Coming back from the annual Orthopaedic Research Society meeting in San Antonio, which is what many- including myself- consider the “flagship” meeting for basic orthopaedic research scientists in the world, I am feeling a bit upbeat. It feels good, which is rare for post-docs (feeling good about oneself, that is). Er, maybe that is just me. Anyway, it’s been a bit of a challenge getting my feet under me these last two years as I peruse the post-doc requirements for success and substance moving towards a career as an aspiring academe. In fact, it took me a while to connect the dots between the parallels of my former life (i.e., endurance athlete) to my current one (i.e., academic scientist). Of course, I’ve had quite a bit of overlap; I didn’t start training for marathons until the latter end of my master’s degree, and triathlons didn’t enter the picture until the midpoint of my doctorate. I’ve been a runner my entire life- well before I officially declared myself a “scientist.” Truthfully, sport and science have always been in parallel for me, but it’s never really clicked that they overlap in so many ways.
OK, I get it, saying this out loud makes me quite the jock. But what do you expect? This blog is supposed to be focused on my athletic adventures. That’s why I started blogging in the first place, and it is definitely more exciting than talking about science all the time (right?). My own blogacity (is that a word?) sort of “fell off the wagon” when I started my post-doc, mostly because I had a big internal struggle of whether or not I should even attempt continuing to compete at an amateur elite level. And when I realized I could no longer hang at the level I was at, I got frustrated and my competitiveness pushed me to throw in the towel all-together. Let’s be honest; to continue competing on the level I wanted to would have required a lot of sacrifices that were a bit easier to handle in grad school, such as 25hr training weeks, travel to and from races, early mornings at the pool, etc. In grad school, I had an incredible support crew, and perhaps a bit less pressure in the lab to “do more.” As I transitioned into being a post-doc, I experienced a ton of life changes, including moving to a new city and living by myself for the first time ever (and having a long-distance relationship). I debated between traveling to races and traveling to spend time with the ones I love. And I just, frankly, had a terrible time putting all my eggs in two completely different baskets; did I want to be a great athlete, or did I want to be a great scientist?
Anyway, in the end I decided to step back from training as a competitive athlete and focused more on training to be a competitive scientist. Seriously, what does it mean to be a competitive scientist? For non-scientists out there, I’ll have you know that there are lots of things to consider, including the ability to obtain grants and the marketability of the research one does. It was almost unknown territory, except for one thing: there are lots of parallels between both paths. To be good at either sports or science, you have to be dedicated, you have to have passion, and you have to follow your dreams, as cliche as that sounds. There are many similarities between my former life as an aspiring athlete and my current life as an aspiring scientist, and here’s a few:
- Do it because you love it: Elite athletes are competitive in nature, otherwise what are they doing at the elite level, right? I think scientists are, too- especially those with academia as their goal. It’s easy to get caught up in the competition; racing and training can take on a whole new feel if you’re only concerned about winning and not about the stuff in between. Research is the same way. Sometimes, we reflect more on whether or not we got the last grant or all that stuff our peers are doing better than we are. This may especially be true for women in both arenas, whether athletics or academics; we often look to others to find the pitfalls we have in ourselves instead of looking within to see what good stuff we can bring to the table. There are ups and downs, good days and bad, with both athletics and research. Not every day is the best day ever… actually, most days are far from that. Sometimes, the track work ends early because you aren’t hitting your goal 400meter times. Sometimes, you put the pipettor down and throw the samples back in the freezer because your experiment is a bust. But we need to take the bad with the good even on the worst of days if we want to deliver high quality results. It’s important to understand that even on the worst days, putting in our best effort is what it takes to be successful.
