The Sports Psychology of Academia: Playing the Game and Staying Sane

Sep 19 2012 Published by under Academia

Kate Clancy has another excellent post up at Context and Variation. This one is on the idea of using sports psychology to help yourself function in academia.

Go read it. Then come back. 🙂

I like this idea very much. In particular, I really like the idea of deliberately separating out what you can and cannot control in your academic life, and using that knowledge to work on the things you can, and trying to let go of the things you can't.

I think it's an important idea to try and think this way. I often hear about or go to seminars on "mentorship", or "getting ahead in academia", or "maximizing your networking potential". A lot of these seminars are helpful, but a lot of them also actually depend on you having a good beginning position in the first place. "Getting ahead in academia" seminars often assume that you have already worked with some well known people and are already well published and funded. "Mentorship" seminars or "networking" seminars often assume that you are working with people who want to mentor you, or actively work to help you network, or heck, even successful social skills. And if you look around at those seminars, and you do NOT feel as poised and prepared as the others around you...well you start to wonder if this is all your fault.

And once you start to wonder if it's all your fault that you don't already have a paper in Nature, a K99, a new technique you invented, and Nobel laureates asking to collaborate, well, forging ahead and pursuing the career you want can begin to seem like a dim chance.

This is why I like Kate's analogy of looking at how you deal with these problems in sports: divide things up. Determine what you can control, and what you can't. That list of what you can't control? Try to minimize it, or stress about it less. And then bust your butt on the things you CAN control.

When I go running, I cannot control the weather. I can't control the crowds on race day. I can't control the fact that I have a bad knee that gets me down.

But I can control how much I train. I can control what I eat beforehand, I can carry my own water and dress for the weather. I can control how I add weight training and work on building muscle to make up for my bad knee. I can make the most of what I have, and with it, achieve to the best of my ability.

I was forced to think of this recently. I ran a really bad race. And in the end, it was mostly my fault. The weather was great, the crowds were good, I had water and everything I needed. But I did not TRAIN.

And as I sit here now icing both my knees, I try to focus on that. I didn't train. I'm not going to dwell on what that last 2 miles felt like when I tried to speed up and nothing happened. But training? That is something within my control. I'm going to get back up (as soon as my knees will let me), and I'm going to start training again.

But somehow, I rarely think of the things that are IN my control when life gets me down in science. And isn't it about time we tried?

So here we go.

Things I cannot control in my academic career:

  • Other people's priorities, including those of my boss or my previous bosses
  • Other people I am competing against for grants for publications
  • The current grant climate and what determines it
  • The people I will applying to for academic positions
  • Problems with laboratory supplies or just bad luck.

Of course these are the most general things I cannot control and there are more specific instances for all of these. I can't control whether the colleagues that I am currently working with have our shared manuscript as their top priority. I cannot control the fact that paylines for grants are below 10%. I cannot control whether open positions at universities want someone who is most certainly not me.

But now we come to the better, more optimistic question.

What can I control:

  • My priorities and goals, experimental, methodological, funding, political, and career-wise
  • My attitude
  • My actions

For example: I cannot control whether my current colleagues have our shared papers as their priorities. But I can control how I choose my future collaborations and colleagues, whether I seek out work with people who are like the current people I work with, or whether I search for a set of collaborators that may have a different way of working. I cannot control the paylines, but I can control which and whether I apply for the grants, and I can make my own grant proposals as watertight as possible. I cannot control the things that people may say about my papers, but I can try to make logical arguments and create a clear explanation with my data. I cannot control what people are looking for when they have a job ad, but I can control how I present myself and carefully tailor my applications. And perhaps most importantly, I can control my attitude and actions. I can get up and try again. I can work to become the best at what I do in my tiny slice of the science world. I can keep trying to do what I need to do to achieve my own goals.

Thinking like this can help me to maintain a positive attitude about my career (even though being a trainee can seem awfully powerless sometimes). When the things I cannot control get me down, I can try to focus on what I can control to help myself recover, move on, and get as far ahead as I can, or adjust my own goals and priorities to make sure I end up happy with my science and where I end up.

This is more than just thinking positive. This is focusing on what you can do to mitigate problems. This is working hard to position yourself well. This is learning from your mistakes (something you do a lot of in science) and changing your behavior going forward. This is defining your priorities and researching how to get where you want to be.

So, has anyone else tried this? Has it worked for you? What are some of the things you cannot control, and some of the things that you can? I'm interested to hear what you think.

7 responses so far

  • [...] most important to remember about all this is that starting point and environment really matter. Scicurious has a great response to my post where she focuses on this. In particular, she notes: I often hear about or go to [...]

  • [...] thing I’ve been pondering is this post by Kate Clancy on the sports psychology of academia, plus this follow up by Sci Curious, and then this follow up by Kate. In many ways, it’s about understanding what factors are outside [...]

  • NatC says:

    This is SO true. And thinking this way helped so much during job search. I cannot control what kind of research they are looking for, but I CAN control how well I represent my own research. I cannot control how crazy/intense my schedule is on the day, but I CAN control how I've prepared, by looking through the department research interests descriptions and so on. I didn't realize it was a formalized technique! I am going to try to implement more broadly.
    Thanks Kate Clancy & Scicurious - great series of posts!

  • kturtlekeeper says:

    As an ex ballet dancer turned psycholinguist I have applied some of the discipline that I learnt during the hard slog at full time ballet school to my academic career and it pretty much follows the line of thought presented by Kate and Scicurious. Prepare well for the stuff that you can control and recognise that there is going to be a lot of stuff that you can't control.

    People tell me that I'm over prepared, but they also tell me that I'm really good at presenting my research and giving lectures ... this is due to that over preparedness they were talking about but they don't seem to make this link. I can only assume that they think I'm a 'natural' and can somehow just give very good talks and lectures!

    I've recently been awarded a PhD and have avoided having to grab any job I can find by signing up for some part time associate lecturing which will keep me ticking over until I find a job that I want to do.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion to pick your collaborators wisely, working with some people is a pleasure, but if your work styles/ethics don't gel it can be very hard to work together.

    My main aim is to reduce the stress of the academic role which can be quite extreme at times and learn to say no!

    Thanks Scicurious and Kate for some excellent writing.

  • [...] Inspired by Kate Clancey (here, here) and Scicurious (here). [...]

  • Academia says:

    For this purpose we have developed an exchange program that provides exchanges

  • […] most important to remember about all this is that starting point and environment really matter. Scicurious has a great response to my post where she focuses on this. In particular, she […]

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