The alarm of my phone goes off on a Wednesday morning, not unlike any other weekday. I wake up, switch it off, and as normal, go through my emails on my phone — such is the life of a scientist — unlike how movies portray it, handling emails is probably one of the most important parts of our job. Pass the “spam” emails from the University, the invitations to seminars, hidden in the middle of emails from predatory journals lies the following:
“Dear Mr. Tan,
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to XXXX. I regret to inform you that reviewers have advised against publishing your manuscript, and we must therefore reject it.
Please refer to the comments listed at the end of this letter for details of why I reached this decision.
We appreciate your submitting your manuscript to this journal and for giving us the opportunity to consider your work.
Another rejection. I put my phone down, close my eyes, take a deep breath and sigh. I forward it to my professor before sinking back into my bed for another 15 minutes, just breathing. It’s almost common now to see these emails, and I thought I would be used to it by now — I can even hide the disappointment from the people around me — but deep down it still hurts. At that moment, I was brought back to when I was a masters student in Melbourne, fresh into the world of academia, embarking on a project I could call my own. Unfortunately, calling a project your own means that you take responsibilities for all its failures too, and my project had many of them. It was not uncommon for me to have to run up to the roof of the Florey Institute’s building where I worked, away from anyone else, crying. It was not uncommon that I would feel so incompetent, seemingly unable to do the simplest of experiments right — experiments that have been so well established since the 1970s. Five years later, after completing a masters, publishing multiple papers, and now embarking on a PhD — every time an experiment fails, or a paper gets rejected, I would feel the same fear as before, fears of incompetence. These feelings of inadequacy, the anxiety of failure, the struggle for validation, it felt all too familiar, it was the same feelings I get an artiste.
It starts the same, be it acting or music, hours spent practising, all cumulating in a product that you put out to the world to be judged, be it on the bandstand, being judged by fellow musicians and the audience, or in a play, being judged by critics. The knots in your stomach before you go on stage, the adrenaline that takes over when you are on stage, and then the waiting game after — will your work be validated by others? In music, or at least for jazz, it’s a bit more acute, you can almost immediately tell after your solo if you have done well from the reactions of your fellow musicians and the audience; for theatre, it takes a while longer, waiting for the critic’s article to be published.
I remember my first lead role in a theatrical production in Melbourne University, it was unexpected, I thought I was just playing music, but the director asked if I would play a lead role. Despite having little experience with theatre, I decided that I should be open to new experiences, and so I ended up accepting the role. The next few months were filled with hard work in rehearsals, and I was on a steep learning curve given how fresh I was to the theatre scene. Regardless, together with the hard work of the cast and crew, we staged a show for two weeks that I think we were all proud of. When the reviews came in, it was not the best — while there were elements the critics liked, there were major criticisms of the piece overall. Although the reviews were by no means harsh, you could almost sense the disappointment in the team, the fact that it wasn’t fully accepted was enough to hurt. Similarly in music, I was playing a regular gig at the Metropolitan Hotel with a rotational jazz band that I led. It was the first time I had a stable gig, a sign that a venue trusted your music enough to hire you back regularly. The bar owner and bartenders liked us, and really appreciated our music. However, there was only that much crowd we could draw, and after the initial hype, the crowds lessen. A few months in, the bar could no longer financially justify hiring us anymore, and while I did understand the decision was not an indictment of my music, it still felt as if I had put myself out there and was eventually rejected.
In both music and theatre, I’ve come to realise that in order to do the best you can, you inevitably need to allow yourself to be vulnerable, and that is in part why it hurts when you get criticism in any form — regardless of how mild it is. It no longer becomes just a rejection of the work you did, but also a rejection of you.
Being a scientist feels very similar to being an artist. You spend years training, developing your skills, learning techniques — this all cumulates to your final product — your paper. Years of your hard work, tears, sweat, all on a single paper, which you present to the world. Like an artiste, your work gets critiqued by the few elites — starting with the editor, who would determine if your work is relevant. If you’re lucky enough to pass the editor, it gets critiqued by “peers”, fellow academics who would determine if your last few years was worth anything. Like with artists, who your mentor was matters — if you are the protégé of someone renowned, an automatic expectation of greatness is assumed by others, you don’t have to fight as hard to prove yourself. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to prove yourself, but you have an advantage over someone unknown. If you make it, you are welcomed into the fraternity of greats, if you don’t, you continue struggling, selling your “art”, a part of yourself, at small prices, just to survive.
