DR. Derek McLachlin

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Like everyone, I’ve gone through times of disappointment and self-doubt, both personally and professionally. One such time occurred during my stint as a post-doctoral researcher at The Rockefeller University in New York.

Rockefeller was an amazing place to work. Most if not all professors there are leaders in their respective research fields. Such a high-quality research environment draws young scientists from all over the world who are looking to make their mark. Expectations are high at Rockefeller, and while I was there I felt a lot of pressure to succeed in my research. My goal was to run my own research lab, and to achieve that goal I would need to produce impactful research publications.

I worked in a biochemical analysis lab, and while I had my own independent research, part of my role was to conduct analyses of samples provided by collaborators in other labs. My collaborators used a lot of time, skill, and resources generating samples, and I was expected to analyze them skillfully and provide answers to their questions. The analysis procedures were complicated, and I was not confident in my ability to carry them out properly. Sometimes I was able to give the answers my collaborators sought, but often my analysis failed and I had to report negative results. My colleagues in the lab seemed to be more successful, so I became quite discouraged. Some projects I had at Rockefeller ended successfully, but some collaborations failed, causing me a lot of stress. I worried a lot about whether I could be successful in a science career.

This difficult time made me reflect on the impact my work was having on me. I thought a lot about how I defined success, who I was as a person, and who I wanted to be. I came to realize that doing bench research of this kind was not the best choice for my mental health. I decided to change the trajectory of my career; I took an interesting science writing job for a couple of years before I landed my current teaching-focused position at Western. I stopped worrying so much about the future and focused on doing the best job I could in the moment. I found work in which I could make the most of my strengths in communication, organization, and interpersonal interaction. These jobs were (and are) much more suited to my temperament, and I have been much happier and confident since re-evaluating my career goals.

If you’re experiencing a setback, I encourage you to reflect on the reasons for that setback and be open to all possibilities. Perseverance and dedication are admirable things, but there is also no shame in re-evaluating and changing course when that is the better choice for you. That is what has worked for me.  Sometimes failure helps you find the road to success.