Me, an expert? Surely not.
On Friday, Chris Gunter and I submitted a proposal for a session at the Science Communication Conference (SCC) organised by the British Science Association (BSA). This conference is very dear to my heart, as it was pivotal to the science communication side of my career. The backstory of this is closely linked to the topic of this blog post: The importance of cheerleaders for young scientists (and probably young professionals everywhere): People who give you a push and tell you to go for it it when you think you are not good enough.
Every year the BSA award a number of bursaries for registration, accommodation and travel to researchers (PhD students and established ones) to allow them to attend the conference. Three years ago I saw the call for applications and although I thought it looked amazing, I didn’t even consider applying because I’d never get it. Two years ago I saw it again and considered applying for a millisecond, but decided against it. No point anyway! My boss Chris Hawes, who had forwarded it to me too, encouraged me to go for it. Guess what happened? I got the bursary! I was over the moon when I read the email because I was so excited. But it was also an important addition for my CV, because it showed that my engagement activities were good enough to be acknowledged in this way.
So I went to the conference, was overwhelmed by the amount of people I met who had the same interests and passion for public engagement, soaked up ALL the information and came home with a big network of new contacts, many of which I am still in touch with. Last year I attended again, but this time in my new role as Research and Science Communication Fellow. I sat in the sessions, soaked up information, felt inspired by all speakers and thought: ‘When I grow up, I want to be a speaker at this conference.’
This year, I received a call for proposals for the SCC 2013. I had a quick look at it and then deleted it because there was no way I would be enough expert to run a session at the conference. Then I got an email from Chris. We share our passion for making science more accessible and wrote a piece together last year. Our email conversation was as follows (in an abridged version):
Chris: “Hi! Would you like to submit a joint proposal for SCC ?“
Me: “Hi! I thought about it, but I abandoned the thought because I am not expert enough. *cough* Imposter Syndrome *cough*“
Chris: “[American Pep Talk] You can do it!”
So we wrote a proposal and submitted it, and because I am in the UK we thought it’d be better to put me down as session organiser. BOOM! I guess that means I am grown up now? Our proposal might be accepted or not, and if not we’ll think of something different. But the important point is that from now on I’ll have the confidence to submit more proposals for similar things.
This isn’t the only example of the importance of cheerleaders for my career. Looking back, there are so many situations where a comment or encouragement by a colleague, mentor or collaborator had such a profound effect on how I viewed myself as researcher or on my decision to ‘go for something’. Sometimes it is almost like a chain reaction in which one small thing leads to another one and another one, and all taken together they had a huge positive effect.
I also think it is important to remember this once we progressed in our career, and offer a similar support to our students. For example, I was helping with a practical at the Gatsby Plant Summer School a couple of years ago, and Lorenzo Frigerio introduced me to the students as ‘one of the world’s experts on the plant Golgi apparatus’. I laughed and rolled my eyes at this statement — what an exaggeration? Then I thought about it and realised that what he said was true. There are only a small number of research groups in the world studying the plant Golgi, and having obtained my PhD in this subject area indeed made my one of the world’s experts. I still remember how I felt that moment. A few weeks ago one of our PhD students described in our labmeeting the time-consuming and technically advanced methods she had been doing over the past weeks. I said to her that this would make her — maybe the only — world expert in her subject using these methods. She first laughed and then realised that I was right. She had never thought about it that way. If you are reading this and are just doing a PhD: You yes, YOU! — are one of the world’s experts in your subject area. Think about it!
You aren’t the only one who feels that way
There are a lot of articles and confessions about ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and how widely spread it is amongst researchers, especially younger ones (I like Athene Donald’s article about it). When I was a PhD student and post-doc, I constantly compared my work and achievements with others — but usually with people who were several years ahead of me in their careers! Yes, I sat in conferences and listened to talks of group leaders, summarising years of work of dozens of their group members, thinking: ‘Compared to this, my work is rubbish! I am a crap scientist, I should better quit right now!’ Realising that I was comparing my work and myself to the selected highlights of other researchers took a while but was vital. I think because of the incredible competitiveness in research there is a lot of pressure to be ‘excellent’, ‘dedicated at all times’, ‘brilliant’, ‘passionate’ and a lot of other things which don’t go well with ‘insecure’, ‘self-doubting’, ‘struggling’, ‘bored of this’ or ‘feeling like I don’t have a clue about what I am supposed to do’. This means that we mostly get to see a shiny polished surface rather than the cracks. A year ago I probably would have been too scared to admit such things in a blog post because I’d been afraid that it maybe could affect my employment or chances to succeed in science! *gasp*
This is why I think that things such as the meme #overlyhonestmethods (a satirical hashtag about how science might have really been done) are so important. It is debatable how many of them truly happened this way. The majority of them are likely to exaggerate and satirise the truth or make a joke about something we might have been tempted to do but never did in reality. Many of them however do reflect the early stages in a degree or PhD project when we are still learning to ‘walk scientifically’. They also show us that it’s not only just us and in fact there were several people tweeting ‘I am so glad I am not the only one’. We touched this notion at the ‘Stories behind the Research’ session at the SpotOn conference 2012. A summary and links to videos and other resources can be found here and Eva Amsen, the session organiser, blogs about #overlyhonestmethods here. Researchers are not robots but human beings, and an audience member commented how maybe she wouldn’t have left the lab if she had heard stories of people going through the same like she did.
We have to acquire knowledge of all these things, like how to do an experiment correctly, perform a certain technique, knowing which parts of a protocol are crucial and which aren’t, in a long and often painful process. Most PhD students look back after they submitted their thesis and say: “Gosh, why has this taken me several years? I could have done this in a few months.” In a PhD project, the journey truly is the goal. At the end of this long training process you will know what makes science good, reliable and publishable. Nobody is born with the knowledge of how long a ligation should be carried out for or how many samples make a valid data set. Most PhD students (in my field) will spend at least couple of years on research until their technical skills and their data start to come together and are good enough for publication. Everyone has to learn the technical skills and jargon of a particular discipline and the path there is riddled with bloopers.
Everybody needs somebody to tell them when they are being too hard on themselves, or when they are not having enough confidence to do something which they are perfectly capable to do. Make sure to find your own cheerleaders, no matter if they are your supervisors, colleagues, friends or ‘people on the internet’. Cheerlead others and if you are at a more advanced point in your career, remember the times when you just started your degree or your PhD.
Put it on your wall or stitch it on a pillow: Struggling with a method or a paper doesn’t make you a bad scientist. Are you passionate about your work, eager to learn, curious, creative and persevering? You’ll learn the technical bits and all the rest on your way, like all the others before you have.