Saturday, October 18, 2008

What the Hell

Even though I have been a very bad blogger lately, what with the not posting for weeks on end with no explanation, people keep reading this blog. And the number of people who subscribe to my feed has continued to increase. So, the people have spoken, and I am going to give you all something to read.

Where have I been? I've had my head up my own ass, that's where. One might say I've had a little confidence crisis in "meat space" (I love that expression). But some shit has been going my way, lately, so I'm on the mend. It's time to polish up the brass balls that I prominently display here in the virtual world, and hoist this blog out of the land of "largely inactive".

Don't laugh, but the thing that triggered my crisis is my PI's decision that my project has finally produced an LPU (least publishable unit). Every part of my rational brain was shouting "Yay! This is a good thing! You might actually manage to get out of here with a PhD, yet!" But every dark and twisted part of my psyche was vigorously reminding me that I am nothing but a fox in the hen house, and if I try to get out of here with an egg, I'm sure to get caught. Not following? I'll spell it out: I have a serious case of Impostor Syndrome (IS). And that shit is seriously toxic. I have called many of my friends on this - I try to always remind the people I know how smart, kind, and beautiful they are. Because all my friends are truly smart, kind, and beautiful. And I know that people can easily forget all the things that are good about themselves, and start to tear themselves down if left to their own devices. Unchecked IS can ravage a person, and keep them from doing the things they want and even need to do. I've been working on my own IS problem for some time, and really thought I had it under control. But I was so very wrong.

The minute I showed my PI the results of those experiments I hustled to get done by the end of the summer, and he said, "When you get back from vacation, you should start writing this up," I started to freak out. You see, I personally did every experiment that would go into the paper. And half of them were my own idea. So, they were all most likely completely fucked up and wrong. And the conclusions I had drawn on the results, such as they were, would likely be the most ridiculous thing any journal editor would ever crumple up and toss into the circular file.

Also, I had a LOT of re-analysis to do, because I had changed something fundamental about how I analyzed the data half-way through, and it wouldn't make sense to not have all of the data done the same way. Even though the change in the analysis was unlikely to change the results for the old data. And my data analysis is really, painfully boring. Just before I left for my vacation, I wasn't sure I would be ever able to force myself to finish the re-analysis.

The great thing about vacations is that they do replenish your resolve. When I came back, I did feel less like a petulant child when I sat down at the computer. But you can't take a vacation from your personal demons, so I still didn't feel at all ready to write a paper. Lucky for me, I had to go to my program's annual retreat, which includes a poster session. So I laid out a new poster, including most of the stuff that I thought should be in the paper. And it looked pretty good. My PI was really happy with it. Then, I mentioned to my program administrator that I was working on a paper, and she asked me to give a 45 minute talk for our student seminar series. My PI thought it was a "great idea". He explained to me that preparing and giving a talk when you are in the process of writing a paper can help you organize your thoughts and get valuable feedback. I was thinking two things: "Great - if I have to work on a talk, I won't have as much time to work on the paper" and, "OMFG - I am so going to screw this up because I have so not conquered Teh Nerves".

So, I had been nervously and ineffectually working on the paper, and worrying about the talk for a couple of days, when, at lunch, PI announces that I am invited to give my talk for the lab of Dr. Prof. Genius, with whom we have a collaboration. Most of the groundbreaking papers on the system I work with came out of Dr. Prof. Genius' (huge) lab. He has more than earned the moniker. Which makes him a great collaborator for the lab and my project, but makes him really intimidating to me. I knew he was getting reports on what I was doing, but I had never really spoken directly to him about science at all. I was absolutely certain that he was going to spot the fatal error in my work. In front of a bunch of post-docs and super-post-docs (he doesn't take students). In less than one week. My PI cheerily scheduled me to give a practice talk in two days. I nodded quietly, but I am sure that everyone in the room could hear the sound of screaming from inside my head.

