Resilience: Bouncing Back and Moving Forward

Emily Atlas


Sharon Milgram, Photo Courtesy of NIH OITE

“To become a successful scientist you must be resilient.” A phrase like this may sound familiar or perhaps even trite. Most would agree that the path to a Ph.D. (or M.D.) requires the ability to cope with failure and to regroup, restrategize, and reenergize after setbacks. However, is resilience a trait that can be learned? If so, how?

In mid-March, Sharon Milgram, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) gave a talk about “Becoming a Resilient Scientist.” The event was cosponsored by two organizations at Memorial Sloan Kettering: The Gerstner Sloan Kettering Women in Science and the Female Association for Clinicians, Educators and Scientists (FACES).

Milgram was an extremely engaging and entertaining lecturer who used her story-telling skills to impress upon the large audience of scientists and M.D.s the importance of self-reflection and subsequent intentional action to become more resilient. The graduate students introducing Milgram opened up the talk with a lighter mood, sharing that when Milgram had first applied to graduate school (with goals of becoming a professor of physical therapy), she was not accepted. When she applied again, she ended up enrolling in a cell biology program. Then, she had to take her qualifying exam twice (and delayed taking it the second time for fear of failing again). But now she has her own lab and leads the NIH OITE, a testament to the fact that failures or slow starts can be more than overcome.

Milgram began by asserting that we are all life-long learners, particularly as scientists, since we are often learning new techniques and working on new problems that require entering semi-uncharted (and often uncomfortable) territory. Milgram adapted a summary of the four stages of learning a new skill from management expert Ken Blanchard. When we first embark on learning something new, we are “enthusiastic beginners,” and generally have low competence but are very confident. We then move on to the “disillusioned learner” stage in which we are more competent, but lose confidence, perhaps because at this point, we are aware of how little we actually know. When we are at the disillusioned learner stage, we generally feel very uncomfortable. Here, it is key to be resilient and move forward in order to reach the stage Milgram called “cautious performer,” where our competence and confidence have both increased, and finally the stage of the “high achiever,” where we have mastered the skill at hand and hence are much more confident. As scientists, we are often cycling through these stages and it is key to remember that each stage is only temporary.

In order to keep moving forward when we are experiencing a time of low confidence, we have to acknowledge our emotions but not drown in them. Resilience is the ability to both adapt and grow through adversity. We must navigate through the obstacles with both “intention and skill.” Milgram emphasized that resilience can be learned, but only if we are willing to reflect on how we currently deal with adversity.

We need to learn to be resilient at a time when we aren’t facing major challenges, so that in the face of adversity we are prepared to tackle roadblocks. Milgram outlined a few steps we can take in order to become more resilient: First, we should try to learn from past experiences; journaling can be a good technique to reflect on times in which we have succeeded in moving forward and times we could have done better. Second, developing strong relationships with peers and mentors is key and helps to remember that we are part of a larger community; we are not in this alone. Third, it is crucial to use resources and be proactive. Every institution has resources available and we need to learn how to ask for help when we need it. In some cases, counseling is also an important resource for people to utilize. Finally, we should be thoughtful about how we approach setbacks in our lives and careers and become more mindful of the “self-talk,” often negative, that we engage in during times of setback.

Milgram then elaborated more on negative self-talk. Inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s techniques of non-violent communication, Milgram asked us to imagine both jackals and giraffes (jackals conjuring up the image of vicious creatures, and giraffes, peaceful, graceful ones). After we fail at something, we often tell ourselves stories in “jackal” language, rather than “giraffe” language. Furthermore, the stories we tell ourselves are often far more negative than the situation warrants. We may experience cognitive distortions or automatic negative thoughts that make us feel hopeless. Our brain has a negativity bias, because being anxious and on high alert has evolutionary advantages, keeping us safe from danger. However, negativity can be harmful when we are not in danger, but are doing something new and uncomfortable.

Milgram delineated five types of negative self-talk, asking the audience to raise our hands if we identified with any of the five. The audience was filled with giggles at this time, as most people found themselves strongly identifying with at least one or two of the categories that Milgram described:

  1. All or nothing: We tell ourselves that if anything goes wrong, the whole endeavor was a failure.
  2. Catastrophizing: We exaggerate the implications of a failure and how it may affect a much bigger part of our lives or career.
  3. Mindreading: We make assumptions about what someone else is thinking (perhaps for example, after a conversation with a Principal Investigator). Milgram calls this a “special kind of fortune telling.”
  4. Minimizing: We downplay the importance of our accomplishments or positive qualities. This can also play into “imposter fears”—we tell ourselves “it was just luck.”
  5. Over-Generalization: We apply one negative event to others, assuming that because one thing went wrong, others will too.

To overcome these types of negative self-talk, the first step is to recognize and acknowledge them and then to talk back to them. Milgram suggests trying to think about our negative thoughts at a distance, thinking about how logical or scientific our fears and anxiety are, i.e., what evidence do we have to really back them up? Then, try to find inspiration from something positive, be it an affirmation, a phrase, even an image that strengthens you. Journaling and talking about our fears and anxieties is also very useful.

Pathway to resilience, Photo courtesy of American Psychological Association

The second part of Milgram’s talk focused on imposter fears, which are very common among students. People who fear failure, have perfectionist tendencies, and compare themselves to others are more likely to have imposter fears. External factors (such as messages from friends and family, or organizational culture) can also feed into imposter fears. Imposter fears are normal, but if unchecked they can seriously increase stress over the course of a career and ultimately result in self-sabotaging behavior, such as not applying for new opportunities or not studying. To overcome imposter fears, we need to normalize them by reminding ourselves that they are a common response to new situations, but we also need to find meaning in other aspects of our lives, so we are able to move forward and not let these fears hold us back. It is crucial to think about “what brings meaning to our days, months, years,” and ideally, we should find meaning in relationships or activities separate from our work; this helps us stay resilient. At this point Milgram addressed what she calls the “elephant in the room,” the fact that the culture in science and medicine doesn’t always value self-care, but she challenged us to fight against the culture and try to change it. At the end of her talk, Milgram summed it all up by reminding us that in order “to do well, we have to be well.”

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