! I’m glad you liked it.

    Melissa – I totally agree. It’s definitely one of the best parts of the job.

  6. Thanks for the reminder Ethan. Today was definitely a day I was asking myself “Why am I doing this again?”

  7. This seems like a really nice idea. Although to be honest, given how much cynicism and self-doubt academia has beaten into me over the years, I wonder whether I would look at my Why File and think, “It’s too short; there should be more here.” or “I should have gotten some kudos that one time, but I didn’t.” or “I wonder what my Why Not File would look like.”

  8. Andrea – Glad it was helpful, there are definitely plenty of those days to battle through.

    Anonymous – Yeah, it’s definitely important not to have this become another score keeping exercise. It’s one of the reasons that I keep it separate from CV related things. I think of it like a photo album, not like a resume.

  9. Great, thought-provoking post. Watching scientists interact outside of academia, in what the rest of us think of as the real world, I’ve realized at times that the “critical thinking” skills that go with the job make sci folk seem negative to others. Often their first reaction to a new idea is to look for what’s wrong with it. That’s part of the training. And I suspect it comes so naturally, it isn’t even seen as negative by the source, though it quickly wears thin on the audience. So I would guess it’s part of the culture that you and your colleagues would have to make a conscious effort to overcome. Your why-file is an important step in keeping conscious.

  10. Great point Sally. I’d definitely like to come back to this and think more about the causes and consequences of this kind of negativity in a future post.

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