Dissociating My Self-Worth from My Research

It was August 2015 and I was a newly minted PhD candidate. I had just passed my qualifying exams that previous May, and while it had not been the most flawless experience (it included being flustered enough that I temporarily forgot about Histidine), I had made it through. I had been terrified of the exam because I didn’t have nearly the amount of results I wanted — my first year and a half of research had been primarily prep work. My committee told me not to undervalue my work though, that purifying proteins wasn’t trivial and I shouldn’t worry too much. Then, midway through August, I got called into my advisor’s office. Having recently asked for advice on confusing results, I thought nothing of the email.

I was being cut from the lab.

“You don’t have enough data,”’ he said (approximately; the whole day was a bit of a mess). “Remember how we talked about this in May?”

I nodded, confused. He had ended my candidacy exam with a statement that I should get more data, but what research project didn’t have that mandate? And it’s not that I hadn’t been trying — I was in lab nearly seven days a week, trying to troubleshoot an issue with the crystals that was more likely due to the humid Maryland summers than anything I could control.

But my best effort, and all of my time dedicated to pursuing this project, was somehow so bad, so disappointing that I needed to be removed from the program entirely.

Realizing I was on the verge of crying, he offered me time to stay and finish a thesis master’s degree. The only problem: all of my career aspirations strictly required a PhD.

That event catalyzed a rapid downward spiral for my self-confidence — and my perception of my worth as a person. That project, though it admittedly hadn’t been my first choice, had been my sole focus for a year and a half. I worked at it constantly, like most graduate students do. I’m certainly not the only person who has been told that graduate school is not an education, but a lifestyle. In fact, when I went to the university’s ombudsman to help me find a new lab, she required me to take a psych evaluation before we proceeded because she understood just how deeply intertwined work and self-worth are for many PhD students.

Soon after, I found a new lab. Years later, I regained my ability to have confidence in myself.

This article is intended to be an anecdotal guide of what worked to get me back on my feet in the hopes that I can help you with your (hopefully less drastic) self-worth lows.

Recalibrate your baseline

For the first few years in my new lab, I was in lab a minimum of six days a week, ten hours a day, frantically trying to generate results. I did nothing but work on the project I was assigned as my “trial phase,” and while that probably helped me secure my spot in the lab, it did nothing to help my self-confidence issues. I had no gauge for what was a success anymore — every group meeting was terrifying. I was so afraid of making any mistakes I once paid for reagents I had misordered with my own stipend instead of showing any weakness.

I needed something that could recalibrate me, and that came in the form of joining a student organization and hosting a conference for them on campus. It was chaotic, and I was super nervous about it the entire time, but when the day came, over a hundred students and faculty attended. It was described by the organization’s national president as the most successful conference they had ever had. I was congratulated personally, and months later they created a position for me so that I could make sure that the future conferences were just as successful.

That was the first accomplishment I was truly proud of since I had been removed from my first lab. I have held four other conferences with this organization since then, and it has become a source of positive reinforcement that motivates me through my research lows. It reminds me that if I can be good at this, I can’t be that bad after all.

Finding an experience you can excel in, especially one that isn’t tied to your source of stress, is invaluable. Student organizations are a great source of this positive reinforcement, but they are not the only route to take. I have friends that perform improv comedy, write, and foster cats. Find something that is a source of positive feedback that you can be good at without encroaching on your time too much.

Get an outside perspective

Through my work as a text editor for my university, I get referred many students who have just failed, or fear failing their qualifying exams. They’ve been told that their writing is “bad,” and the first thing I do is reassure them that while they have areas that need improvement, their work is not universally bad; they wouldn’t have made it into grad school if that was the case.

Having an outside, impartial observer stress both areas for improvement as well as the areas you are successful at is invaluable. I still frequently have issues thinking that I’m not doing well enough, and I can write off my significant other’s comments as just trying to calm me down, but why would a complete stranger bother lying to me?

So if you think that you’re failing, get someone who isn’t intimately invested in your work to look at it, and have them tell you both what you’re doing right and wrong. And if someone comes to you and asks about their work, do the same back, even if it’s as simple as commenting “hmm, that’s cool” as you revise their resume at a career workshop.

Reframe failure

I have not stopped failing in the lab; I don’t think that anyone can. My experiments aren’t quite shots in the dark, but they’re definitely trying to do something that has never been done before. As such, they don’t always work out. One thing that has been immeasurably useful for me is the discovery of the mental health subset of academic Twitter, specifically entities that spend a lot of their energy trying to normalize failure. It’s inherent in the research process — experiments fail, grants get rejected, someone else wins the award.  

I technically understood that no one could be successful all the time. But people only announce their wins, and I started to believe that it was just me that was suffering the losses. It’s absolutely not. It takes 20+ applications to get a professorship offer, grants have <20% funding rates sometimes, and research is 90% failure.

Everyone fails all the time — it’s just about how you handle it. It is important to understand that it is the bad data that informs the parameters of your research, as most science is just narrowing down what doesn’t work until you find something awesome. The list of “failures” that redefined fields is endless; just because it’s not what you expected doesn’t mean it’s all that bad.

To help reframe your experiences, follow Jen Heemstra (@jenheemstra), Susanna L Harris (@SusannaLHarris), and Maryam Zaringhalam (@webmz_) on Twitter. You’ll see daily reminders of how successful people fail just as often as anyone else; they just don’t linger on it. Instead they demonstrate publicly that failure is a vital part of the discovery process and they celebrate the effort they put into their work just as much as their success.

I’m not done with my recovery process. I still have my hang ups about my lab performance and how it reflects on me as a researcher. I still see many of the rejections from awards and fellowships as personal critiques. But I do get validation from things other than just my work, and those critiques don’t bite like they used to. I feel smart on occasion now, and I genuinely believe I am capable of entering a room and providing commentary on a project, and that’s something that was impossible years ago.

Alessandra Zimmermann
Alessandra Zimmermann

Alessandra is a PhD Candidate at the University of Maryland and the VP of Outreach for the Alliance for Diversity in Science and Engineering, where she first discovered STEM education and graduate empowerment advocacy. She can be found on twitter @alesszimm

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