You won’t always be a student, trainee, or beginner. Expertise comes from knowing your skills and constantly trying to improve, says Atma Ivancevic.
Last year, a friend of mine was applying for highly competitive PhD scholarships at Oxford, Cambridge and EMBL-EBI. She spent countless hours filling in applications, going through interviews, getting rejected and trying again. This process was tough – especially because she almost always made it into the final round. It was a learning experience for all of us.
One day, she bounced into the lab, half-dancing from excitement. Her interview panel had told her, as part of their feedback, that she should “think bigger — you won’t always be inexperienced”. She saw herself as a PhD applicant; they saw a leader, volunteer, programmer and scientist. They saw her potential, not her position, and were eager to find out what she would achieve. She hadn’t realized that would factor into the interview.
As a student, it’s easy to see a gap between yourself and your supervisors. You think, “they have years of experience”, “they know what they’re doing”, or worse, “they never make mistakes”. It’s a safety blanket of sorts: you’re allowed to seek guidance and rely on more experienced colleagues to make important decisions. There’s something oddly reassuring about knowing that you don’t really know much at all.
But this “beginner” mentality can make it hard to move onto the next phase of your career. Last year, I came to the startling realization that my time as a student was finally over. Postdocs are expected to drive the lab by bringing their own trademark of local expertise. It’s a surreal feeling, speaking as the “expert” in a room of accomplished scientists when internally you’re accustomed to being a novice. This feeling is so common it has a name (and a hashtag): Imposter Syndrome.
A large part of becoming a scientist is realizing that yes, you do know things. Your opinion should count. Accept the fact that you do have skills, and it took a lot of hard work to get to where you are now. Are you the best in the world at what you do? Probably not. Will you ever be the best in the world? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, your very particular set of skills can set you up nicely for a fruitful career.
In the spirit of making New Year’s resolutions, take a moment to evaluate your strengths and look for tangible ways to quickly improve. You know better than anyone else what you excel at. How can you build on existing skills? For example:
I can write. How can I write better?
- Practice writing consistently until it becomes a daily habit.
- Freelance for blogs and associations.
- Start a blog or website — choose a topic you’re passionate about and advertise it publicly, so that you’re accountable to your followers for regular updates.
- Read more. This is probably the most important.
I can publish papers. How can I publish papers better?
- Stay up to date on the latest papers in your field. You could use Twitter, Reddit, magazine subscriptions — whatever works for you and is easily accessible.
- Start writing up before the experiment is complete — try to finish the Introduction, Methods, Supplementary and list bullet points for possible Results.
- Enforce a quick turn-around time between manuscript drafts. Don’t be afraid of sending multiple emails to slow co-authors — most people don’t mind a gentle reminder.
- Review other people’s papers. If you’re a PhD candidate or junior postdoc, ask senior colleagues to recommend you as a reviewer the next time they’re unavailable.
The key is to recognize things that you’re already capable of doing, and figure out small steps that will help you improve. Experience comes purely through practice. If you want to be a writer, start by writing a paragraph a day. If you want to be a scientist, immerse yourself in the field and start asking questions. Remember that every expert was once a beginner. Chances are, if you persevere with something for long enough, you’ll eventually become pretty good at it.
Atma Ivancevic is an aspiring writer and perspiring scientist. She works at the Adelaide Medical School in South Australia, using bioinformatics to investigate junk DNA and neurological disorders. You can connect with her on Twitter, ResearchGate or LinkedIn.
Her friend Brittany is now a PhD candidate at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, saving the world with bioinformatics and immunology.