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Managing Expectations

Submitted by Lori Conlan February 7, 2022

Expectations are a natural part of life and are important because they provide clarity, help provide direction, and offer ways for accountability to be maintained. Despite expectations being essential, they can be complex to navigate. Below are three components that can make expectations challenging:

  1. Expectations are spoken and unspoken. Given that expectations can be explicit or implicit, expressed or inferred, miscommunications and confusion can occur. Just expecting that something will happen will not make it happen. Managing expectations effectively requires continuous communication.
  2. Unmet expectations can be difficult to process. When our expectations or hopes are not met, this can cause emotional responses, such as frustration, anger, or sadness. If we are unable to effectively cope with these feelings, they can negatively impact productivity, relationships, or future experiences.
  3. Expectations often require us to engage with accountability. Depending on your personality, relationship dynamics, or ability to maintain boundaries, creating accountability for yourself and others can be a challenge.

The complexities of managing expectations can cause avoidance, confusion, or fear. These responses can create even greater barriers to meeting our expectations and having our expectations met. With that in mind, it is important to find tools that help us navigate the complexities of expectations that exist in both our personal and professional lives. To attend to the nuances of personal and professional expectations, it is important to find tools that fit the context.

Here are three ways that you can work to navigate these challenges:

  1. Develop expectations up front and be open to renegotiating expectations. By developing expectations up front, we can set the direction, determine pace, and create the foundation for accountability. Dialoging about expectations should be open and continuous, allowing space for check ins, feedback, and reevaluation. Additionally, be aware that when more than one party is involved, expectations should be determined for both parties and this process should be collaborative.
  2. Be realistic when setting expectations for yourself. It can be a challenge to set realistic expectations. Whether they stem from perfectionist tendencies, comparison to others, pressure from internal or external forces, or lack of self-awareness, unrealistic goals can set us up for failure. Set yourself up for success by developing attainable and reach goals to promote completion and growth. This may require a sounding board or input from a supervisor.
  3. Practice letting go. It can be easy to let our negative emotions dictate how we navigate unmet expectations. Letting go does not mean that we ignore these emotions. Rather, we can acknowledge and move through the emotions. To do this, we can use the 3 R’s to help practice resilience: reframe, revise, and refocus--explore what happened, revise your action plan based on what you learned, and embrace the new action plan.

Guest Blogger: Jenn Wiggins, MA, LPC: Wellness Advisor, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Help Is Out There: Navigating Graduate School’s Challenges

Submitted by Lori Conlan February 14, 2022

Embarking on your graduate career can be exciting. You’re designing your own experiments, directing your own scientific inquiry, uncovering new knowledge. There’s so much to learn! It also comes with a unique set of challenges. There is a lack of structure – there’s no set end time, and the milestones along the way aren’t rigidly defined and often depend on you. You’re expected to work more independently than you have in the past. In addition, you may receive infrequent feedback on your work, and what you do hear is often critical. Whether it’s the result of imposter fears on your first day in lab or a string of unsuccessful experiments in your third year, there will be a time when you doubt yourself. (Okay, many times!) Follow these suggestions to prepare for those doubts and challenges so you can build the skills you need, move your project forward, and plan for your career after graduating.

  • Take care of yourself. To do your best science, you need to be able to bring your creativity and resilience to your work. You can only do that when you are taking care of your whole self. Be sure to make time outside of lab for the activities that energize you. Pay attention to your stress level and self-talk and develop wellness strategies that work for you. Find wellness resources offered by the OITE here.
  • Be proactive. It’s important to realize that you are ultimately responsible for both the success of your scientific projects and your future career. That doesn’t mean that you need to do it alone, though. Ask for the help that you need and be assertive in seeking out resources that will help you along the way. Know your program requirements and key milestones and keep them in mind throughout your journey. Self-directed graduate students succeed.
  • Find good mentors. Choosing a graduate advisor who will support your science, your future career, and you as a person may be the most important decision you make as a graduate student. But even if you have a great thesis advisor, no one person can meet all your mentoring needs. Having multiple mentors, within and outside of your lab, can ensure that you receive good mentorship for your scientific, professional, and personal goals. In addition, seeking multiple perspectives when you face a problem will help you arrive at creative solutions.
  • Develop a network of support. During graduate school, you’ll need support in a variety of arenas, including from friends and loved ones. Make sure you also learn about the support that’s available at your institution. Find and take advantage of available career and professional development resources. Get to know your graduate program staff and the important people in leadership and administrative roles in your program. Know who you can turn to when you run into a problem and reach out when you need support. If you are conducting research at the NIH, familiarize yourself with resources for students in the Graduate Partnerships Program and know that the GPP staff are always here for you.
  • Have a training plan. A training plan is a dynamic document that can help you identify your short- and long-term scientific and career goals. Creating one will help you think through what you hope to accomplish and what skills you want to develop to reach your goals. It can also facilitate communicating those goals to your mentor and your committee. You can explore your skills, values, and interests and develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP) on the Science Careers website using myIDP.

