We're a little crazy, about science!

Oh the things you’ll learn

I’ve been a student for some time now, roughly 15 years since undergrad (not counting “traditional” schooling growing up. Over these years there were several instances, really I would consider them setbacks, where I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. Hindsight is 20/20, but the exception for me has always been seeing personal growth.

Being a student is a full-time job. Even though you don’t get paid like it. Even though you don’t get treated like it. And even though everyone will constantly ask you what’s next like you’re not trying to just make it to the end of the week. The further you go, the more people are willing to pay you. However, even then the return on investment is not that great (see: aweful). It’s not surprising then, that people decide college may not be for them, especially a graduate degree.

Today I had a discussion with my work, since it is a teaching hospital after all, about what I wanted to learn. The purpose of the meeting was to make sure that my goals and expectations matched their goals and expectations for me. Having been a student for over a decade and a half, I’ve had plenty of time to align my path to my goals.

The problem is you never really feel like you’ve made any progress, or that you’ve learned anything. Or at least I never feel that way. I think that goes back to this post, I keep waiting for the day I wake up and I have the confidence that my degrees suggest I would have. I remember the day I graduated with my BS. I was embarrassed because I had somehow tricked an entire school to give me a degree. I didn’t feel any different than I had the day before when I didn’t have the degree, so obviously I was the problem here.

It’s only after a long consideration that I realized I had learned some things. I had the same feeling with my Masters degree. I was waiting for some magical change to hit me. It never came, obviously. At that point I was rationalizing it as people must feel bad for me. Now that I’m nearly finished (hopefully) with my PhD I can’t help but feel that similar feeling. I’m waiting for some magic reality adjustment to make me feel competent in what I’m doing.

Only this time I know it won’t come. I think I’ll just feel relief when I get my PhD. I was told once that your BS is the hardest degree you’ll get and in some ways that is true. This just feels harder, like I’m always on the edge of failure. I’m sure once I get my PhD (hopefully I get it) I will instantly feel like I was handed it instead of actually doing the work for it. Or maybe I won’t, maybe this time will be different.

In any case, the difference between my BS and my PhD isn’t exactly that one was severely harder than the other (although a suicide attempt and then living in my car for awhile while doing my BS was pretty fucking hard). The difference, for me anyway, is that I feel like I actually learned something. It took 15 or so years, untold horrors since my return to civilian life, and a whole damn pandemic, but I feel like I’ve learned something.

Turns out I didn’t need a piece of paper to make me feel that way. Although, the piece of paper is a nice little marker of the progress I’ve made. Is this another “learning is sneaky” post, maybe. But it deserves to be repeated from time to time. I still feel lost most days and I will probably always have to deal with the sense that I could somehow fail at any moment, but then again, maybe not.

When I first started on the journey I wasn’t even sure a Bachelor’s degree was in the cards, much less my PhD. So I guess anything is possible.

4 responses

  1. I think a touch of impostor syndrome is a sign of humility and conscientiousness. One knows one’s own frailty, at least, even if one underestimates everybody else’s. It stinks in its own way, but … I’d rather be a competent person and doubt it, than be the sort of idiot who’s supremely confident in their own idiocy.

    When I graduated with my Master’s, I felt that I’d earned the degree … I’d fulfilled all the requirements, after all. But a career still seemed like a great undiscovered country; I was a little apprehensive about whether I was ready for “serious” work with real stakes. It turned out there was a ton I didn’t know, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t ready. I was able to pick it up fast enough.

    And now … I can internalize the nice things that leadership and coworkers say about me and think “Aw yes, I am a rockstar,” and then feel embarrassed and substandard whenever somebody knows something I don’t, or I hit a wall and have to ask for advice. Somehow both of these thoughts can coexist and alternate having the upper hand in my mind. Recently my manager talked about wanting to promote me to a certain level soon, and I didn’t say this, but I thought, “Woah, really? I never felt like one of those!”

    It’s just hard to assess oneself, and knowing one’s own lack of objectivity doesn’t seem to fix that. In the end, the work speaks for itself. You’ve got two papers published, you’ve done solo experiments at the hospital, you’ve had ideas that won you funding … I’m sure you’ve learned plenty.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 21, 2022 at 9:46 pm

    • Ahh! I know I responded it this, but apparently it didn’t post! First congrats on your (possible?) promotion. Knowing some of the stuff you’re capable of I’m not surprised and agree with the, “you’re a rockstar” assessment. I appreciate you sharing your story and I agree that it’s better to be a bit humble than to be cocky (as much as I joke about wanting to be cocky).

      This is why I enjoy blogging, I know logically I’m not the only one with a bit of impostor syndrome, but you never really feel that way until you hear others say something similar. I felt pretty confident in my abilities when I finished my Master’s, but when I jumped into a different field for my PhD I really felt useless and it’s only very recently that I’ve felt… less useless? haha I think the jump made me question the things I thought I knew and the skills I thought I had. the feeling has gotten better though, for the most part.

      Thank you for the support and the reminders.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 23, 2022 at 12:45 pm

  2. Thank you for the compliments as well! I have not gotten promoted yet, but maybe this year? My manager thinks some leadership experience is the one additional thing I need in my kit, and that’s been slow in coming, because the program I’m on right now is really dragging out.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 23, 2022 at 2:02 pm

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