You know, I think the most difficult things about graduate school (and becoming a scientist) are a) learning to be stupid, and b) developing a thick skin against failure.
It’s taken me two years, but I think I’m finally getting better at being stupid. I’m still working on the failure bit. My PI once called me “angsty and self-editing” and, while I think I’ve gained more awareness of myself in the last year, his assessment still holds true, and I still tend to take failure very personally. In some ways, that’s a good thing; it galvanizes me to work harder and perform better. In other ways, not so much: I begin to question whether or not I’m cut out for science.
However, after opening up to my PI and others about it, I’ve realized that the feelings of being stupid and of being a waste may never go away. I would wager that the majority of scientists have impostor syndrome. What’s more, failure is just a part of the scientific process. Things don’t work quite often, especially if you shun “safe” science. There are labs in our department that churn out papers with a surprisingly stead regularity, but they do this at the cost of lacking innovation. They perform the same kinds of experiments ad nauseam, almost, it seems, without thinking about what kind of impact they are having on science. If you want to do something really innovative, failure is going to predominate at least the early stages of the work. It’s learning to think of failure in a constructive way that’s difficult, and sometimes hindered by the attitudes of those around you.
There’s an article by Martin A. Schwarz titled “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research“. While it doesn’t really provide any answers, its comforting to know that, as isolated as one sometimes feels, I am definitely not the first baby scientist to wrestle with these issues.
But, I digress. Time to get cracking on my comps proposal.