Early Spring, a.k.a. Rec-Letter-Bonanza!: Effort and Resiliency

I am blessed to have such amazing students, both in my classroom and working with me in the fish lab. And because spring is application season, I’ve lost count of how many rec letters I’ve written this season, although I’m proud to do it every time. (Proud does not mean I have unlimited time, y’all, but that it’s worth every bit I can give to it!). Thus far this spring, two students have won College of Natural Science Undergraduate Research Scholarships, and two have committed to the grad schools of their choice. In all, I’m overjoyed at all of the opportunities these students are pursuing, and a bit sad, too, to watch them go…. But boy, I can’t wait to see what they’ll be up to!

As my students make plans and move on to their next steps, I’ve reflected a lot on my journey to get here and how each “little” thing reaffirmed my journey to be working in science. That said, it has been hard to reiterate to students that, even for the best of scientists, their CVs, websites, papers, etc. only reflect the ‘highlights’. That is, for every application/paper/grant, there’s a ton of times where things just didn’t work out. So, when my students start to stare at CVs and websites for these people, I have to remind them, just like in experiments, even the greatest people have not always had things go smoothly and flawlessly.

I’ve come to realize that, as we mentor students, it is valuable to share both times when you have succeeded and times you have failed. I’ll be the first to admit that having not gotten certain fellowships/grants still stings, and so too do manuscript rejections. However, if we want to instill and build resiliency in our students, it is critical that we share these failures to demonstrate that we don’t *magically* get everything right, nor do we get it all the first time. We fail, too, and it’s not just them. Instead of being discouraged by our failures, we just have to get back on the horse each time we fall, and hopefully ride a little wiser next time.

To see someone else be resilient in times of struggle helps us to reflect on what is possible and to build respect for those putting forth the effort, putting themselves out there, and hopefully on occasion seeing the work pay off. Furthermore, I’ve seen rejections turn into a boost for some of my students, who come back fired up and ready to prove they’ve got more in them. Use these times of struggle as a foundation to build skills like resiliency and grit, rather than ignore them because of the discomfort. These times may not make it to the highlight reel, but they definitely contribute to what does.

To my students, I say this: Failures are teachable moments, not people. A few missteps are not going to kill your science dreams, nor do they mean you’re not cut out for science (or anything you want in life, really). You are smart and capable, and I believe in you. You can have the best of ideas and sometimes things don’t work out. Just keep swimming.


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