12/18/2017: Sophie von Stumm is Associate Professor for Developmental Psychology at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE). For our interview section, she talks about her own, not always straight-forward way into science. She highlights how trying to fit into the expected structures of science bears the risk of compromising ones’ own interests. Sophie also shares challenges she faces in her career until today, and finds honest and encouraging words on how to deal with rejection.
Sophie von Stumm (33y), Associate Professor for Developmental Psychology at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)
How did you get into research?
When I studied for my undergraduate degree in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, I expected to build a career in Human Resources (HR) afterwards. To explore this possibility, I interned after the second year of my undergraduate studies for 3 months in the HR Department of a big, international company in Berlin. Within the first week I realised that I was neither cut out for HR nor for big, international companies. I spent my days staring at big clock on the wall in front of my desk, begging the clock hand to move faster so I could go for lunch or home. I completed the internship and returned to London to finish my degree and during that process I fell in love with doing my dissertation project. After that I knew I wanted to do more research projects, and so I registered for a Master of Science degree and then applied for PhD studentships.
What are the biggest challenges?
I think that one of biggest challenges that early career researchers face is avoiding to become lost in the professional structures of science. We live and work in times when hiring decisions and promotions depend heavily on metrics, for example the impact factor of the journal you publish in or how often your work has been cited by others (the so-called h-index). Also, early career researchers tend to be evaluated by the amount of grant money that they’ve secured: Getting grants is surely impressive but no guarantee for doing good research. The current structure of science can trick you into designing research that is more likely to be funded, rather than the one that you’re actually interested in. Trying to fit hiring and promotion criteria can distract from pursuing the research that we are passionate about.
How often would you consider your job to be rewarding and how often do you also have to deal with rejection or feedback that makes you question your work?
I receive rejections or feedback that critiques my work almost every day. If you get into science, you will soon learn that a substantial part of your job is asking others for things (for example publication, money, research support) — others who have the power to say ‘no’. At the best of times, they will tell you then why their answer was no. And that is when you learn and improve your work.
My first journal publication was my MSc dissertation. The re-write from the dissertation to publication format was traumatic. I was working with a fantastic team of senior scientists, who changed every single word and structure in my dissertation, before they agreed that the manuscript was ready for submission. I was devastated: All my brilliant phrases and witty paragraphs had been transformed into serious science writing. But I didn’t know that the real trauma was yet to come. The reviewers pointed out that my statistical analyses were completely flawed and inadequate, on top of asking for further re-writes of the text. For the next month, I holed up in defiant wrath, promising to never touch this manuscript or journal again. Then I swallowed my pride, sat down and started the analyses from scratch. Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about factor analysis, structural equation modelling, and the treatment of missing data. It took two more rounds of reviews until the paper was accepted. But when it was, I knew that its conclusions were based on accurate statistics (and that my stats skills were superb). I will not pretend that I thought the reviews were ‘nice’ but ultimately, they were constructive — they made the paper stronger and me a better scientist. I try to view all rejections and critiques from that perspective, although it’s of course a different question how successful I am with it.
Manuscript rejections are hard and maybe even crushing – especially around the holidays. However, there is always a little bit of truth and a chance to improve behind every critique (Illustration by Nora Maria Raschle @bornascientist.com).
Most of us enjoy the upsides of science, but how do you deal with rejections?
I have three key recommendations for how to deal with rejections.
First, take them slow: When I receive a notice of rejection for a paper, I often let it sit in my inbox for a few days until I know I am in the right frame of mind to read through the critique. I print reviewers’ comments and I work through them one by one, scribbling notes and responses to each. These notes are only for my eyes: They are the private space to express disagreement in various forms, including rude and angry if necessary. Then I drop the printout in a drawer for a week or two until I know I am ready to re-read the comments, understand them, and change the manuscript accordingly. It might strike you as a very slow process to deal with paper rejections but keep in mind that scientists tend to be emotionally attached to and proud of their research. At least for me, it takes time to transform the disappointment over a rejection into constructive revisions.
Second, be stubborn: redesign, rewrite, reanalyse and resubmit. Think carefully about what you need to do to improve your work so it becomes worth publishing. Then go and do it.
Third, celebrate when you submit: In a business where rejections are daily occurrences, make the moment count when you completed a piece of work that you are proud of. Don’t wait for the acceptance letter to crack open the champagne: It often comes after several rounds of revisions, by the time of which you will have moved on to a different research project and your excitement about your earlier work has lessened.
What did you want to be as a child?
A novelist. Failing that an actress.
Sophie von Stumm is also online: on twitter @hungrymindlab) and at her homepage www.hungrymindlab.com.