Like with many artiste, we put ourselves into our work. When we submit a paper, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable — as an artiste must. We bare it all to get critiqued by the world. Like an artiste, we struggle to make sense of what we do, questioning the worth of our work, of ourselves. If you care about your work, if you believe that you are doing something worth labouring at, it’s inevitable that you would end up putting a lot of yourself into your work. This is no different from a scientist. Yet the paradox of this is that scientific work, by its nature, has to be cold and unemotional — unaffected by the bias of emotions. A good scientist of course takes on board criticism and tries to improve their work — this however requires the scientists to be vulnerable, something difficult to accept. This is very similar to that of an artiste, understanding their critiques in order to improve themselves, however painful it is to fully accept criticism on something that the artist has emotionally invested themselves in for a long time.
Incorporating arts into science has been recently gaining traction; educators have been calling for education in STEM to incorporate arts (STEAM), and scientists have started to highlight the importance of arts training in science. A key reason for this is the need for scientists to approach STEM questions with tools used in the creative processes in arts, be it to come up with more creative solutions to problems, or to ensure that scientists engage questions with ethics and empathy in their mind. Among these creative processes, I think that exploring vulnerability, while initially seemingly contradictory to the scientific process (science, while at its best is supposedly objective and data driven, unaffected by emotional bias), could actually be incredibly beneficial to STEM.
I think the unacknowledged vulnerability in science has led to a “cold lab coat” situation in which the public views science as something inaccessible, and scientists are partly dehumanised (or infrahumanized). This has huge implications in which there is an increased mistrust in scientists, and a climate in which rejection of science is common — While 97% of climate researchers agree that the climate change is happening and that it is human-induced, only 47% of Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activity, and 40% of the public believing that there is huge disagreements among scientists on whether it’s occurring. Examples of similar situations can be found in topics such as GMO food and vaccinations.
Exploring vulnerability could allow scientists to come to grips with the fact that despite science requiring an unemotional objectivity, it is conducted by emotional beings. I would even further argue that the scientific process should not be an unemotional process; yes, we need to be objective, but we should not loose our humanity in the process. I think that for many scientists, the constant feeding of the scientific self (the rational being that strives for objectivity in the research) over the emotional self (the vulnerable self that is heavily invested in the outcome of the research) leads to a disconnect between the two and can easily eventuate in mental health issues. For example, there has been evidence for a mental health crisis among graduate students with a recent paper reporting that almost half of graduate student population suffers from anxiety and depression. In academic staff, about 37% of academics have mental health disorders, a level higher than other occupational groups. Of course it would be overly simplistic to say that the cause of these issues is the lack of acknowledgement of vulnerability in science — as always there are many factors involved — but it certainly would account for parts of it.
How do we start exploring vulnerability in science then? I do not have a clear answer for this, and I’m sure there are psychologists that would be more qualified in answering this question. What I have found useful though, is being honest about science and the scientific process, be it to myself, to fellow scientists, or to the public. Science isn’t perfect, and scientists falter a lot. I think we need to be honest that we are emotional creatures and our science is therefore a process that cannot be unemotional. Accepting this would first allow us to reconcile the emotional and scientific selves, and perhaps even embrace and channel our emotionality in science to something useful. What I think this also does is humanise scientists to the public —when the public understands that the scientific processes aren’t perfect, and that science is carried out by emotional creatures like themselves, with similar fears, ambitions, and vulnerabilities, a more trustworthy relationship can be built, one where instead of seeing scientists as an outgroup, they are viewed as members of the same community, trying to reach the same goals — the betterment of our communities.
How do we start being honest about science and its processes?
I am part of a global network of researchers/communicators/nerds who regularly organise “lecture” events held at bars that aims at casual and relaxed atmospheres called Nerd Nite. If you are a researcher, check the website out to find if you have a local Nerd Nite chapter, contact them, and start sharing your experiences. If you aren’t a researcher, firstly kudos for reading this all the way here, but also, check out if there is a Nerd Nite Chapter in your region. It’s always a super fun night, and it’s a great way to start learning more about how research is done, meet some of your local researchers, and talk to them about their work. I promise, we aren’t THAT nerdy… most of the time at least.
EDIT/ADDENDUM: Nerd Nite is more than science btws! We get researchers from all fields, people from industry, just overall amazing people! To reflect that, and to use appropriate language, I’ve changed “science” to “research” in the footnote section.