Last week I marked a whole month into my PhD research. I was surprised at how quickly it came around, and simultaneously disappointed with how far I’d come. One thing about me that can be a double-edged sword is that I have high expectations of myself. Of course, it drives me to do well, but when I have unrealistic assumptions of what I should be doing (or I just get unlucky) I take it very hard. That’s been happening to me recently.
The thing is, I have no idea how well I’m supposed to be doing. I just set myself a rough goal that didn’t seem too hard – how wrong I was! To date, I have no idea how to get to the point I set myself. I feel like all the other students who started at the same time as I did already have some sort of direction, some idea of how they’re going about what they want to do. I don’t, so naturally I feel like I’m doing something wrong. On the other hand the people who I’m (for want of a better phrase) competing against here are the most intelligent people in my age group that I’ve ever met (bar none). I… well, I’m just not.
That’s not to say that I think I can’t do it, but I do console myself sometimes with that fact. In a way, I think that at the moment I’m doing what I do best – trying my absolute hardest to play in a league which I don’t feel ready for yet. I do that pretty damn well. That doesn’t mean that I’m ever good at what I’m doing, but through hard work and competition I think that I become a better scientist and a more well rounded person. That’s how I’ve conducted my entire career so far.
Take, for example, my Undergraduate career. My best friend (who happens to have started a PhD at the same place I have) also happens to be the undisputed best in our Undergrad Masters class. He even has a certificate (and a few moneys) to prove it. For so many years throughout our time at University, he beat me in everything we did. Everything. Though it was discouraging at times, I absolutely know that it drove me
insane to do better that I would have otherwise. I even ended up beating* him! I came out from the degree as the first person in my family (as far as I can tell) to achieve a first class degree in anything (let alone a difficult subject like a science).
So why am I telling you all this? Well, I was pondering it this morning as I prepared to talk to my PhD supervisor – I haven’t had the chance to speak to him much at all yet. At the time I was feeling rather disappointed in myself, so I resolved to mention it to him and see what he said. What he told me struck a chord; “I think that not knowing how well you’re doing or even how well you’re supposed to be doing is really very typical of research in general. We all get it from time to time, and personally I spent about the first 6 months of my PhD trying to avoid my supervisor in case he asked how well I was doing.”
I find that particularly heartening because it means that I’m doing the right thing. I’m pushing myself hard, and at some point it’ll pay off. Until then, I’ll try to manage my expectations for what I’ll be doing in 6 months’ time.