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Imposter Syndrome by Laura Cassels

A guide to surviving imposter syndrome in science

I sat there, completely intimidated, terrified. I stared at them, zipping through experiments with ease; laughing and arguing fluently in scientific language I wasn’t yet familiar with. Surely he had made a mistake in inviting me to do a PhD? Everyone in the lab had impressive CVs and an incredible knowledge base. The post-docs were extraordinarily experienced, the PhD students seemed like young post-docs, and the PI was (literally) referred to as the rock-star of neuroscience. I was so scared I wouldn’t be good enough to be part of the group. They would surely figure me out eventually and then would come a chase with pitch forks and fire. Or maybe a Bunsen burner and scalpel as we are talking about a 21st century laboratory.

20150604_093946Before joining the lab, after I first received an offer, I had all of these thoughts. Was I good enough to join this group? Or would I just continuously fail, feel awful and drop out? In the end I committed myself and jumped in. What was a PhD anyway if not the chance to challenge myself? I mean, maybe my insecurities were unfounded and with time I would become more confident?

It’s now been 15 months and I still sit in meetings and panic. Actually, despite being shocked by the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt about women in science, I have to shamefully admit that I have (in private) already shed a few tears of frustration in the past year. Why?

Well luckily for me it turns out that a lot of scientists feel the same way. In fact I discovered through several late nights at work that my colleagues who intimidated me originally, it turns out, are intimidated by me too. It’s a well-known phenomenon in academia called the “imposter syndrome”. So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I have learnt a couple of things that can help to battle this wee beastie:Untitled

  1. You are not alone in feeling like a fraud.

Every single academic I’ve met has said they have felt the same, from post docs in Buenos Aires to China, from the PhDs in the US to Italy. It’s a universal epidemic. If everyone feels the same that means even your role model is thinking this from time to time. That means that if you have particularly nice colleagues you can take solace in sharing your woes and giving each other a boost, or by reminding yourself from time to time that even the most smug, know-it-all will have this fear.

  1. Why did I feel intimidated?

Academia, by definition, is a work environment filled with incredibly talented people. No matter what subject you are in the fact is that you are never going to know everything. But the beauty of doing a PhD is the amazing opportunity you have to learn from the worlds brightest. Every day you are learning something new and it’s inspiring. Remind yourself why these people are intimidating to you, and then realise that someone saw the potential in you to at least become one of these people, if you aren’t already.

  1. Why did you start a PhD in the first place?

I guess you’re looking at this because you’re either on, or considering doing a PhD. That means you have some passion to learn about your subject. If you knew everything already then there IMG-20150627-WA0000would be no point in you undertaking a PhD in the first place. It’s a training program for a reason. Accepting that each time you don’t understand or don’t know the answer is an opportunity to learn is tough, but it comes with time.

Being honest, I used to research SO MUCH before a simple catch up meeting with my supervisor. I would freak out and get so anxious. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or to look stupid and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one day he said to me “It’s okay, you’re here to learn,” after I had made a particularly embarrassing mistake. Your supervisor and colleagues don’t expect you to know everything, just to try your best and be enthusiastic about your work.

  1. Embrace mistakes.

Make numerous mistakes, not failures. Why? Because 20150625_095658mistakes are valuable lessons. Months of failed experiments (that’s not an over exaggeration) remind me that if my experiments all went smoothly I would probably make an utterly useless post doc. I’d never know how to trouble shoot or tweak experiments. I’d never know how to think outside the box. If everything was going 100% perfect you’re probably doing something wrong without realising it, which is worse if you think about it.

  1. Talk to non-academic or non-scientific loved ones. Seriously. Do it right now.

Two months ago my experiments weren’t going great and I was feeling a little un-enamoured with my research. I was in a funk. I met with an actor friend and when he asked what I was doing my research on, I bashfully shrugged it off as boring compared to his glamorous lifestyle. After his insistence, I explained and his eyes lit up and he shouted “that’s SO cool!”.

You forget how novel the idea oIMG-20150703-WA0002f manipulating DNA in cells is when you’re amongst scientists, but to someone else it’s fantasy from a sci-fi movie involving ugly aliens and Tom cruise. My parents, enthusiastic little dears, hang my past conference posters in the house and from time to time I’ll let them come into the lab. It’s always a massive pick me up to remember why you fell in love with science in the first place and see it through a new pair of eyes.