- Find the right coach for you: I’ve had many great inspirational coaches in my athletic career. The most inspiring was, in high school, when I had a running coach that was like a third parent to me. He was dedicated and enthusiastic, caring and nurturing, while being tough with a “no whiners” attitude. He’d write reports for all his athletes after every cross-country race; we’d receive a card with our mile splits and notes on how to improve, what we did right, and where to focus our efforts in the coming week of training. He was honest and straightforward, but never mean or belittling. After all, we were teenage girls, and this 60yr-old man had us under his thumb. I had, and still have, a tremendous amount of respect for this man, and he helped shape me into the focused athlete I became. Everything he taught me, I carry with me to this day. It wasn’t just in sport, it was in life things, too. His mantra, “It will feel better when the pain goes away,” is relevant in so many aspects, not just when doing 20×400 repeats. In high school, my life revolved around decision-making based on running, and it was in part because of the respect he instilled in me. The same can be said about academia. Reflecting back to high school again, I had the most amazing math and physics teacher who would go above and beyond what was necessary to see that her students really understood. She also had a tough-love mentality, and she engrained in me so many things I still carry in my brain box today. Who we choose to guide us can play a pivotal role in the outlook we have on our future, and this is particularly relevant to who we choose as mentors during our academic training. I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors who are excited about the work they do, who are supportive and encouraging but do not placate me with false ideas of what an academic career entails. I would say that not everyone in endurance sports needs a coach… but honestly, at some time in their life or another, every successful endurance athlete has had a coach- whether it was in high school or college or along the way. Having a mentor in academia, especially at the budding stages as a graduate student/post-doc, is critical (you can’t really get a degree or complete a post-doc without having some sort of mentor/mentee relationship), and while this relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to develop a successful career trajectory, it certainly helps to have someone on your side; Just like having a great coach encourages athletic success. As I grow, I hope to always have great mentors to look up to and pass along what they’ve taught me.
- Stand behind your results: When it comes to the “A” race, the build and the taper are both crucial for successful execution on race day. The same can be said about presenting your research. You’ve invested all this time, collecting data, analyzing, writing, performing statistics; it’s all a lot of work on the back end, but when it comes time to presenting your work at a conference or submitting it for review to a journal, well- the work has been done. The hay is in the barn. It will either be a huge success, or it won’t, but there’s nothing you can change about it now. So stand behind the work you’ve done, be confident, but also be willing to accept that there is likely someone out there in the field that can push you to do better. Don’t throw yourself a pity party at the finish line; instead, rejoice in what you’ve accomplished but also take criticisms in stride, knowing that they will make you and the work you do better in the end.
- It’s better to be a funnel than a sieve: When planning a race season, it’s important to focus on one major race, with a few smaller races along the way for “tune ups” to help hone your skills. Aside from my body’s lack of ability to stand up to more than 2 marathons a year, I’ve found that it’s just easier to be successful in the long-course races if I don’t spread myself too thin with too much racing. In research, I think it’s important to maintain this mindset and focus what we do in the lab with what we want to do every day. Staying focused in research is an important, and sometimes overlooked, way of being successful. While writing grants is a 1-in-10-if-you’re-lucky deal (meaning, just keep churning out grant applications until one hits), and as a researcher I have to keep pushing through fellowship applications, I try to keep sight of what I want to research in the long term, staying focused in one central theme (e.g. soft tissue biomechanics) so that I can establish myself as an expert in that area. Just like in running, where training for a 5K personal best doesn’t mean you’ll try to race a marathon the weekend before, being a well-established researcher means I need to hone my skills in one area instead of dabbling in a lot of off-topic areas.
- You have to invest time into your training if you want to improve: Some people are naturals; they pick up sport right off the bat and hit the ground running. But for those of us who are mortals, we get better with the right type and amount of training. Some of us are better suited for 5Ks and others for marathons, and we need to understand where our strengths lie, address them from the start, and focus our training around our goals. Academia is no different. While there are geniuses in our midst, we can’t all be perfect from the start. It takes training, and practice, and patience to perfect our skills and get better. I am no where near as good as I hope to one day be, but I know that if I give up and settle, I won’t improve. So I gotta keep plugging away.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint: I guess, in racing, this only applies if you really are training for a marathon, or an ironman, or whatever. But even still, the point is that you don’t want to blow up in the first 100 meters of a race by going like a bat out of hell off the start line. In research, especially for graduate students and post-docs, there is a susceptibility for burn-out from being over-ambitious in the first few years. I suppose this could be true for early-career faculty as well, but I can’t say for certain first hand. Working long hours is only worth it if you reap the benefits of it; if you’re hours are fruitless, or you find yourself working without purpose, then it’s a waste of time. By no means am I saying that you shouldn’t work hard; I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t work 60+hr weeks (even still) on occasion when the effort is required. When a grant is due or a paper needs to be submitted, you put in that extra effort to see that it gets done and it gets done well; there’s no room for half-assing in academia. That being said, knowing your limits not just for productivity but also just plain “will to work” is important, because it’s not at all difficult to lose sight of what’s important. And, just like in racing where it’s easy to go balls-out in the first quarter mile of the race, it’s even easier to start out at a steady pace and pick it up mid-way through. Find a groove and trudge along through the race, because it’s a long one.