I’ve spent the last few days in a funk. Maybe it’s the resurgence of winter following a brief taste of spring, or maybe it’s the idea that I am heading into the big time research stretch that will determine my Ph.D and career, or maybe it’s that I haven’t been getting enough chocolate cake lately. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s left me feeling slow and sluggish and a bit overwhelmed by this whole graduate school thing.
From my perspective, everyone else seems to be going about this so easily. There’s one person who spends hours creating experimental setups to bring out into the field. Another who is careening through the obstacle course that is publication. Another who is finishing up their doctorate and contemplating post-doc and job opportunities. And here I am, flailing like so much animated spaghetti, uncertain about where I am or what I’m even doing here.
For the sake of being professional, I tend not to let anyone except for a few close peers, see my self-doubt, though for the sake of being honest, I don’t know how often I fool people. This makes it harder to get advice; however, in talking to my peers I realize that the shiny exteriors I described above hold their own worries and problems. It’s hard to get into grad school if you’re not the slightest bit competitive, but it’s hard to stay in grad school if you’re constantly competing. If you gauge your progress by what others have done and how cool and collected and cucumber-like they appear to be, you’ll end up miserable and crying while clutching a well-worn copy of whatever tome your discipline holds sacred (what’s up, Darwin?).
For me, the biggest issue is always, always, always, having confidence in my ideas. I don’t know what I am expecting from myself ““ I will not revolutionize the field as a grad student unless dumb luck hits me the same way that buckeye did the other day (unexpectedly and straight on the noggin, for those of you who weren’t there “¦ meaning, all of you). Every other issue I experience in academia immediately pales when I compare it to my feeling of, “I am so dumb what am I doing here?” It’s kind of like the imposter syndrome except without the pretension of feeling like I’ve impostered anyone ““ I’ve merely snuck into the ivory tower unnoticed.
I don’t know. Women get a lot of advice about how to love their bodies. Love your body! Say affirmations! Focus on how ridiculously cute your toes are! Think about your winning smile! We’re not given a lot of advice on how to be confident in our ideas and our intellect. But we have to. No one can survive in academia without a hell of a lot of belief that what they’re studying and thinking about is interesting.
Borrowing heavily from the Love Your Body Brigade, I’ve been trying to coach this confidence in myself. Fake it “˜til you make it doesn’t just work for bellies. Telling myself that my ideas have value works. I don’t worry so much about erring on the side of being too pompous and certain of myself. Maybe that’ll be a concern down the line, but right now, I just need to be sure that I feel confident in talking about my ideas. And I should be, dammit. I think about them. I write about them. I do literature searches. I have earned that confidence. And I tell myself this when I write, when I present, when I talk with people, and so far it’s been helping.
But as anyone who’s ever tried to wash a large jumpy dog knows, things that can be handled alone go more smoothly with some extra hands. Talking to other people, especially talking to other women in academia, has done me a world of good. Creating a support network, a sort of trapeze-net of reality checks and high-fives, has given me an, I don’t know, a sort of security. I can’t embarrass myself too badly when I have people who know me and are watching out for me. The same, I hope, holds true for all of them.
I was listening to some new-ish professors talk about their experiences in grad school, in their post-docs, and now in their tenure-track jobs; and all of them, and I mean all of them, a complete consensus, 100%, said that they felt the imposter-worry for years. Some still feel it linger in their minds like a rotten seed head buried in tall grass. It gives me both fear and hope for the future: fear because this worry may never be shaken, but hope because through this admission, these monoliths of brains and success become more like me.