We're a little crazy, about science!

Learning is sneaky

Three years ago this fall I walked into my main-PI’s lab for the first time and I knew nothing about the work we did. I was a mechanical engineer and had machining, solid modeling, and control experience. None of which helped me in my new position. Learning something new is a slow process. The more you learn the more you realize you don’t know anything and it feels like three years later I’m just as clueless as I was when I first set foot into the building. Learning is sneaky that way, you don’t always realize how far you’ve come.

The new lab experience was sort of a double hit for me. I just started at my main-PI’s lab when I met my Co-PI just a few short months later. Less than a year after that meeting I was part of both labs and felt just as clueless in both positions. I knew nothing about the brain and even less about the spinal cord. I didn’t understand how we came to the conclusions we did in the experiments or why they were designed the way they were.

I’ve been working with my Co-PI for almost two years now and it can be a bit overwhelming with all the knowledge he has and new things he throws at me. My main-PI still has an encyclopedic knowledge of the brain and biology that I doubt I will ever have. Both have been in their respective fields far longer than I have been in the program and it definitely shows. Maybe that’s why I never feel like I’ve learned anything. I’m just not someone who can memorize things like that, my brain won’t hold on to the knowledge.

Three years into the program and I still to this day question if I’ve made a mistake. I was good at mechanical design and control systems, or at least I felt like I knew what was going on. Biology is tough to understand and the answers aren’t as clear cut as the nice mathematical formulas we use in mechanical engineering. It’s easy to fall into that pit though because you’re so close to the situation.

When I got my BS and my MS I thought I would feel different somehow. Like the piece of paper would convey the fact that I changed. I was now a scientist, an engineer, and I had a framed document to show it. Yet when the day came and went, I was instead left with the feeling like I cheated the system. I had somehow fell through the cracks. That’s all I felt when my fancy diploma’s showed up. I had somehow cheated. I didn’t understand how I did it or who let me do it, but I had not earned my degree despite having my name on it.

In hindsight I realized that wasn’t the case. I could do math that I had no idea existed when I started school. I had built something that had never been built. I wrote, I published, I gave talks. But I was a fraud, or at least I felt like it. I still feel like it a lot of the time and I never really had that hindsight moment since I’ve been working on my PhD. Partly due to the fact that I had so much to learn and part due to COVID, I hadn’t done anything interesting. Or at least I hadn’t really felt like it, but maybe it’s just because I didn’t have a cool full-sized robot to point to until the end of my degree so I don’t have the chance to look back. Or at least I didn’t.

Yesterday I spoke with my Co-PI and right after telling me I needed to take a break, he asked me if I could come into the lab today to help with an experiment (because of course that would happen). We have a postdoc and a research assistant, but both of them have only been in the lab for about six months. He wanted me to supervise and to make sure the experiment went well. Ironically I’m the senior person in his lab now, or at least I’ve been there the longest. It wasn’t a big cool robot I designed and built, but it was a good feeling realizing that he trusted me to make sure things went the correct way. I’ve also been teaching (obviously) in my main-PI’s lab and I’ve gone over several different techniques we use in EEG processing with students. Knowledge sneaks up on you sometimes.

The funny thing is that despite knowing what I know and being able to supervise and teach I still feel like the one who doesn’t belong in the room. I guess it’s a feeling that a lot of people have and despite all the evidence to the contrary, it doesn’t seem to change. I know logically the past three years have been a tough road and one I picked because I’m not a smart man. Or at least I’ve never been one to choose the easy way to do things and why should by degree path be any different?

I think the problem come from the fact that I can’t know everything in my selected field. I can’t even know most of the stuff in my selected field. I only get a tiny sliver of knowledge and I need to be okay with that. I am happy with the choices I’ve made about coming into the program I’ve selected. It’s a good program and I’ve learned so much, but for every one answer I find for a question, I end up with ten new questions. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s probably something I’m just going to have to live with. Maybe that’s just know knowledge works, the more you know about your field the more you realize there is to know and the difference between the two just grows as you progress.

I still feel like I’ve made zero progress, but it’s nice to have evidence to the contrary.


2 responses

  1. Today I found out that I, too, will be the senior grad student in my lab. It’s a weird feeling because my PI and chair member both think that I am responsible and knowledgeable enough to help supervise incoming doctorate students. I think it’s a bit of imposter syndrome for sure but I really don’t think I know enough to be taking on this responsibility, yet here I am. The final paragraph of this really hit home. It sucks that you’ll feel like you don’t know enough but that’s also a beautiful thing. It means you can keep learning! You have the rest of your career to find out and that’s exciting. If you knew everything in your field then there would be no research to do. You are on the right path and exactly where you need to be. Good luck with the rest of your research. I’m sure it will be an amazing contribution to the scientific community.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 29, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    • Congrats on being the senior grad student! I agree, it does feel a lot like imposter syndrome. For me I think it’s mostly because it wasn’t that long ago that I knew nothing. Thank you for sharing your story and good luck on your journey!

      Liked by 1 person

      June 30, 2021 at 9:34 am

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