Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Random musings and imposter syndrome

My supervisor asked how my work was going yesterday (I have a sneaking suspicion that he read my last post).

The truthful answer is that I have started getting good results from amplifying two genes (ITS and COI), and the third gene (EF1G) is proving tricky but I just have to keep trying different primers and may have to move onto a different nuclear gene (histone 3). I am also planning my 3 week field trip in September to try and fill in some of the gaps in my spider collection. And I am continuing to write my thesis, slowly but steadily.

But saying this all sounded pretty stupid. I have no results yet, and it sounded as though I was just making excuses for why I continue to take up desk and lab space. From a critical point of view, I really haven't done much. Why? I've been working at it, but my time has been spent optimising PCR which takes a long time (one of my friends spent his entire first year optimising PCR for earthworm samples, which contain a lot of inhibitors just like my samples do, only worse, because nothing worked for him).

My supervisor didn't seem to be disappointed or anything, but I can never read his body language anyway and I just have to hope that if he thought I was doing something wrong he would tell me. When he tells me I have done well at something, I think that I must have deceived him in some way, and now I have to struggle harder to live up to his new expectations. Getting praise is kind of stressful because I can't believe it, but not getting praise is more stressful because I think they have given up on me. The best kind of feedback is constructive criticism - at least then I know they are being honest, and believe that I can improve.

I am not sure if my fears of not being able to accomplish what I want, and of not living up to expectations, are justified or as the result of an imposter syndrome - a feeling that I am a fraud and do not deserve to be here. I'm surrounded by smart people who know loads of stuff that I don't, and talk in scientific ways, and being around them can be intimidating because I don't talk or think in sciencey ways compared to them. My mind is slow. I am not hyper-intelligent. Luckily, convincing myself that I know more about my particular area than they do helps. I have the hope that I am improving and learning, and soon I will grow to a similar or better standard than my colleagues. I have about 60 years of life left in me, hopefully, so that's plenty of time to improve.

Another thing that helps is thinking about how I critically evaluate other people, and thinking that other people probably look at others in a similar way. I normally assume someone is average unless they prove otherwise in a convincing way. So in order to be doing a PhD with smart people, I must have at some point appeared competent. I haven't knowingly put on a dishonest display of false competence, so hopefully it is the truth.

Who knows? The important thing is not to become disheartened by the future possibility of being "found out" to be stupider and less competent than people currently think I am. I just have to keep working at what I'm doing, and trying to make this project work, and I think I can do it. And then I would have earned my place here.

Also, yay! Bands! Not on all the samples, but I should just have to play a bit with annealing temperatures and concentrations of ingredients to make them work.

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