Being a graduate student means constantly learning something new. While that can be overwhelming at times, it can also be exhilarating. Maintaining a growth mindset and using the tools above will help you avoid common pitfalls and succeed in your graduate career.

Guest Blogger: Laura Marler, PhD: Director of Student Services, NIH Graduate Partnerships Program, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Learning to Embrace the Present

Submitted by Lori Conlan February 22, 2022

As students we reach many thresholds: graduating high school, getting into college, getting into graduate school or medical school, completing our postdoctoral fellowship, residence, or internship. Many times, we spend a major portion of our time planning for the next threshold.

From threshold to threshold, I always knew what my next step was, until I reached my postdoctoral fellowship. I started my postdoc thinking I would be running a research lab in the future, but while my research advanced, my hesitation to join academia increased. This left me wondering what my next step would be. If it was not academia, what would I do instead?

Letting go of my anticipated future plan of becoming a principal investigator and not knowing my next steps filled me with anxiety. All my life, I knew what was next, and I had clear goals in mind. For the first time, I was stuck in a liminal space (the space between the end of one life stage and the beginning of the next) with no clear direction.

It was in this time of uncertainty that I reached out to the OITE Wellness advisor, other health care professionals, and mentors. They introduced me to a set of tools that helped me let go of the anxiety of not knowing what the next step/goal would be and embrace the present.

  • Explore uncomfortable emotions
    Sometimes we avoid uncomfortable emotions, such as frustration, sadness, jealousy, and disappointment. It’s important to recognize that these feelings are natural and are telling us important information about our environment or circumstance. For me, acknowledging and naming my emotions allows me to place some distance between myself and the emotion. For example, saying “Something in me is feeling sad,” lets me then question “Why?” After introspection, I place one hand on my heart and take a deep breath. Furthermore, with the help of therapy (in particular cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy), I learned to be in tune with my emotions, comfortable or uncomfortable ones, and to be kind to myself.
  • Use available resources and set realistic goals
    Schedule meetings with career advisors and mentors. Informational interviews are also a great way to learn about various career paths. I was nervous and hesitant to set up informational interviews or reach out, but when I did, these meetings pointed me to my future direction.
    Our values, interests, and priorities change over time. Conducting a personal value assessment can highlight careers that will be fulfilling and adequate for your career stage.
  • Enjoy the journey and live in the present
    We tend to want to rush through the ambiguity of the liminal space, but I encourage you to embrace this space, sit in the now and be open to the possibilities that are available in this time of uncertainty. Two tools that help me be present:
    • Gratitude Journaling: Daily making a list of what I am grateful for. There are now many apps for this.
    • Mindfulness: Join a mindfulness meditation group.

While it is important to make plans and set the next goals, remember:

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans

        – John Lennon.

Guest Blogger: Andrea Naranjo Erazo, PhD: Co-director, NIH Academy on Health Disparities and Research Ethics Coordinator, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE

Community and Self-Care – Anchors for Scientist Parents

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 28, 2022

Guest Blogger: Ulrike Klenke, PhD: Director, Amgen Scholars Program at NIH, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE”

Juggling parental responsibilities while maintaining a scientific career is not an easy thing to do. The pandemic has added many challenges: managing children at home due to school closings or quarantine periods, halts to extracurricular activities, and navigating children's - and our own - emotions around uncertainty and change. At the same time, we are worried about our own careers, the impact of the pandemic on our productivity, and how to keep everything on track.

So, what are we to do? The famous African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” is more important today then ever. Asking for help and finding support in the community are essential to be able to raise children, especially for our international trainees. The NIH has many resources to help trainee parents specifically with this. Programs like the Nursing Mothers Program, childcare centers, resource and referral services, lunch and learn seminars, the parenting coach and the NIH parenting listserv, to name a few, are all available to help parents find the support they need. Groups like Mom-Dad-Docs are specifically geared to create community for postdoc parents, to exchange best practices and to support each other when the going gets tough.

However, we need to recognize that self-compassion and self-care are also necessary to deal with our stress and remain patient with our children and at work. We can only bring our full attention to our surroundings and be truly present if our needs are met as well. The OITE offers wellness programs to support trainees with this aspect. Participating in resilience groups and/or wellness skill-building groups will help you lay the foundation to better self-care. Informal wellness activities like mindfulness meditation, journaling, or just chatting with peers at the Thriving Thursday events can be just the thing you need to help with being the resilient parent you want to be. Check for upcoming OITE events on our website.As we are told in airplanes, putting your mask on first is imperative to save your children – you need to take care of yourself to function as a parent.

Finally, give yourself a break. It’s okay to take some time away or let something go undone once in a while. Remind yourself that you are doing your best. Parenting is always hard, and this is a particularly stressful time to be a parent. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others, especially those portraying “perfect parenthood” online. Recognize the negative self-talk that you may be engaging in surrounding your parenting and talk back to that voice. Being kind to yourself will make you a better parent, reducing your stress and helping you be kind to those around you, as well – your children included.

Being a scientist is challenging. Being a parent is stressful. Doing both can feel incredibly difficult at times, but it is possible to do both successfully when we use the resources around us, ask for and accept help, take care of our wellness, and offer ourselves compassion.