Dealing With Feelings Of Inadequacy During Your Research Career
“Do you know how to drive a manual car?” he asked. “If you do, you will understand this illustration vividly. If you want to accelerate, you start with ‘half clutch’, then you slowly release your foot from the clutch and press firmly on the accelerator”. As I listened to this informal welcome speech, my mind raced in different directions. It was officially my first day as a PhD student, and I was in the office of the head of my department along with three other international students. This was well over three years ago now, and it was a very casual interaction, but the lesson resonated deeply, and it has helped me a great deal.
My research journey so far has been a roller coaster. I have definitely had my moments: the high ones and the very low ones. During the low moments, I’ve kept reassuring myself that I am on ‘half clutch’ and things will get better – or I will get better at handling such situations. I’ve found that at some point during your research career, your PhD programme, even your life – there will be feelings of self-doubt. There will be those times when you question your deepest ‘whys’ and your place in science.
These feelings could be triggered by different things; for instance, external factors such as a rejection for a graduate school application, a manuscript submission or a grant application. It could even be your own mind playing tricks on you. Perhaps, you have struggled all week to read one research paper, and you start to wonder, “how could anyone have written such a complicated array of information?” You look around you, and everyone seems to be making tremendous progress with their research – everyone except you. You have been troubleshooting an assay for the past few weeks, and nothing seems to be working right. You begin to ask yourself: “how did I get here in the first place?” or “how did I even get selected for this position?”. You might say to yourself, “perhaps, they made an error in selecting me, and soon they will realise their mistake”. In this post, I would like to share some tips that I have found very useful in managing such feelings of inadequacy.
Accept that these feelings are perfectly normal
When you read the biographies of even the most exceptional researchers, those who have made indelible contributions in their fields of study and positively impacted millions of lives, you will find that they also experienced similar feelings. If you ask your mentors or peers, you will probably discover that they have felt, or still feel the same way sometimes. It is perfectly normal to have these feelings, but what is much more important is how we respond to these feelings. We can use these feelings either as an excuse for failure or as a springboard for success. I think that an acceptance of these feelings is the first step to self-realisation. I have personally accepted that I will always experience moments of fear before taking any progressive step, but I am constantly learning to take action despite my fears.
Coin your own definition of success
One of the most fundamental life lessons I have learnt is that each individual’s experience (whether research or life experience) is unique and individual. No two persons can have precisely the same experience. Our experiences are interplays of several factors, including our temperaments, attitude and belief systems, upbringing, and level of exposure, to mention but a few. In the same vein, our research experience can be defined by several factors. One example could be our research background in our particular field of study. For example, a PhD student who is furthering their Masters work might have a very different experience from another who is a newbie in their field of study. Also, a Masters graduate from a Taught Masters programme would have a different experience from one who did a Research Masters programme. Other factors to consider are the uniqueness of each project and the presence (or lack) of adequate support systems.
Whatever the case, you must realise that it is never a wise idea to compare yourself to others. Your research experience will be uniquely different from the experience of anybody else, so it is important to define success on your own terms. In academia, defining success is quite challenging because of the deeply rooted “publish or perish” mantra that has been ingrained in the minds of researchers over the years. It is essential to realise that a successful research career is the product of consistent, persistent ‘smart work’ – not necessarily ‘hard work’. Focus on mastering the little things, gaining new skills and competence and doing good work devoid of the pressures of other people’s expectations.
Commit to consistently putting in your best work
After you have coined your definition of success, you need to identify the things you need to do to get you to your destination: do you need to learn new skills, gain more practical experience, attend more classes, ask for help? Aspire to do these things consistently, and surround yourself with people who encourage, support and inspire growth in your life. Cut off every form of negativity, shut off all the noise and focus on doing what you need to do. Make peace with your unique growth pace, and only commit to doing your best at every point in time.
True success is a journey, not a destination
Many people have the wrong notion of success. They feel that success is a destination that you arrive at after a period of hard work. The problem with this school of thought is that people tend to overwork themselves to “achieve success”. The result of this? Burn out! For success to be sustainable and reproducible, it has to be cumulative. The moment we understand that success is a journey, we realise we don’t need to reach that “destination” before we can feel a sense of accomplishment. We can derive joy from each small step. We can understand that our mistakes do not define us. Instead, they make us, providing unique and invaluable learning experiences. We try our best to make consistent, progressive steps daily. You are not a failure because you fail. Keep making mistakes, learn from them, and enjoy yourself along the way!
Despite how challenging things may seem, there is always something to be thankful for. Develop the habit of looking out for little things in your day to be grateful for. Derive a sense of joy from these little things, as they create avenues for the bigger things. If possible, keep a gratitude journal. Write down even the smallest thing that brought a smile to your face: a successful experiment, gaining new insights into your results, finding relevant literature serendipitously, getting some unexpected assistance, receiving a compliment from your peer or your supervisor. There will be times when these records come in handy, on those challenging days when you feel overwhelmed. Reminding yourself of your past success sets the tone for future success.
Take guilt-free breaks
It is perfectly fine to take regular breaks, and you should never feel guilty about it. Set aside some time every once in a while to do something completely unrelated to your research. Do something different that excites you! Binge-watch your favourite TV show on Netflix, do some colouring, read an engrossing novel, take a road trip, or something else. This can boost your productivity, relieve some stress, and take your creativity to a whole new level.
Have a calming routine
Even when you put in your very best and tick all the boxes, there will still be moments when everything seems to be going wrong. It helps a great deal to have a calming routine that enables you to manage those “off moments”. You might choose to take a walk, listen to some classical music, chat with family and friends, whatever works for you.
Remember, failure is an event – not a person. If you are going through a tough period, remind yourself that tough times do not last, but tough people do. Keep doing your best work and re-strategise if you need to. You might be on “half-clutch” now, but you will be cruising soon. Whatever happens, know that you deserve to be where you are now. You are hardworking, determined, resilient, and you can accomplish incredible things!
I am cheering you on from here!
Pearl Akazue is a biochemist with a passion for teaching and research. She is a PhD Fellow at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, and is also a lecturer at the University of Benin. She also writes a regular science and lifestyle blog.
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