*cough, cough* *waves away dust* Hello? Is anyone here? Wow. So it’s been a over a year since I last posted and I am very very sorry for neglecting this blog. Partly because I really enjoy writing these posts and … Continue reading
I can’t tell you how many of my fellow PhD students, at one time or another, have mentioned recognising that moment when someone describes impostor syndrome to them for the first time.
‘Hang on, you mean that feeling that you are about to be discovered as a fraud who hasn’t worked hard enough, isn’t smart enough and is about to be publicly shamed and cast out of your research institution, is an actual thing? And I’m not the only one who feels this way?!’
Yes impostor syndrome, the crushing fear of being found out, seems to be a pretty universal PhD experience, much like sleepless nights and having moments of extreme hatred for your computer. But there an interesting aspect of this that I recently realised – and that is the experience of impostor syndrome for the interdisciplinary student. The reason that it’s different for interdisciplinary students is because, in a way, you actually ARE an impostor in your new subject. In my field I know that I can hold my own with geology, and am confident defending my position, but I only started studying psychology as a PhD student – my contemporary psychology PhDs have a depth of knowledge from their undergraduate and masters degrees that I just don’t have.
This lack of background knowledge makes it very difficult for me to argue my position, as I automatically assume that the person who has an opposing view knows better than I do, so they must be right. I get extremely stressed when I have to present my work for an audience that has a psychologist in it, and immediately loose confidence in my work – just waiting for someone to stand up and yell ‘that’s rubbish!’ from the back of the room.
Of course I know that this reaction is illogical. I have worked hard to study my adopted subject, and read as widely around my area as possible. My research is interesting and has been successfully peer reviewed. I know that it is extremely unlikely that anyone will stand up during a presentation and yell at me and in fact any time I have presented to psychologists they have been amazingly supportive, helpful and encouraging, with great suggestions.
But that doesn’t stop the fear.
What I have gradually learned to do during my PhD is grab that fear by the neck and march myself over to people with interesting, alternative, challenging or more advanced knowledge and ask them to talk about my studies. I frequently feel my inadequacy during these conversations, but ALWAYS come away understanding my research better. It’s uncomfortable, but rewarding and I wish that I had done it more often during my PhD. Forcing yourself to examine the weakest area of your studies is one of the things I think makes a great scientist – if your work won’t stand up to criticism then it’s not worth as much, in my opinion. None of us wants to be told that years of work are irrelevant or unsubstantiated, but I would rather find that out as part of a dialogue, than be presented with it at a later stage. I hope that as I progress as a researcher I won’t let fear of being a subject impostor hold me back from questioning my research and continuing to learn.
So that one day I won’t be an impostor any more, in either of my subjects.
Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!
However, since I sat myself down and said:
‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’
I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.
When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).
This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!
This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.
But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you.
How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.
To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?
When I was 7, my school held a musical evening – a night when all the music teachers that taught different instruments came to the school and attempted to tempt kids to pick up a trumpet, or oboe, or bassoon (an if you have never seen a 7 year old with a bassoon – it’s hilarious). I had a brilliant time running around blowing on milk bottles to see if I could master the wind instruments, or trying to make a noise out of the trombone mouth piece, but it was the string instruments that drew me in – I loved the sound of the cello, but if I am short now (and I am) I was teeny then, and my hand couldn’t reach around the neck of the cello with enough strength to make the right notes. So the violin, as my second choice was it. I turned to my Mum and asked if I could take lessons. The teacher, Mr Robinson, said to my Mum:
‘Is this a commitment you can make? She will need your support to learn.’
Since those days, I recently realised, a lot, and nothing at all have changed. Doing a PhD is, in many ways, an experience in getting to know yourself. In fact if more people chose to undertake a PhD rather than going off on a yoga retreat, we may know much more about every area of human curiosity. Also, I imagine, introducing yourself as doctor wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. But still it is something that I as an adult, an independent and (mostly) functioning member of society chose to do. And there is noting so true as saying that when you do a PhD you do it alone. But the thing I always think is that it would be so much more impossible without my amazing support network, at the front of whom are my family.
