Curve Balls and Unexpected Paths

Adriana Bankston explores how uncertainty and rejection can ultimately move you forward in your career and in life.

July 1, 2019
 
 
Istock/erhui1979

Life is filled with ups and downs, and, in our career exploration and in life, we are bound to experience moments of uncertainty and rejection. As bench scientists, we may deal with not knowing whether our experiments will succeed, whether our manuscripts will be accepted for publication, whether our grants will be funded or even where our academic careers will go in the long-term. The path is also frequently woven with rejection, in experiments not working, manuscripts and grants being rejected, and academic careers not succeeding as quickly as we would like.

So how do we deal with these situations, and what lessons can we learn from them?

While it may be tempting to focus on these negative aspects, we must remember that, out of uncertainty and rejection, positive outcomes can emerge. Often, negative results and consequences can take us down a path we didn't expect -- and this can apply to our experiments, careers and life in general. When one door closes, it forces us to examine alternatives that we may not have considered otherwise. In retrospect, such unexplored paths may actually lead us where we were meant to be in the first place.

Rarely does life follow a linear path, and often these curveballs can be blessings in disguise, opening our minds to new experiences. If an experiment hadn't failed, we wouldn't have tried another one. If we didn't have a manuscript or grant rejected, we wouldn't have revised it and improved it for the next round. If various aspects of our careers had worked out as planned, we wouldn't have considered other professional alternatives. If we had always gone down the career path that we thought we would follow as kids, we would never be where we are today.

As a child in Romania, I knew that I wanted to have a positive impact on the world, but didn't know how to do that. For a long time, I was set on going to medical school in my own country and convinced that I could make an impact that way. When I didn't get in, I then applied to college in the United States and got accepted at several of them. That opened up a whole new path for me. I obtained my B.S. in Biological Sciences.

Again, however, I wouldn't let go of my dream of medical school, so I did some bench research in college to help my application. It turns out that I ended up liking the research path, so I pursued a Ph.D., followed by a postdoc. If I hadn't gone the academic route, I wouldn't have discovered my passion for improving the research enterprise through higher education policy, which is now my main interest. I never imagined this could be such a great career path for me, and I wouldn't have discovered it if I hadn't been rejected from medical school in the first place.

So, in retrospect, rejection can put us on novel and unexpected paths in life, which we may not have set forth on otherwise. It is always easier to follow the well-known trail that we think will lead us where we want to go, at least in the short-term. But we may not take the leap and expose ourselves to new and different experiences -- unless we are forced to do so by life's circumstances.

These circumstances, however, can often teach us to pause and reflect on where we are going in life and whether future experiences we choose to engage in can lead us there. And this is perhaps one of the most important lessons. In a world that is always on the go, reflecting on whether we are heading down the right path for ourselves can be a crucial step -- one that causes us to take the "road less traveled" down the line. If we don't, we will always be stuck in the same place, never knowing what else we could have accomplished.

For example, not being able to pursue a medical education in Romania eventually led me to become educated in the U.S., which at the time was not a common path for young people whose native language is not English and who were coming from where I grew up. Taking that chance opened up a whole new world of possibilities, challenges and opportunities for growth in ways that never would have happened in Romania. This experience taught me that I could successfully complete a degree here, which in itself was a big initial accomplishment, and gave me the confidence to continue my education in this country.

Often, it takes a curveball to make us stop, pause and realize where we want to go in life. It may take a rejection to steer us in the right direction. And our path will most likely be filled with uncertainty along the way. But these are necessary elements of progress and growth, both personally and professionally.

And it is certain that nothing substantial or worthwhile in life can come from taking the easy road. Uncertainty and rejection may stunt our growth in a certain direction, but foster it in another.

And if we feel, as we often do, that we may not be placed in the right spot, or that we are alone in this journey, we must remember that seeds are often planted in unexpected places. Sometimes these places are bright and sunny, and allow us to flourish. Other times they are not, and we must find a way out. But just like plants in the shade, we can always find a way out of the dark times and toward the sun. And being planted in those places may lead us to consequences that we may not have realized at the time, and to a much brighter future than we could have ever imagined.

Another professional experience to note here is my transition from graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta to my postdoc work at the University of Louisville. Moving from Atlanta to Louisville was quite a change, and the work environment was also significantly different. At one point during my postdoc position, I began to doubt my desire to pursue an academic career. It was scary, but out of this uncertainty my first creative endeavor was born: to start a career seminar series that brought in speakers talking to postdocs about careers.

The experience of organizing the seminar series taught me that I enjoyed creating university resources for trainees. It planted the seeds for what I currently do and want to pursue as my career. It also helped me discover my true calling, which is working on higher education policy and improving the research enterprise for the next generation of scientists and innovators.

I encourage you to view uncertainty and rejection as opportunities to pause and reflect on where you want to go in life, and to consider these circumstances as steering you in the right direction, which may be new and unexpected for you. Embrace these changes as you move forward in life, and seek to have a positive perspective about how they might shape your career and life for the better.

Bio

Adriana Bankston is a policy and advocacy fellow at the Society for Neuroscience and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

Read more by

 
Back to Top