I have spent the last year repeatedly uttering statements of the form “(insert challenging topic of the moment here) is hard”. This tendency of mine started during my first quarter as a newbie PhD student in Population Biology. What was the challenging topic of the moment that quarter? MATH. On most days that fall, I would walk into our lab office and exclaim in frustration “math is hard”! That quarter, I was learning a new (to me!) way of thinking about ecology and genetics – a way that involved algebra, probability, and calculus skills that I had long ago abandoned. My math skills were out of practice and I sorely felt it every time I had to sit through a lecture or tackle a homework assignment. To say I struggled was an understatement. My insecurities would get the better of me – I felt inadequate, frustrated, and scared. I was scared that I did not “have what it takes” to be a successful PhD student, let alone a scientist. Why did I believe this? I think it was because I did not already know what I was supposed to be learning.
If you are immediately challenging the logic of that statement (and judging me for being overly dramatic) – you are right. It makes no sense! What is the need for learning if you already know everything? But perhaps the bigger fallacy to challenge is the expectation I was placing on myself – that if something did not come easy to me, it was due to some irreparable personal flaw. I had no confidence that I could meet the challenge of re-learning math and using that math to think about ecology and evolution in a new way.
That insecurity caused a lot of emotional distress this last year. And although people tend to hide their insecurities, I am absolutely convinced that I am not the only one that struggles with this issue as a graduate student – or a human being for that matter. Insecurities are the root cause of “Imposter Syndrome”. Imposter syndrome is having a core belief that you are not good enough and a paralyzing anxiety that the world is going to discover what you are trying so desperately to hide.
So what is the answer? How do we function day-to-day in the pressure-cooker that is graduate school (aka life) without letting our insecurities get the better of us? I think one answer is to accept that we are always learning and growing as students of science and students of life. While finishing my master’s degree, one of my committee members told me to tell myself every day that I know nothing. At first, I internalized this as a means to protect myself from becoming arrogant. As a first year Population Biology student – I actually believed it was true and that I did know nothing. However, now I have come to realize that I do know something, but I do not know everything (and I never will). Which I think was the original intent of the message.
After four years of graduate school (three years of a master’s degree and one year down toward a PhD), I have also come to realize that I can handle more than I think I can. Though “math is hard”, I still managed to pass my exams and ace my classes. And now I can read papers on ecology and evolution that utilize mathematical models and not glaze over from ignorance. I learned something I did not know before and I have a new set of tools in my toolbox that I can use to answer scientific questions. For these lessons learned, I am truly grateful.
What is my next insecurity to tackle?
“Writing is hard.”