Friday, April 04, 2008

Inspired Lunch

During my recent travels, I had lunch with a friend from college. She is a very smart and interesting person, but hasn't always known that about herself. Nevertheless, although her science career has taken several detours and had some rough spots, she persevered.

I recall previous conversations with her over the years when she was so demoralized by grad school or other academic/work experiences that she thought of quitting. When she got a tenure-track job at a major research university, she wasn't sure whether she was up to the job.

But she was. She thrived in that job. She was an excellent teacher, and she successfully balanced research-teaching-service while setting up a lab and dealing with some insane colleagues. In this blog, I have previously discussed whether someone can recover from a confidence deficit and succeed, and here is an excellent example. Grad school was a setback for her, but being a professor gave her confidence.

Not long ago, she left her tenure-track position owing to the impossibility of keeping that job and a relationship in another city. It was immensely difficult for her to leave a job she loved, but leave she did. I was devastated when she quit her professor job. I felt that it was a huge loss for science and for women-in-science, and I worried about her as a friend. If she left a job that had given her such confidence in herself, what would happen after she left?

What happened was amazing. She has done impressive things in her new job involving science policy. She is having an impact. The rest of us are doing our obscure research in our labs, but she is out there, talking to people and legislators and government officials and the media, and she is traveling the world talking to government and education officials in other countries. And she has even more confidence, somehow finding in herself the ability to be an effective communicator on a huge scale. Perhaps she started on this path when she discovered that she had talents as a teacher and advisor, but now she has taken those skills to an entirely new level.

I think her experiences demonstrate several important things:

- Being stubborn will get you far. Stubbornness can see you through the bad times and out the other side to better things.

- Lack of confidence need not be a terminal condition. I think in many cases it is, so it is important to tell stories about cases in which it was not.

- There is life after being a professor. There are many times when I have thought that I could never do anything else, and I probably never will do anything else, but I think it is important for us happy professors to know that someone can have a happy life doing something else.


Anonymous said...

What a great, inspiring story!

I feel as though I've gone through a modest transformation myself, from someone who had her confidence undermined in grad school by a bad advisor (almost to the point of quitting many times). I've since refound my footing. I ran into one of my committee members a couple of years ago at a conference and we caught up over lunch. She was so delighted that I landed on my feet and blossomed from that timid grad student. I credit a supportive post-doc advisor who recognized that I needed support, and now a supportive department who have a great deal of confidence in me. It turns out I'm an excellent teacher and a fairly decent researcher, which is a good combination at my primarily undergrad institution.

Thanks for sharing this and I'm glad to hear your friend has found a productive career path.

nickel said...

Thank you for the post. I've been contemplating science policy and wasn't sure if it was necessary to get a degree in policy or if experience would suffice.

alh said...

Again I must thank you for helping me to realize I'm not alone. I'm currently in a demoralizing, confidence degenerating phase of my career (the post-doc one..go figure) and I often think of quitting, as recently as an hour ago, but in the end I am stubborn and could never bring myself to actually quit. Feeling less alone and hearing there can be light on the other side truly helps! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I've recently accepted a tenure track position at a decent research university and I'm terrified. Terrified of failing, terrified I'm not ready, terrified I'll be an awful teacher, terrified I'll be an awful advisor. Terrified of being the only female faculty who is much younger than everyone else. Someone please tell me this is normal. I had to submit some information for the website yesterday and seeing my name, followed by Assistant Professor almost sent me into a mini-panic attack.

Anonymous said...

is she really truly confident, or is she just confident about that little (or not-so-little) aspect of her life relating to her profession?

(sorry, I'm trying to get some diagnostics and patterns here. Yes, I have a confidence issue.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Not that I'm contemplating quitting or that I'm seriously underconfident, but this is a morning where the words about stubbornness will help me keep going.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous@2:53,
Sounds like I'm you, one year later. Sad to say, the terror hasn't gone away, although I do have flashes of feeling that I belong here and I can do this. Great and inspiring story, FSP; thanks!

