Friday, January 16, 2015

Unexpected Lessons in Grad School, Part One: Confidence Matters

Now that I'm halfway through my second year as a PhD student, and recently submitted a fellowship application describing My Thesis Project and My Intended Scientific Training, I’ve been reflecting on the first 1.5 years of grad school and making a list of What I’ve Learned So Far (and/or Am Still Learning).  Some of the items on my list were unsurprising, such as:

1) Developing some broad understanding of neuroscience and a more in-depth understanding of my narrower research field;
2) Two-photon imaging (which, by the way, is awesome), some MATLAB programming, and various other experiment-related techniques;
3) How to read papers more efficiently and critically;
4) Grant-writing;
5) Presentation and teaching skills;
6) The importance of strong mentorship;
6) The necessity of unwavering support from family and friends, plus lots of tea and dessert (and some wine).

But as generally happens in life, several other lessons were unforeseen, and gave rise to new personal goals.  I thought I’d write about them as a series of three blog posts, this being the first.

Lesson one: The power of confidence is very real.  

In my years before grad school, it repeatedly struck me that because I tended to be comfortable speaking in group settings (in med school, those were typically the Problem-Based Learning or Doctoring groups), I was frequently perceived as being a highly competent student.  In reality, my comfort level with participation in discussions or with public speaking didn’t necessarily reflect my mastery of lecture material.  Even so, it was clear to me how an appearance of confidence could create an assumption of competence.

During both college and med school, measures of progress and achievement are frequent and often externally defined in the form of exams, essays, or short-term projects (such as preparing a piece of music for performance).  But in grad school, competence is less concretely defined on short time scales.  There are classes, sure, and having a knowledge base in neuroscience is clearly important for becoming a neuroscientist, but successful completion of classes isn’t remotely sufficient to make a good scientist.  Instead, scientific competence has much more to do with creativity and innovation, ability to understand the literature and also see beyond it, ability to design and re-design experiments, project management and trouble-shooting skills, ability to work well with colleagues and advisors, and a whole lot of perseverance.  In theory, one develops and/or solidifies these attributes over the course of a PhD and then further develops toward being an “independent investigator” during a post-doctoral fellowship.

It turns out that although these metrics of competence may be very different from the metrics before grad school, the connection between outward confidence and perceived competence – and the potential disconnect with actual competence – is just as strong.  If you asked me whether I am a competent scientist, my answer would be “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”  I am reasonably sure of my potential for becoming a productive and capable scientist, but I’m also near-constantly and sometimes painfully aware that I still have so much learning and growing before I get there.  My self-doubts about being very much “in training” can seep into what I project externally, and since confidence and self-advocacy often go hand in hand, my doubts could definitely affect not just how I am perceived, but also the opportunities that I seek or am offered.

Especially when it comes to rectifying a weakness or learning a skill that is very necessary for my research, such as MATLAB programming, I tend to feel insecure until I feel that I've achieved enough competence in that skill.  But how would I define “enough competence”?  In the past year I’ve had to recognize that I may never achieve the level of mastery that I would ideally possess for any given skill, that there will always be scientists who have years more experience and ability than I, and that my own benchmark of competence will constantly shift as my training progresses and my research pursuits evolve.  That the target is moving doesn’t mean that I’m not making solid progress, progress about which I should be confident, because my incremental progress will still enable me to produce solid science in my own right.  Thus, I am trying to redefine my conception of competence to include the effort I expend and the progress I make, and to hold more confidence as a result.

Goal: To develop greater confidence in my abilities and progress, while working hard to constantly improve my competence as a scientist.

P.S. Based on what I’ve heard from other grad students, this process of navigating our scientific and personal development is fraught with insecurities for everyone, whether we are outwardly assertive or not, and so I sense that this first goal is shared by many of my peers.

There have also been some interesting media discussions related to this subject.  The specific topic of how confidence and competence relate to gender, and possibly to success, was explored in-depth in a fascinating and provocative article published in The Atlantic last May: "The Confidence Gap" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  More on gender in a future post.