CAREER COLUMN

How adapting to research setbacks can pave the way to greater outcomes

Skeletal biologist Justyna Miszkiewicz says that the disappointments she encountered during her PhD were as valuable as her successes.
Justyna Miszkiewicz is a lecturer in biological anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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All researchers face setbacks — data-collection issues, a missed funding proposal or a rejection for a dream job.

The academic disappointments I’ve overcome in my career share a common theme. What felt like a problem at the time ultimately delivered a long-term benefit. Adapting to a sudden change in circumstances created opportunities to advance my career.

For example, when I enrolled in my PhD programme at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, in 2010, I planned to study bone form and function using a medieval collection of human remains. But I was hampered by limited sample sizes. Burials at the Canterbury cemetery, which I was using, were stratified according to social status. So instead of completely changing the set of methods, I incorporated social status into my research questions and investigations.

Little did I know that this data-collection setback would led to a long-term investigation into social determinants of bone health. This provided opportunities for international collaborations, which led to me co-writing a multidisciplinary book about social inequality and bone fragility in past and present societies, called Bone Health: A Reflection of the Social Mosaic to be published later this year.

Now, when an obstacle creeps into my research programme, I ask myself the following questions:

• What does this mean for the project going forwards?

• What are my other options?

• What positive outcomes can I identify as a result of this development?

Doing this helps me to process the feelings of disappointment and influences the steps I need to take to reach my goals.

Another disappointment relates to being rejected for a fully-funded PhD scholarship. I adapted by taking part-time jobs and accepting a teaching scholarship that covered tuition and bench fees. I worked non-stop, juggling academic and industry jobs for the next four years, but learnt how to deliver on multiple tasks in different work environments. The experience taught me time management and flexibility — qualities I need in my post as a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra.

After gaining my PhD in 2014, I applied for 32 postdocs in biological anthropology around the world unsuccessfully. At one point, I gave what I thought was an exceptional interview at a UK university. As I wandered down the corridors at lunchtime looking at journal articles published by the staff in the department, I thought: “my papers will be amongst these soon”. I received a rejection e-mail at around 5 p.m. the same day. It dawned on me that I must have not been looking in the right subject area.

I adapted by applying for jobs in a different, but related research area — medicine. It turned out that this door was open at my first try. My transferable lab skills suited a London-based research group investigating osteoporosis. I learnt new methods of bone examination that expanded my methodological toolkit, and I gained interdisciplinary technical experience that I eventually needed to successfully build my research group in Canberra, when I moved there in 2016.

I struggled to secure major research funding for the next three years. I adapted to each declined application by expanding my academic collaborative networks, applying for smaller equipment grants and continuing to develop my dream research project in the background. I bounced back from each rejection by tweaking my study design, following grant assessors’ feedback.

I am now about to embark on my first ever project funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council designed for early-career researchers. It was all worth the wait — the funding setbacks I encountered paved the way to this big funding pot.

Since my move to Australia, I have had to be adaptable when dealing with archaeological human bone samples that proved unpredictably difficult to analyse. Because I now work in the Asia-Pacific region, my samples come from all sorts of environments: from tropical islands in Indonesia to the extremely arid Arabian Desert.

I study bone at the cell level so any sample altered by thousands of years of environmental processes might simply not yield the results I’m after. Because I can’t predict this from the external appearance of the bone, months of lab processing can often result in no usable data.

I adapt by having other projects in the background, so that my publication output doesn’t suffer. Despite some projects not leading to a paper, they still help my career, by strengthening my international collaborations through regular communication and exchange of technical training between labs.

My next, initially unanticipated, project might be to create an Asia-Pacific map of ancient bone microstructure preservation.

Although my career has not always developed as I expected and has had unplanned twists and turns, I’ve found the opportunity to find potential solutions for problems to be hugely valuable in the long term.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01916-x

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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