I recently overheard this sarcastic comment in my departmental coffee room: "Aside from not getting any further funding and not getting anything published this year, I'm doing pretty well at this science game." Sound far too familiar? Then, read on.
Seeking the Same Glory
Gaining personal success in science can, at times, seem a bit like a goalmouth scramble in your favourite sport. You have to be skilful and fast to get past the opposition. You are aware that even your fellow team players are seeking the same glory as you are. In competitive sport, the greatest accolade is awarded to the person who scores the winning goal. Yet there is an element of luck about scoring; you have to be in the right place at the right time. But top-scoring players have the knack of getting themselves into goal-scoring positions regularly. That, combined with plenty of behind the scenes training and impressive endurance levels, is the winning formula.
In the game of science, we need to be calculated risk-takers, consciously trying to get into scoring positions. For example, on top of our best efforts to obtain meaningful and significant results we still must have the nerve to submit our papers to Science, Nature, or the equivalent, even when our self-doubt is urging us to aim lower. If you find this "go for gold" attitude a bit inflated, my observations tell me that one good paper can go an awfully long way to help you get a solid footing on the career ladder. The same holds true for a successful grant or fellowship application that sees you through a crucial period of your research career. But if the stakes are this high, can you also run the risk of missing out on victory altogether while the player alongside you nips in to snatch the goal?
For instance: you receive multiple rejection letters from different journals as your manuscript bumps its way down the impact factor ladder. Does this mean you are being left wide open to the possibility of someone else in your fast-moving field nipping in and innocently publishing enough of their own data to prevent you from achieving a good publication? It certainly does. So, I think we do need to balance the risk with a pragmatic view about what publications will be realistically accepted in which journal, and focus on getting those papers accepted. A bird in the hand, not in the bush, is what matters in science.
With our superiors urging us to submit at a very high level on one hand, and our own pragmatism making us set our sights a little lower on the other, we will probably end up with a mix of publications scattered up and down the ladder. Given that we scientists are usually more concerned with achieving the best impact factor more than getting our paper into the most appropriate journal, perhaps a 70:30 split stacked toward the high impact end of the ladder, then it is a fair estimation that improving impact factor is how we should spend our time and energy.
To be able to take the risk in the first place, we need to have trained hard to get to this competitive level and then have the endurance to stick with it. Being realistic, there are a relatively small number of potential winners in each field of academia. This means that making it as a research scientist is far from guaranteed. When faced with these rather unfavourable odds for long-term research success, how do you find your own strategy for maintaining your stamina for the game?
My tips  for getting yourself through your Ph.D. are relevant here, even in your postdoc. Most important amongst these are identifying and hanging onto your real reason for doing research, and helping yourself by talking to empathetic colleagues who have, themselves, pushed on through their difficulties.
Think of it as developing the scientific equivalent of the determination and stamina of a triathlon competitor. Let's look at an example ?- the road to getting a paper accepted:
Round one: performing experiments that might take months or years.
Round two: the writing, rewriting, and submission that will take many, many weeks if not many months.
Round three: you wait impatiently for news from the journal editor of the referees take on your work.
Round four: it arrives at the drop of a hat, followed by an intense burst of activity in response to the referees' comments.
Round five: a further inevitable delay as you await the editor's final decision.
During this time you will doubtless subconsciously build up your hopes, making the arrival of the rejection letter an even nastier experience. Get the picture? In the face of this roller-coaster ride, only sheer doggedness will see you through.
Focus on Strengths and Successes
We all feel hard done by when our grants aren't funded and our papers are rejected, even if the referees' comments appeared to be pretty favourable. Bad score, but you played a fair game. But we must learn not to dwell on the rejection. Focus on your strengths and successes to date. What will mark you out from the rest of the field is how rapidly you pick up your tools and get back to work. When all else is stripped away, you just have to want success badly enough to push yourself off the pitch to continue researching in the face of such opposition.
You may feel that the risk to yourself of not making it in research it is just too great to enter the fray. You may believe that it is better to leave of your own accord before you are forced out by a lack of opportunity. I suspect many people make these decisions. Yet no one wants to face the second half of their life reminiscing about the research career that could have been if only things had worked out differently.
To counter this hitting you unexpectedly, be honest with yourself about your own window of (career) opportunity for making it in research. Try setting a realistic target number of publications for yourself that would be the minimum benchmark for success. Get some external advice from someone, ideally outside your department but in your field, about how your career is progressing and you can always reset the goal-posts if necessary.
If you decide to leave research because you feel your opportunities have become limited and the career risks outweigh the benefits, you should still be proud of your time in the goal mouth and acknowledge the unique skills and experience you have acquired along the way. These skills may well set you apart from the crowd in seemingly unrelated professions. The attribute illustrated by: "I got knocked down, but I got up again" can only be of benefit to any employer.
To further avoid the rather dismal prospect of feeling regret at the passing of your time in research, I believe that, like Olympian athletes, we should all feel honoured to have competed, even if we end up being knocked out of the competition in the second round. After all, our profession is a most remarkable way to earn your living.