Jay said...

Anonymous at 2:53 AM (!), that's entirely, completely, 100% normal. Keep breathing.

Anonymous said...


That's a great story.

Looking back at my own training, I realize that confidence in oneself as a scientist must be actively BUILT-especially for women I think. Quality mentoring is a huge part of this.

I am sad to say that in many experiences that I know about poor mentoring of students has been the rule rather than the exception.

And, as someone who never expected to be an academic scientist but is just delighted now to be one- I know that turnaround in confidence first hand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I (a female grad student in a physical science) am also interested in doing science policy (maybe, someday) and am glad to hear that this transition has been made successfully by others, and that it really is possible to have an impact that way.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2: I'm a grad student, so I can't say from first-hand experience, but I am sure plenty of people feel the way you do. (I know I've felt that way about much less impressive achievements/opportunities than getting a tenure-track faculty position.) Think of it this way: you got the job because the hiring committee saw your record of success, spoke to you and listened to you, and decided they have confidence in your abilities to do all these things. They drew their conclusions from lots and lots of evidence. As a scientist that should be a bit confidence-bolstering. :) Remind yourself of all the reasons they believe you to be ready and well-qualified. Of course it's normal to be nervous. Just make sure you keep telling yourself you really don't have to be.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2: That feeling that somehow you're secretly not good enough and that someone will find out you're a fraud is very, very, very common in academia.

You get trained and vetted as a researcher, after all, but not as a teacher in your training. And you need to be prepared that things will not go perfectly the first time you teach or advise students. My first class was an unqualified disaster. I still feel like I should go apologize to those students. I tried hard, but didn't know what I was doing. But I got help, advice and learned from evaluations and experienced colleagues and I got better. Every colleague I've talked to said they went through the same process. They don't teach you how to be an effective teacher in grad school, after all. You have to learn that on the job.

My best advice is to have a good support mechanism in trusted colleagues and to utilize your university's teaching and learning center as much as you can for help and advice.

Anonymous said...

wow, I had no idea impostor syndrome was so common. In my case it seemed perfectly natural, though, even rational. It has been only recently I came across the idea that it might be an illusion, and only now that I realize it is common in academia. Of course I still think *I* have a reason to feel I just fooled people into thinking I could do the job. On my upbeat moments, however, I think that may be exactly my strength: that I do things differently from other people in the field in which I work, because I don't at all have a traditional training in it.

Ms.PhD said...

Thanks FSP. This is just the sort of story I need. Of course it would be even better if I could meet your friend!

Was feeling pretty broken this week. Sometimes I worry that I'll always be dragged down by feeling negative when I most need to persevere.

It always helps to know I'm not the only one who feels like that.

Anonymous said...

A great many of us feel like imposters because we struggle so, and everyone else appears so capable and glib. It's even worse if you're in grad schools with a bad advisor and undiagnosed learning difficulties! I survived to get my MSc by incredible stubbornness, a good advisor, and the aid of the counselling department who provided not only insight, but also so diagnosis.

It was the hardest thing I've ever done, and so worth it. Now if I could just get a JOB using my degree...


Anonymous said...

Psychologists who do empirical research discovered long ago that self-esteem is uncorrelated with productivity.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I would be the 'terrified' one. I'm exaggerating when I say terrified but the whole process is very intimidating. It is so good to know that my feelings and insecurities are shared by so many. I had no idea that the "somehow I'm secretly not good enough and that someone will find out I'm a fraud" thoughts are so common. I totally have thought/think the exact same thing. It's so refreshing to know I'm not the only one. I know I can do it, I know I can be successful I just don't always remember that.

Becca said...

Great story, very nicely told. Bravo.

EliRabett said...

It's called imposter syndrome. Competent smart people know that they don't know everything and worry about being discovered. They work incredibly hard to hide their doubt.

The other side of this is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is why the ears start twitching when someone tells me how great they are.