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...


  1. A good researcher is a state of mind more than it is a list of publications, esp. at the beginning of one's research career. Are you inquisitive? Do you ask good questions? Do you develop sound methodology to seek out the answers to your questions? Do you learn from your mistakes? Becoming a good researcher also takes time.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post. I struggle with these issues, too.

    My understanding is that as your career progresses, you start to shift from seeking external praise/approval for your science to comparing your progress to internal goals. When you're scientifically younger (pre-PhD) you need the input from others who have more experience and savvy, but by the time you're a PhD, you should be able to set your own goals of achievement. What do you want to accomplish for yourself? What is your judgement of your own work? I think that's all that matters at this point.

  3. Some of those things you are suggesting CE seem to describe someone just with the potential to be a good researcher. I'm more worried about whether I am turning that potential into reality. I guess Sara is right and I am at a point where I am moving from seeking external approval to learning to trust my own appraisals of my work.

  4. What makes a good researcher, and how can you tell if you are one?

    I don't know the answer to this one apart from getting feedback from peers on whether your ideas and approaches are good/valid. If you haven't already seen it, check out this article. (Schwartz, M.A., Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771, 2008.) Might help put things in perspective a little bit.

  5. I have read and liked that article, but it bears re-reading. Thanks :)