Avoid the career virus!

When we come down with flu, we do everything we can to get rid of the virus and get better. But when we come down with mind viruses—or ideas that harm us rather than help us—we often just accept them as “how things are,” doing nothing to counter their damaging effects.

There’s one mind virus, particularly acute these days, we should all pay attention to:

Science is a real struggle. It is a dog eat dog endeavor, and if you aren’t hyper competitive, super smart, and working 80 hours a week, you won’t succeed.

This mind virus was highlighted by the recent case of the postdoc poisoning his colleague’s cell cultures, because he was afraid she might be getting ahead. Not only was the act itself borne of this mind virus, but so were many of the comments following it. “That’s just the way it is in science these days,” was a common refrain in the blogosphere.

Realize that holding onto that particular mind virus will do far more harm to you than good.

The question we should always be asking ourselves is: “what viewpoint can I hold that will do me the most good in my life?”

Let’s consider the effect of this mind virus on the postdoc. He paid big fines, lost his job, and then was let go from his subsequent job. This virus caused him a lot of harm, as well as also those around him.

I’ve seen the effect of this on others. I know of one fellow who regularly worked 80 hour weeks, often staying up all night, trying to “get things done.”  He was one of the more ineffective people I know, because he was too stressed out from the lack of sleep to think straight. He really struggled to get his PhD. A person with a fresh and clear mind, working only 25 hours per week, could have accomplished just as much (if not more).

Getting ahead isn’t about just “getting lots of stuff done.”  It is about getting the right things done at the right time. To do that, you need to be relaxed and confident, not stressed-out and fearful. And the key is to realize that we can choose to hold whatever mental model of the world we want.

By default, we often hold onto mental models given to us by others, accepting them without asking, “does this serve me?” We accept them because we haven’t learned that we have the power to rewrite the program. We haven’t learned to question the motivations of the people telling us these things. Additionally, many of these ideas are based on fear, coming from all around us—from the media, news, and water cooler conversations—and these are highly infectious.

Once I realized—relatively late in life—that I have the ability to rewrite my own programming and fight off the fear infection, I’ve been doing it a lot. It has benefitted me hugely. I have tried to lose “dog-eat-dog” mentality, and instead to focus on the joy of doing science. And I get more of it done, I’m more creative, and I have more fun doing it.

So I ask you, dear reader, if you hold some variant of this particular fear-based thought virus, to contemplate whether it serves you or not. If you decide that it doesn’t, I can suggest a few things that might help you.

  1. Learn to live “in the moment” and enjoy every moment. If you’re in the moment, then you’ll realize that you have great power to make things happen. Some people refer to this as “mindfulness.”  It works.
  2. Don’t focus on what success others are having, or what you haven’t achieved yet. Focus only on your own success and what you want to achieve.
  3. Help other people rather than being afraid of them. The more you help others, the more it will come back to help you.  his doesn’t mean giving away your results to a competitor—but it does mean helping a lab-mate or a colleague whenever you have the chance.
  4. Get enough sleep. Many of us academics think that the only way to get ahead is to spend long hours working, while depriving ourselves of sleep. That’s like driving your car without enough engine oil. You can get away with it for a while, but eventually the engine blows out.
  5. Realize that the only thing you can control in your life is what’s in front you, here and now. You can’t control the competition. You can’t control whether your experiments will have the outcome you want. Make the most of what you can control, by doing the right work at the right time—and ignore the rest.

If you do these five things, you will permanently eliminate the thought virus, and see a marked improvement in your productivity and quality of life.

If you want more insights on how to have a great, stress-free science career, grab this free report that gives you five success methods used by top scientists (I’ve been interviewing people like Nobel prize winners for this).  There’s also a video coming soon showing you the single most effective thing I’ve discovered in all my personal productivity pursuits.
Morgan Giddings


Morgan Giddings is a tenured Associate Professor of Microbiology & Immunology, Biomedical Engineering, and Computer Science at UNC Chapel Hill, and also a serial entrepreneur who has been involved in six business ventures.  She loves to study personal productivity and to share what she learns with others.

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7 comments

  1. Mark Weber says:

    Excellent article, great advice.

  2. J.S.Virdi says:

    Fabulous. Makes a lot of sense. A must read.

  3. Yue-yue Wu says:

    I very agree with viewpoint of author. The career virus is common in our daily work, not just in research work. It harmful to all of us. Some measures must be taken to counter it. In my opinion, the five advices above are very useful to us, we can follow it.

  4. Rui Alves says:

    This is a very nice article.
    However, I would like to see a statistics about how following it will affect one’s ability to stay in and make a living doing science in today’s world. ;-)

  5. The author is very correct in that science requires what German 19th and 20th century psychologists have called an “eased-up field” (“entspanntes Feld”). Without this psychological prerequisite, science becomes mechanical, laborious, ineffective research. This is exactly why the sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw competition is harming science in many more ways than are visible right now. This psychological requirement is probably the best argument for tenure.

    However, what are we doing to science when only tenured professors have the right environment to do good science? If you don’t have tenure, you may chose to live by the five rules expressed here. However, because competition is so fierce, basically only those who live by those five rules AND work 80 hour weeks will eventually be able to drop down to the regular 60 hours when they have tenure. :-)

  6. Pingback: Five important things to remember in science

  7. Very good advice Morgan. However, there are also other factors at work that drive and influence people’s behaviour in the lab. The type of relationship that you have with your PI is dependent on their personality. This is something you cannot control. This also applies to relationships with other colleagues including awkward fellow postdocs, unhelpful technicians. All of these factors cannot always be ignored because no matter how you try, some will affect you if you work in research. Getting the right things done efficiently is the key. I would also add keep two ears and eyes open for opportunities; thing that others in a different line of research are doing that you could easily adapt. If the boss is pressuring you unreasonably, take advice from others. Where possible make it clear that undue pressure can be counterproductive. Be more assertive because you will get more respect and less aggro.