I almost choked during my practice for the talk. Literally. I got stuck on the second or third slide, tears welled into my eyes, and I had to ask to leave the room for a minute, then start over. But I got through it after that, and jotted down notes on some suggested improvements. Then, afterwards, in private, my PI gave me an excellent pep talk. He told me that he thought I was doing a good job, but that he thought I was worrying too much about things being perfect. He told me that he thought the best way for me to overcome that was to just keep doing stuff, and not give myself the time to get all worked up. And then he said that that was why he "threw me in front of the bus".

Well, this is getting really long, and self-involved. So I'm going to just cut to the chase - I gave the talk for Dr. Prof. Genius without any waterworks, and got really great feedback from him and his lab. I also gave the student seminar, and for the first time, I actually enjoyed giving a talk. Halfway through, I looked out into the audience and saw people nodding along and really paying attention and, for once, I felt like I was right where I belong.


Professor in Training said...

Welcome back to the blogosphere and congrats on your recent successes! As a fellow Imposter I know EXACTLY how you have been feeling ... it's only a matter of time before I am found to be the fraud I know I am and kicked to the curb. Luckily I have very supportive people around (including my postdoc mentor) who are aware of my problems and are able to help me deal with these uncontrollable feelings.

Shoot me an email if you need to talk at anytime ... we can bitch and moan about how useless and undeserving we both are :)

Brigindo said...

Yay for you. I totally agree with your PI. The only way to get over this is to constantly move forward. Write up the paper and submit.

Betsy said...

I think everyone has a case of IS to some degree--though it's definitely more common in women. I'm happy to see you're being treated for it. :)

This is such a familiar story. I came into grad school feeling like I had somehow snuck in, and I hated giving presentations so much I would physically shake during them. But I gave a talk in front of our department my 2nd year that totally turned it all around. My PI coached me like yours did, and it went really well. In addition to all of the scientific knowledge I gained in grad school, the thing I'm most proud of is how much confidence I gained in myself.

Kudos to you on the talk and on picking what sounds like a wonderful PI. He wants you to shine, and is pushing you just enough to get you there.

Aerik said...

I think your increase in subscribers (including me) has something to do with sciencewomen at scienceblogs publishing a huge blog roll of women scientists.

Congratulations on the good feedback you got. I hope you gain a little bit of confidence from it.

ScienceWoman said...

Yay! I've been feeling imposterish myself lately, so its really reaffirming to see someone else battling it.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

That's totally fucking awesome!!!! w00t!!!

acmegirl said...

Thanks, everybody!

Drugmonkey said...

welcome back, although I must say I do enjoy that late birthday party post quite a bit!

great job on gritting your teeth and just getting it done! can't wait for the good news on your paper :-)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Rock on! And for the record, I think you're smart, kind, and (as far as I know, at any rate) beautiful.

Is this your first paper? Those are the worst. It will get better.

Fia said...

Cool, keep on going! Your first paper, man that is great! IS, I have it, I even know a tenured prof (female) who's close to pension and was the head of the university for two years has it. As long as you know it is a syndrome and not for real, keep on going!

acmegirl said...

Yep. It's my first paper. Well, I did contribute two figures to a paper as an undergrad, but it didn't feel so much my responsibility. I just made up the figures as requested, and confirmed the captions. This time, it's all me. Which is what I wanted, but it's much more stressful than I expected.

Thanks for all the kind words and support.

drdrA said...

Two very important things I learned in graduate school from my PI and others . 1. Just grit your teeth and get it done. 2. Don't treat everything as a test.... because it isn't, and 3. (see I lied, I meant 3 things not 2)- You are the world's expert on YOUR work.

You would be surprised at what you have to teach other people. Ok, I said 2 but you ended up with 4).

Congratulations on a job well done- and see, that wasn't so bad, was it?

chall said...

Sweet. That sounds good! i am happy to read this: "He told me that he thought I was doing a good job, but that he thought I was worrying too much about things being perfect. He told me that he thought the best way for me to overcome that was to just keep doing stuff, and not give myself the time to get all worked up."

I need to remember that too. And especially since I have a Talk coming up and I am not looking forward to it at all....
/fellow imposter with more syndrome than ever (also known as "nothing I do can be that difficult, everyone knows what I am doing so I'd better just hurry through it all"