My family has been with me in every step that I have taken on this path, from reading my undergraduate dissertation, helping me pack to move for my first job overseas, forcing me out of bed during my brief period of unemployment in 2008 (great year to be unemployed), being my emotional, educational and financial support system through many highs and lows, to now – letting me move back in so I don’t have to live in some awful student flat! And I am not alone. One of my colleagues has been living with his cousins and their young family for over a year. Another PhD told me recently that your thesis will only be read by your Mum and your viva committee – and they were right! My Mum is going to read it!! She read my sister’s too!
This afternoon, my sister and her partner came to visit us. We had a lovely lunch, caught up on all the news, and then I tested my questionnaire on them. Yes you read right, not only did I waste some visiting time on a questionnaire, but my family is always my first testing ground when it comes to this stuff. I send my Dad my chapters. I ask my Mum to proofread my grant applications. I discuss the pros and cons of having a neutral option in a questionnaire with my sister.
That they let me do this, I find amazing. But that they also continue to encourage me and provide positive support whilst I angst out my results in my little selfish PhD bubble, I find spectacularly moving. I am so lucky in my family and friends. Friends who know that I won’t speak to them for months, but when I send out a facebook message saying ‘I’m in London, who is free?!” will take me for a beer and a burger. Friends who text me just to say, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ This is what you need to do a PhD, because actually – it is a commitment you need to get, you need support to learn.
So turn to your support network, family, friends, partners, children, other PhDs – whoever they are and give them a big THANKYOU hug.
Because without them, this would be a whole lot harder.
I am currently in the final stages of doing my PhD; collecting final data and attempting to write up my monster baby of a thesis, and on an almost daily basis now I am facing the reality of completing this project. It is a well known fact that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint – and that you have to choose your subject really carefully because it will be, in essence, the ONLY thing that you think about for between 3 and 4 years.
Now I consider myself really lucky in the way that I came to do my PhD. I’m older, have worked in ‘the real world’ and had to leave a paying job (with an independent life) to come and do this, so it was not a spur of the moment decision. I had to think long and hard about whether it was right for me – could I really be happy turning 30, when back as a student at University again? I decided, yes, I could be happy – and what’s more not only did I want this challenge, but that it was the right challenge for me. And my subject was PERFECT.
I love my subject. Like, really REALLY love it – I could spend all day talking about geology, and how people understand geology and how they talk to other people about geology. It’s inspiring and fascinating at the same time. It is the only subject that I could successfully do a PhD in, because to me it is (to paraphrase the Lego Movie):
‘The greatest, most interesting, most important subject of all times.’
But today, as with many days over the last year – I also hate it.
This is a difficult thing to admit to anyone other than another PhD student, because you are not supposed to hate your subject – not least because you have given up 3 years of your life to dedicate to it, but yes hatred is definitely the right word. I hate that I constantly feel that I haven’t done enough for my data, that they are sitting there judging me, saying ‘what have you been doing with your time?! You could have completed two independent analyses of these data in the time it’s taken you to do one!’. I hate the fear that I have gotten it wrong; not my interpretation of the data (which as a scientist I accept as part and parcel of doing research), but the analysis again – did some stupid mistake skew everything I have been doing?! I hate that I have so much time and so little. I hate that the subject is not cut and dried, there are no easy numerical answers with cognition.
The tricky thing is that a lot of the things I hate, are also some of the reasons why I keep coming back to loving this. I love that my data is constantly provoking new questions or I would be bored. I love the qualitative nature of the work and, although I don’t love it, I value that my work keeps me second guessing myself so that I don’t become complacent.
I guess what it boils down to is that on a good day, my love for my topic makes it really easy to throw everything that I have at this. I’m optimistic, driven and focused. But on a bad day I hate my PhD so much that I am barely able to look at my computer and writing anything becomes like pulling my nails out. I struggle with this dichotomy. Each day I’m pushing myself more and more to finish, to make it make sense, and remember why I started this. Some days, however, are better than others.
What do you think? Has anyone else struggled with the PhD love/hate relationship, and how do you deal?
In a previous post I have spoken about the value of ‘leaning in’ to my work when I am frustrated, and I still stand by this, but now also I will add that when my hatred gets too burning, a chance of scenery helps. Not digital scenery, but actually getting up and out of the house.
So if you feel the hatred taking over, try a walk? And remember – there is life outside your PhD.