Do You Ever Wish Your Thesis Were Further Along?
I held my breath as the professor stopped by my poster. He looked at it briefly and then said: “This looks like the same thing you had 6 months ago. You should be further along by now.”
He raised his eyebrows and moved on to the next poster. Ten minutes later he was still chatting with the same student – apparently she was “further along.”
Technically, my poster was not exactly the same as it had been 6 months earlier.
I had optimized some of the experimental conditions, but I felt like there was nothing I could do to make progress faster. It was outside my control how frequently I got cells from our collaborator, and sometimes weeks went by without much progress.
Until the day of the poster session at our department retreat in my 3rd year, I just accepted that this was how fast research was supposed to go. After that day, however, the feeling that I “should be further along” kept gnawing at me.
I made an ambitious plan to optimize multiple conditions simultaneously to speed things up, and I worked extra hours to attend to all my experimental setups. I started getting more data, but it was never as good as I had expected.
Compared to my peers, I always felt like I was behind – why was I stuck optimizing experimental conditions while they were already publishing first author papers?
I had always assumed that other students “had it together”, and that the ones who were the first in their class to graduate were exceptionally smart. In my fifth year I realized that these high achieving students were not necessarily smarter, but they did have a very different attitude.
One of my good friends who had already published several first author papers by her forth year worked in a microscope facility. While we were having coffee one afternoon, she casually told me that she broke a lens that would cost thousands of dollars to replace.
“Wow, what are you going to do?” I asked.
I knew I would have felt really embarrassed and guilty if I had done something like that.
“I just talked with my PI,” she said. “He wasn’t happy, but he said these things happen. So, we ordered a new one. I am just going to work on my modeling until it comes in a few weeks.”
What really amazed me about my friend was her calmness after making a mistake that cost her PI thousands of dollars, and her ability to bounce right back on track and find another way to make progress until she was able to collect data again.
It was then that it dawned on me:
Wishing that I was further along, was exactly what was holding me back from making progress.
By being constantly dissatisfied, I was distracting myself from taking action.
Instead of focusing on what I could do to get ahead, I spent my energy worrying and feeling guilty – as a result I had no time and no mental space left to think about what I could do to speed up my progress.
You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be
Sounds almost heretic, right? I know very few people in academia (or industry) who are satisfied with where they are.
It seems like almost everyone is complaining about obstacles that gets in their way, and frequently blaming other people or extraneous circumstances for their lack of progress.
Don’t do this.
Think of complaining and blaming as your two enemies who are sucking away your time and your energy that you could use for planning, research, or writing.
Instead of making you feel better or helping you to get support, complaining and blaming will make you a victim and drive others away.
Do you remember my friend from above who broke a microscope lens? She could have complained about the misfortune and how it had set her back, and she could have blamed the company for taking so long to send her a replacement.
Instead of wasting her energy bemoaning things that she had no control over (the lens could not be fixed and the supplier was overseas), she focused on what she could do. In her case, she could work on the theoretical part of her thesis and optimize her model while she was waiting for her lens to arrive.
Imagine, how would you feel if you believed that you were exactly where you needed to be in order to graduate on time? Wouldn’t you feel relieved?
And once you are relieved wouldn’t that liberate a lot of energy that you can use to start planning and take action now?
You cannot change where you are in your research right now – you may be 2 months or 6 months behind schedule. But you can change how you interpret your current position.
Whatever you believe will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you always feel like you are behind and not good enough, you will slowly kill your self-esteem.
This can lead to a never-ending vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, and no progress on your thesis.
On the other hand, if are 6 months behind but you tell yourself that this is how long things take in research, your mind will shift into problem-solving mode. You will come up with creative ways and shortcuts to get your research done faster.
Perhaps there is a professor who could give you technical support, or you will discover another way to collect your data more efficiently.
Most importantly, the additional energy that you gain by believing that “I am exactly where I need to be” will make you healthier, happier, and a more fun person to be around.
If You Don’t Know Something… Keep Moving
You may have experienced the Impostor Syndrome. I know I have, as have thousands (or maybe even millions) of students.
When you have the Impostor Syndrome, and you feel like you are not “smart enough” to be in graduate school, it doesn’t just affect your mood. It affects your performance, and possibly your career path too.
One reason that the Impostor Syndrome is so prevalent is that when students realize that they don’t know something or they made a mistake, they automatically jump to the conclusion that they don’t belong be in graduate school.
Who says that you always have to be right or know everything? On the contrary, usually the most experienced researchers ask the most basic questions and make the most mistakes because they keep pushing the limits of their comfort zone.
During one of my meetings in graduate school, a professor had a debate with one of the brightest students in the group. At the end of the discussion it turned out that the professor was right, but the way the student handled the situation was even more impressive.
Instead of being defensive or apologetic, the student said: “I am happy to admit that I am wrong. If I knew everything there would be nothing left for me to learn.”
Not surprisingly, this student graduated first in his class, 4 years instead of 6-7 years, and published several first-author papers before he even got his Ph.D.
After he defended I asked him what his secret was for finishing so quickly and if he ever experienced the Impostor Syndrome. He looked surprised and answered:
“It never crossed my mind that I didn’t belong in graduate school. When I made a mistake I just thought about how I could make it work. Sometimes I wasted time, but overall most things worked out.”
I was still in graduate school at the time and I learned one of the most valuable lessons from my friend that helped me to finish my thesis:
Mistakes are not due to a character flaw, but a sign that you are pushing your comfort zone and learning
I was used to striving for perfect scores on exams, and mistakes stopped me in my tracks. Sometimes I was embarrassed for days when my supervisor or someone at a group meeting pointed out that I made a mistake and wasted resources and time.
Stopping my research because I was scared of making a mistake was the worst thing I could do. You can only make progress if you take action.
Don’t let the fear of making a mistakes ever stop you from speaking up or taking action. In fact, when you make a mistake and admit it openly people will respect you more for taking ownership of your work.
Even better, your confidence will skyrocket when you have the courage to stand up for yourself or do something novel in your work.
I know that the most valuable lessons I learned occurred when I made mistakes (big ones), and had to find a way to move on despite the disappointment and the lost time.
Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect thesis, and it is up to you to decide how to use graduate school as a learning experience.
When you learn to view mistakes as a sign of growing professionally, you will be able to expand your comfort zone, do novel research, and most importantly, prepare for the challenges of your career.