Friday, April 13, 2012

We're not faking it

I know this subject has been talked about many times, but it bears repeating, because so many people I know feel this way.

The problem is that people in PhD programs are surrounded by brilliant people, and in comparison you don't feel as smart, don't feel as worthy, and it feels like you knew far more before you started than now. This feeling is known as the imposter syndrome. Simply put, it is harassment you give yourself.
  • You don't speak up when you think something is wrong. You always defer to 'supposed' authority.
  • You avoid answering questions in class, giving conference presentations, demonstrating competence,  because you don't want to be 'found out' or 'exposed'.
  • You feel inadequate, useless, and unimportant.
  • You avoid opportunities, because you feel unqualified, I'm not smart enough for the fellowship, or hardworking enough for that honor.
Now the imposter syndrome is not limited to PhD students, but I think that many PhD students do feel this way, either occasionally, or frequently. Everyday you are banging your head against a problem, where the solution involves doing something you are bad at. For a mechanical engineer, that might mean understanding electrodynamics, for an electrical engineer that might mean learning solid mechanics, for a physicist that might be learning chemistry.

The heart of a problem in a PhD is learning how to teach yourself the tools you need to solve your research problems. You used to rely on a parent, or teacher or professor to distill information for you, but a PhD is about learning to do the impossible, and it is very rare that the 'impossible' is your exact area of expertise. Your personal 'impossible' is the largest hurdle you will ever face.

And while you are banging your head against the wall trying to do something you are not good at, you start to forget that you are an expert in many things, you are really brilliant, and that you are successful, competent, and in fact worthy. Even if you know what imposter syndrome is, sometimes you will feel this way.

I am here to say it isn't true, you are not an imposter. Tuesday I felt that way, but the important thing to do is to go to your friends and talk with them. They are not going to lie, they will tell you truth, you are awesome/hardworking/smart, whatever. You are not an imposter, you do know what you are doing, no one is going to kick you out for incompetence, or laziness, or because you are retarded. But don't hear it from me, ask your friends.

There are other things you can do help prevent these overwhelming feelings.
  • Be friends with a variety of people. Don't hang out with only your research group, or only PhD students, there are many types of people in the world, find them.
  • Have a hobby that has nothing to do with your work. 
  • Take time to remember successes, rewards, goals that you have accomplished in the last month 
  • Take at least 1 day off work a week, to give yourself a break, time to catch up with life, and do fun things.
  • Find a mentor, who isn't your advisor and meet with them to talk about issues. This could be a senior student, or a different professor, but don't keep your feelings to yourself.
Aside from self-confidence, the other side of the issue is the admission on fallibility.

You are not God, you will make mistakes, you will not always be right, people who seem that way are bullshitting. When you make a mistake, you are not incompetent, you are normal, fallible, and working on something that carries risk. If it was all sunshine and butterflies, then someone did it in 1912 with antiquated equipment, or derived it in 1960 by hand.

It is pretty easy to get caught up in an environment where all of your results must be positive, all of your theories have matching experiments, but at the end of the day, it is the unexpected results which will lead to exciting discoveries. You are a student, and it many ways a PhD is much more like a traditional apprenticeship, you dedicate several years of your life to acquire a set of skills. If you already knew these skills, then there would have been no point is spending the time getting a PhD. By all means join the workforce immediately. But, since you are learning these skills, you aren't always going to get it right.

Don't let mistakes destroy your confidence, but do develop ways to double check your work before you present it. Maybe it is a good idea to draw a diagram, or wait a day to go over it again. I still need to work on this, so I don't have as many ideas.

Hey, I never said I had all the answers, I just figure if I am going to complain about something, I should have a few ideas to offer. You are not faking it, you are awesome, and you are going to do, and have already done, amazing things.

Take care guys,
Molly : )

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