Monday, March 30, 2009

How good am I?

A question I don't know the answer to.

In high school, I got grades and comments from all my teachers, and I knew how I was doing, both with respect to the material, and in relation to the other students. When I got to university, I had to rescale a bit. As a 'high achiever', I had been used to getting grades close to 100 and it took some time to realise that at my university, anything over 80 was considered very very good. But still, during undergrad, my grades (not comments so much any more) told me how I was performing relative to my cohort and to general expectations.

Once I had graduated and moved out in to the real world as a programmer, the feedback was different, but it was still there. Formally, we had annual reviews, less formally, I knew I was doing well because people would seek me out from within the IT group for the newer projects.

And then I decided to go back to uni and start my Masters, which in my home country is purely research, basically an 18 month thesis. After my Masters was submitted, I moved to Europe to start a PhD. I don't regret moving back to academia, I love the life I'm in, the research, the excitement, but sometimes I wonder if I am meant to be here, because I'm not sure I'm any good at research. I'm not talking about the Imposter Syndrome (though there have definitely been times when I have experienced that feeling), but I just don't know how I compare to others in the field, other PhD students and other researchers in general. The feedback that had been constant through the rest of my life just wasn't there any more. Admittedly, there are supervision issues in my current PhD position that contribute to a lack of feedback, but even during my Masters, when my supervisor was excellent, this feeling persisted. He could give me feedback on my work, on my thesis, where it could be improved and what worked, but I could never get a real sense of where I was compared to where I should be, or where others in my position were.

What makes a good researcher, and how can you tell if you are one? Does just asking this question mean I am probably not one? I guess publication record could be a somewhat objective measure, although now I have been asked to review a few times, I realise just how arbitrary the reviews can be.

I think I am doing sufficient work (though that is hard to judge), I have some publications, and I appear to be on track to finish my thesis in the 3 year time frame. Maybe it is just time to grow up and realise the certainty I was used to has gone? Or maybe this feeling goes away when I am no longer a student? I'm hoping for the latter...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Overcome. Challenges.

I saw the reminder over at Candid Engineer to submit something re "overcoming challenges" to the next Scientiae carnival and the two words held a real dissonance for me. One overcomes something negative, a setback, an obstacle, a misfortune. On the other hand, a challenge is something one rises up to meet or seeks (or issues). I'm not sure if that comes from many years of indoctrination, or a naturally competitive spirit, but I would never have considered a challenge something to overcome. I wasn't really considering submitting anything to the carnival anyway. I didn't have a blog (at least, not an active one) and I have more than enough writing to do, but I kept thinking about those words. Then I realised they made more sense to me reversed.

I'm in the final stages of my PhD and thinking a lot about what happens next. About 6 months ago, I found FSP, and from links and comments there, Professor in Training, Candid Engineer, See Jane Compute and others. I've read through archives and comment threads and found a community that I didn't know existed. Posts have been scary, interesting, illuminating, off-putting and thought provoking. And I have wanted to join in the conversation. Why didn't I? It is not shyness, or lack of something to say. It is, very simply, a dislike of writing, of actually putting words on 'paper'. This is something I have struggled with since I left 'the real world' to get my Masters and along the way I have learnt tricks and stratagems to force myself to do the necessary writing. A recent post from FSP made me think about that. The person she described was very familiar to me. (I actually remember working like this - me dictating, others writing - back in highschool.) What really caught my attention though was the word she used: graphophobia.

I was a fairly stereotypical toyboy. As far back as I remember, I was spending most of my time with the boys doing 'boy things'. One of the first things I learnt, to be 'one of the boys', was never let them see you are scared. This has actually had an impact on my character in two ways. First, I learnt that bravado and bluff can very quickly become confidence - by pretending that I am not scared, often the fear goes away. Secondly, it became part of my personal creed to never let fear stop me doing anything. I have a very real needle phobia, but this idea pushed me to become a blood donor more so than any appeals to need or civic duty would have done. Fear will never be a limiting factor on my life. And now FSP comes along and suggests that I might be scared of writing! That puts a whole new slant on my writing avoidance. Because I look at things honestly, and see that she might be right. Why do I avoid writing? It is not because I can't - those things I have forced myself to write are, I believe, of reasonably good quality. It is not even because I am slow - the time spent actually writing, as opposed to procrastinating, is quite productive. Can I really just be scared of turning thoughts into written word? (I have no trouble with the spoken word, as friends and colleagues could attest to.) Because if I am scared of writing then, by my personal creed, I must write. And so, I reverse the Scientiae theme by challenging myself to overcome this fear of writing, by committing to at least two blog posts a week until I submit my thesis. I love a good challenge :)