I wasn’t exactly a natural at experimental work. My undergraduate lab marks were, erm, not brilliant. A poor memory mixed with a lack of practical intuition, a good experimental physicist, does not make. So, it is a tad ironic that I decided to do a PhD in electron microscopy – a mostly experimental field.
I liked planning experiments and analysing their results. I just didn’t very much like doing them. Sessions on the electron microscope always felt clunky. I had to frequently stop doing the experiment to note down significant events in my lab book and I was not the best at deciding which ones were worthy. Actually, I was terrible at deciphering happenstance from important experimental happenings.
I realised quite quickly on returning to my PhD that it was immensely difficult to pull myself away from work when I was in the middle of trying to do a task or solve a problem. The “I can’t leave the problem until it is solved” feeling. As time went on, it would feel like I was getting closer to a solution, that I had laser focus, but in reality, I had tunnel vision. As time went on I became more and more stressed meaning my ability to solve the problem worsened. Further, if I went past the 25-minute mark, my stress levels would rise almost exponentially. It would potentially wipe me out for the day, or for a particularly frustrating problem, two. During which I would be limited to very simple tasks which would still feel quite painful to do. Meditating as a break in between 25 minute work sessions seemed to allow me to work for the full day.
Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 2 of 2
Opening up about my own experiences of mental health through talks had a surprising side effect. People started to message me about their experiences and problems, some I go on to meet. I have found these conversations fertile ground for new ideas involving mental health. An important one of the many reasons why discussing mental health is beneficial. In one such conversation, an individual came to me about imposter syndrome. During our conversation, I realised that seeing imposter syndrome from the point of view of the PhD supervisor may help those feeling afraid of asking for help.
Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 1 of 2
My PhD supervisor and I were standing in the lab preparing a sample for the electron microscope. It is a semi-dull activity, rich in opportunity for conversations about the minutia of life. I mentioned to him I was worried about the viva. I have always struggled with thinking on my feet. When my mind is stressed in such a way it takes the option of shutting down completely, leaving the occupier (i.e. me) to stare blankly at the wall. After some much-needed reassurance and useful advice, he says something which piques my interest. He mentions the viva is a “test of your knowledge”. Curious, I respond “I thought it was a test of my understanding?”. “Well”, he says in a semi-throwaway manner, “what really is the difference between understanding and knowledge.”