I’ve been told by a few unnamed authorities that I’m too confident for a PhD student. I’m quite sure that any confidence that I’ve shown over my first 16 months in postgraduate studies has just been remnants of the confidence I had prior to starting this whole ordeal. It really has taken it out of me.
Only 2 years ago when I was finishing my degree in Marine Biology, I remember being so full of confidence that it smashed through the border of naivety and straight into deluded. I was destined to be the next David Attenborough and it was all just going to come easy. Reflecting on that time, I think the confidence stemmed from the grading system used in college programs and undergraduate degrees. I didn’t need any validation of my competence because I could check into the university’s intranet and look at how awesome/embarrassing my grades were; to me, these grades told me how good I was at life on a scale of 0-100%.
Once I entered postgraduate studies, I no longer routinely got a numerical pat on the back. This isn’t me being a diva saying EVERYONE GIVE ME CREDIT FOR EVERYTHING I DO, I’m just explaining that the grading system gave me - and I believe many others – grounds to feel professionally secure during my degree.
Now, onto the present day where I spend most of my days trying to piece together credible experiments armed with cable ties, a hot glue gun, a webcam , half a roll of duct tape, an old fish tank and a bucket. I can’t go into the specifics of my project so I’m going to use a PhD I seen advertised recently to make my point; let’s say I’m exploring the idea that snails have personalities (yes, someone does this). There’s no training manual for this, a few papers to point me in the right direction perhaps, but for the most part I’m left to figure out a way of proving this bizarre hypothesis armed with my aforementioned tools and a few snails. Most of my attempted experiments so far have quite literally fell apart and some snails escaped because frankly, at this primitive stage in my research career I haven’t had to build anything like this before, I am not a trained engineer and I’m not that familiar with video recording software (to watch my experiment) either.
Assuming the experiment finally starts to work like the theory and I get some interesting nominal data; I’ve now got a big spreadsheet and I’m being told to statistically analyse my data on a coding programme called R. I’ve done some really basic statistics before and I coded a website once, but I still feel equally unprepared and incompetent as I did when I was making an experiment to bring out a snails personality.
Just from those two examples, it’s easy to see why I started to question my competence. However, a good friend of mine a little further along in his PhD helped me realise that the majority of candidates go through this tough initial phase of finding your feet. He explained that, as time passes I’ll learn more about the extravagant lifestyle of a snail, how to use my tools and even some coding to do my statistics like a pro. Reflecting on his point, I can see that he’s right; I am starting to become a skilled member of the research community.
I’d like to offer some advice to people going through the first few months of their project, if you’re trying to find a way to validate how great you are then learn from my mistakes and don’t allow yourself to seek reassurance of your professional worth in pointless ventures such as;
- Number of twitter followers (407)
- Number of hours spent in the office (Being first one in and last one out, regardless of my social life)
- How cool my new website looks (Cool, isn’t it)
- How shiny my business card is (Yes, I did)
The problem with these is, apart from them being superficial, is that... ok, the problem is that they are superficial. Due to the many different aspects of my PhD scheme, I found it very difficult to work out if I’m doing alright during those first few months. If you have similar thoughts then I can offer two tips to get through this awkward phase; one simple weekly exercise and one way of thinking.
I write my list on a Monday morning and go over it with my supervisor that morning, he adds to it (inevitably) and I reach Monday lunch time knowing what I have to get done by the end of the week. I have a To Do and a Done section on these notes, beats walking home wondering what you’ve done with your day – as I know many friends do. When I clear this list, I feel much more secure in enjoying my day off.
If you use Evernote to keep track of your notes then you can even share the note with your supervisor, if you trust them not to add to it too much!!
Always Confident, Never Comfortable
It was this clichéd quote from an ex-world heavyweight champion boxer that got me to reflect on my own aforementioned discomfort as I go through the PhD. I now take confidence from how hypercritical I am of my own progress, as without it I would cease progressing all together.
With such fierce self critique there’s a risk of making yourself feel inadequate and losing confidence. I have taken a lot of positivity from employing the first tip to remind myself I’m not totally useless!
Feel free to share this post. I think it’s important that people talk about insecurities and confidence to find a way to deal with them, I certainly benefitted from the conversation so it’s only right I contribute.