Stress in Research. Part II: Research Worth and Self-Worth

By Charles Sutton on April 7, 2018

The second post in what is perhaps a series on stress in research.

It might be surprising, but one of the main sources of stress in research is self-esteem. It’s so common and tempting to think of career success as a measure of one’s moral worth as a person. Stated so bluntly, it sounds like the silliest thing in the world to believe, yet I expect that we have all, at least at times, at least unconsciously, fallen into this trap.

The source of this trap is cognitive dissonance, and the danger of the trap is that research is a roller coaster. Every researcher has days when they’ve had some good success, and they feel on top of the world. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, you feel that because you’re happy about one thing, you’re happy about everything. Your career is going well, your personal life is going well, you’re just a good person all around.

But you know what they say about what goes up. There will always be weeks and months when experiments don’t work, when paper submissions and job applications are rejected, several in a row. Then the emotional effects can hit hard. Nobody likes having a frustrating time in their research. But if you conflate research worth with self-worth, if you tell yourself that the main way that your life will contribute to the world is by your groundbreaking work, then when your research is going poorly, you feel like a failure in life. Not for nothing has it been observed that academics face relatively high mental health risk.

So how do we avoid the trap of conflating your colleagues’ respect for you as a researcher with your own self-respect as a human being? For what it’s worth, I’d expect that this trap occurs in all of the creative professions. Indeed, as much as academics like to think of ourselves as unique creatures, none of the sources of stress in research are unique to the job of research. Perhaps that is a topic for another time, but it does not help us here: Knowing that our stress is shared is not alone enough to relieve it.

Another blog might tell you: Keep a professional distance. The way to avoid conflating your research success to your self-worth is to think of research as a job rather than a calling. But that’s not the advice that I will give, because if you want to do good work, sometimes you need to take things personally. As the great Captain says, sometimes you need your pain. So I’ll ask the question differently. How do we keep our passion for research without harming our mental health?

The mental tricks that work a bit for me, may not work for you. So I’ll list a few different mental strategies, strategies for self-talk — those who know me will know that I am a big fan of talking to myself — that you can experiment with.

One strategy is to focus on the fun, for example, by treating a tenure-track faculty job like a seven-year postdoc. Richard Feynman has a wonderful story about recapturing fun in his research. One always wonders if Feynman’s stories are exaggerated, but the principle of countering stress by fun is surely sound.

Another good strategy is to have backup sources of self-worth. Academic jobs are naturally set up this way. Even if no one reads my papers the minute after I die, or frankly, the minute after they’re written, I’ve still taught hundreds of students about fundamental knowledge that has helped them, if only a little. That’s another source of professional self-worth. Or of course, one can seek self-worth from being a good child, parent, spouse, sibling, and friend. Both of these — teaching and family — are instances of a more general point. We should find worth in our relationships with other people.

Another strategy is simply to have truly excessive reserves of self-confidence, so that whenever the roller coaster goes down, you can tell yourself with absolute conviction that the roller coaster will go up again, because by god you are brilliant enough to push it up again all by yourself. I know I’m making this sound ridiculous, but I’ve read an interview with a Nobelist who basically said that lots of other people doubted him, but he never doubted himself. Whether it was bravado or truth I don’t know, but hey, if it works for him.

A final strategy of which I’m personally fond. I firmly believe that one of the most important mental abilities in life, one that to the great detriment of our world few people master, is to learn to believe contradictory things. One of the many lovely details of the Kingkiller Chronicles is that there is a type of magic that depends on having a will strong enough to believe contradictory things simultaneously. Back in this world, almost all statements are sometimes true and sometimes false. The same is true in research.

An example of embracing a noble contradiction: I do believe that, if you want to be effective as a researcher, work needs to be the most important thing to you during the time that you are working. Creative work really does require complete focus. But there is no need to maintain this belief while you are not working. During those times, you can understand that most research work comes to nothing, and that is no waste as long as some small fraction of the research in the world makes a large enough difference.

Another example: Because our careers require so much time and passion, it’s natural that professional colleagues sometimes become personal friends. This means that I think it’s important to be able to value someone as a friend, even if you do not particularly care for their research. Stated plainly, this is obvious — how could it be otherwise? — but it’s so easy to be confused into thinking that once you admire one aspect of someone, that you like everything about them. Again, this is a confusion that arises from cognitive dissonance. It requires conscious effort to be able to separate your admiration or criticism of someone’s work with your admiration (or lack thereof!) of them as a trustworthy, loyal friend.

Once I’ve learned to do that, perhaps I can extend the same courtesy to myself.