I wrote the text below for two reasons. One, I had the chance to discuss with young colleagues of mine within a forum called the “Laura Bassi” initiative. This initiative within the LHCb experiment was started a few years ago by Eluned Smith, a colleague of mine. It is targeted mainly towards young female academics, but not exclusively. Some of the things that were said resonated strongly with them. This is a written version of my “propos” to them, hoping it will be useful for others. The second reason is that I always wished to write the word “thyself” in a text and I never had a chance until now.
To give a bit of context, the discussion including Q&A lasted about an hour. A couple of hours before the meeting the optimiser in me started to wonder what would be an important message to convey during this relatively short time. If you have no time to read further, here is a one sentence summary: ”be honest with yourself, know your strengths, know your weaknesses, find your support group”. If you have a bit more time, let me walk you through the thought process that led me to the summary above.
Early on during my PhD, I attended a meeting where a colleague of mine was discussing the “Usage of Legendre Polynomials to fit an angular acceptance for a multi-dimensional time dependent analysis aiming at measuring the weak phase phis and searching for physics beyond the Standard Model”. Let me tell you that my heart rate jumped to 40 MHz.
The person making the presentation happened to be one of the smartest people I know (Hi Gerhard!), I had close to no idea what he was talking about. Instead of doing something about this, I froze like a rabbit on the highway. I don’t believe that it started there, but I had a tendency to over romanticise the knowledge, abilities, and achievements of others. It took me quite a while to address this in a constructive way.
What I told the people attending the Laura Bassi initiative is to know their “weaknesses”. What I mean is to assess methodically what we know well, and what needs further work, reading or education. Often female academics have the habit (even in job interviews) to shoot themselves in the knee and to focus on what they think they lack, instead of focusing on what they have achieved and are good at. It’s a twisted protection mechanism. As if telling everyone
“Hey, you know I am really bad at XYZ”, will stop people from catching you being bad at XYZ. But guess what? If you are bad at something, you will be caught. That’s academia for you. There is a lot of talk about being vulnerable, taking risks etc. In my dictionary this does not mean that you ought to walk around with your wounds open. You are allowed to protect yourself and buy yourself time until you feel more confortable with certain topics. In this context, bravery will be going forward even when you are have not (yet) read all the literature, including references on a certain topic.
Remember that in Academia especially, your colleagues may also be your referees, people writing references for you, people making decisions that may affect your future directly etc. There is no need to randomly feed the outside world arguments against you.
WARNING: I am not saying that you should wing your way, or for a lack of better word bullshit your way through academia. This is a strong no.
It is much more constructive to take notes and write down simply what you didn’t understand in a meeting. You are the only judge for this exercice. Beating yourself up for not knowing things is just a waste of your finite energy. Please don’t do that. After the said meeting, ask your supervisor, colleagues or your good old friends Google and Wikipedia. They can help you figure out these things. It may be that it takes 20 seconds to clarify something: “Power cycling your detector means switching it on and off”. Other things, may take longer and that’s normal.
You may ask then, when I am supposed to do my own work ? Reading papers takes time. This is a very good point and finding a healthy balance is key.
Try to curate your reading list around your work, such that it will serve you to enrich your culture around your core topic, especially if you are a PhD. For instance, say you are working on flavour physics, there might be some adjacent topics which you are curious about, but you have to gauge carefully how much time you will spend reading about these. It’s the oldest truth in the world, there are only so many hours in a day and so many years to complete a PhD.
One of my favorite memes of the internet is :” Are you even good enough to have imposter syndrome?” or a variation of this. Whoever invented the concept of imposter syndrome, I wish with all my heart that they are roasting somewhere in hell, ie stuck in the RER B on a hot summer day. Similarly to beating yourself up for not being good enough, thinking that you have imposter syndrome is an other waste of energy and time. Please don’t do that.
What you can do instead is find the right people to discuss what is causing you anxiety. If you find yourself agonising about a certain topic, maybe you can reach out to a peer such that they help you evaluate if this is a good way to spend your time or not. For example, you think:”I feel like I am behind, I feel like I didn’t do enough of this.” Well maybe you are behind schedule, it’s painful but we all need to hear hard truths sometimes. That’s the only way to make progress. If you are lucky and I hope you are, these people can be the same who give you honest and constructive feedback.
It is not easy to find those whom you can trust, share your “weaknesses” and be totally open. They can be the same people with whom you share early draft of your CV and support letters or any other important document. I am blessed to have such people in my life and cherish them.
Finally, I am well aware that from my writing, it may appear that I am treating the human brain like a processor that we can “just” reprogram. This is simply my way of processing things, I do know that these topics are hard and facing one’s weaknesses is not pleasant. Some of these habits are deeply wired within us, but the good news is that with time, I learned to face these agonies and move on with my life quicker, and I hope you will too if this resonates with you.