Alright, so this post is sponsored by a healthy mimosa buzz (brunch with $10 bottomless mimosas just isn’t a deal you can beat). I haven’t written anything under the influence since one bad experience I had in undergrad, so let’s see how this goes…
When I came to grad school, I was a fragile, innocent child riddled with insecurities. I was convinced that I wasn’t good enough. I had major imposter syndrome, where I felt like everyone else in the program was super smart, and I had just slipped through the cracks and didn’t really belong. One day, it was all going to catch up to me and people would realize I wasn’t smart or gifted enough to be here, and I would have to leave the program in disgrace.
Obviously, this was a bad state to be in, and it made everything that happened to me feel like a personal attack. If I didn’t know something in my field, it wasn’t because I was new and not yet caught up on the literature. It was because I wasn’t smart enough. If I couldn’t come up with a novel idea for a research proposal, it was because I wasn’t creative enough and I couldn’t generate ideas. When I acquired bad data, it was because I was incompetent and screwed something up. Anytime I was anything less than perfect, it was because of some inherent shortcoming. I already am prone to depression and anxiety, but this state of mind made it so much worse, and it felt like every day was a battle just to prove that I’m acceptable. I felt like I was trying to trick everyone, to keep them from finding me out.
A huge theme in science is to question everything, and so that’s what people do. It’s incredibly hard to get used to as a new person in the field. Every time you show data to someone, they try to pick it apart, asking questions about every detail regarding how the data was collected, how it’s processed and interpreted, giving different meanings to it. They question why you did things a certain way. If you did things differently than someone else, they call you out on it. If there are holes in the logic of your conclusions, they point them out. They also question feasibility, novelty, applicability, and usefulness. It’s great because that’s part of the scientific process. We have to question everything.
This is incredibly stressful for a new person who is insecure about their own capabilities. Every time someone criticized something I did or thought, which is everyone, all the time, I would interpret it as me having fucked up. I constantly was stressed out about this, and it got to the point where I was afraid to talk to anyone about my data because I feared the onslaught of interrogations that would happen.
For this reason, my first two years of grad school were incredibly difficult from an emotional standpoint. However, I noticed a huge transformation just recently that really surprised me and started to put everything in perspective.
I had my first in-person meeting with a collaborator whom I had been working with since my first year here. He is a big-name professor at a hoity-toity school on the east coast. My project with him wasn’t going well. The data made no sense, had no reproducibility, and it was essentially going nowhere. He called me out on this. He basically said that my data were shitty, that they was inconsistent, disappointing, and allowed us to make zero conclusions about anything.
This is where I impressed myself. Without even the slightest flinching, I continued the conversation. Yes, the data were terrible, and the project was a fucking mess. Then, I told him why I suspected it was like that, my plans for doing some validation of the method to make sure it was nothing with my experimental workflow that was causing it, and some possible alternative strategies that we could try. He agreed, saying that, from his biology expertise, that the subjects I work with are notorious for huge biological variability, and that he trusted me to do what I needed to do on the chemistry side. He also gave some ideas for ways he could use my current data to drive the project in new directions.
It wasn’t until looking back on the conversation a week later than I realized how much I had grown. This meeting would have gone much, much worse had I still been in the same mindset I was in when I started grad school. As soon as he said my data were shitty, I would’ve closed up, apologizing and panicking, and our meeting would have gone nowhere. Instead, I took what he said at face value, and we had a productive and engaging discussion that led to some constructive goals. He said my data were shitty. He didn’t say I was shitty. That’s the distinction I was never able to make before.
I’ve gotten so much better about these things. Failure is something that happens all the time in grad school, but now when it happens, I don’t see it as me failing as a scientist. Instead, I see it as something I tried didn’t work, I should figure out why and come up with a different thing to try. It’s not only made me more productive, but it’s made me much calmer and more confident.
I was just talking to my roommate about something similar last night. We were talking about our new years resolutions, and she said that one of her goals was to submit a piece of writing to the New York Times. She told me that it was probably a bad goal since she knew it wouldn’t get accepted, but we talked about it, and really, even if it gets rejected, it’s progress. Every well-known writer talks about getting massive amounts of rejection starting off. Massive amounts. You can look up countless stories about authors like J. K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss who got rejected from dozens of publishers before they made it big. It’s just part of the process.
And that’s the key. Failure isn’t a good thing, but it isn’t a bad thing either. It’s just a thing. It’s part of the process. It’s a necessary thing you have to go through. The more you do it, the easier it is. I’m working on projects that I have yet to do something with that isn’t a complete failure. It’s just how it happens. You need to wade through it to get to where you’re going.
When I came to grad school, I let the bastards grind me down, but only until I was sharpened into a point, and now I am so much stronger because of it.