  1. Look back at past reports.

It sounds ridiculous but if you see some of your past work from your undergraduate years you will see how far you have come in such a short space of time. Cut yourself some slack and remember that in three years time, during your post doc you will look back at your PhD self and feel the same way. It is a learning process that takes time, but you will get there.

 

Laura Cassels, Wellcome Trust PhD Student
(Prof. Yves Barde’s Group)
Cardiff School of Biosciences

Mummy, Mortgage and Mature (ish) Student – Gemma Harrison-Thornton

I’ve been thinking about writing a “blog” for a while, but finding time to even go to the toilet is difficult in my situation, so sitting down to type something pleasurable became a sort of fantasy; a nice thing to think about on my commute to university. Yet, the urgency to write about my experiences has been increasing and I vowed to myself I would do it! I was then reminded by my partner of six years ( I thought it was five years but after some careful memory recall and calculation it’s actually six years in May that we met!) that there is a certain irony to writing a blog about the intricacies of juggling being a mum, having a house and being a student. Unfortunately he is right…. Firstly, because the purpose of this spiel is to highlight how being a working mum is an extremely busy role with “downtime” being a thing of the past.

IMG_0001By the end of the day there is little fuel left in the hypothetical tank,   other than to crawl into bed with the intention of watching a happy, ‘don’t have to think about anything’ programme with my partner, yet usually falling asleep within about three minutes. The good thing about my situation is that I usually sleep very well – the kind of sleep I associate with being dead. I feel this may need a little more explanation…you sleep without dreaming, without remembering falling asleep without stirring, until you wake up and wonder where the time has gone. That kind of sleep. When I get the chance, I’m pretty good at that (thank goodness!) Needless to say the opportunity to sleep like I’m dead is rare with our four year old (soon to be five…where has the time gone?!) son. We had a pretty good routine going with regards to bedtime, until we went on holiday and I wanted him to sleep in with us for safety reasons. Since that holiday in 2013 He has slept in our bed every night. The routine is rather hilarious when I think about it/ write it down. Noah has to start his sleep journey in our bed. When he falls asleep we have to wait for a little while to move him into his own bed, because if he wakes up then we have no chance of getting him there. Once he’s in his own bed, I quickly jump into my own bed to enjoy a couple of hours of space…because Noah then comes back into our bed for the remainder of the night. This means that I spend the rest of night dangling off the edge of the bed with a small corner of the duvet for warmth! On these occasions, when sleep is off the cards, I often think back to the days when I was first at Uni and would come home for about 4pm and get straight into bed to watch countdown. I would fall in and out of sleep as I when I felt like it…often staying up late because I didn’t have to worry about lack of sleep. Nowadays, I’m preoccupied with getting to bed as quick as I can to get as much interrupted sleep as possible before the nightly ‘routine’ commences.

So, some contextual background (forgive the academic terminology). I am a twenty-eight year old woman; I have a four year old son, a partner, a cat and a sausage dog. I am also a full-time PhD student. I feel extremely privileged to have been awarded funding to undertake my research and having the opportunity to do something that I am passionate about. Of course, everyone who has done or is doing any form of study will know, there are always peaks and troughs in the journey, times of high stress and overwhelming guilt. Guilt which is not only associated with being a working mum but also guilt about not getting enough words on paper (or rather word document)! As I’m sure will resonate with many of you, the prevailing feeling in my emotional bank is guilt. Added to this is a dollop of worry, flavoured with relief (at making it through the day) happiness (that I’m managing being mum and student at the same time and most of the time do it well) and contentment at the end of that long day when the house is calm (but always untidy!!! NOT DIRTY)

IMG_2866So a day in the life of being mum, partner and student goes something like this…. I always feel like I’ve done a day’s work before I get to university, resulting in the need to lie down in the common room with a cup of tea before any creativity can begin! A morning alarm clock is never needed; Noah is up in plenty of time. I negotiate breakfast for Noah (and Bunty and Vegas), while pulling washing out of machine, re loading it, emptying and re filling the tumble dryer. I do make myself a cup of tea and carry it from room to room taking sips when I can, although it usually ends up cold. I have a shower, get myself ready and then negotiate getting Noah ready. Now this is not an easy task. Noah, although a very bright young chap, is not a big fan of school. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the education side; he just wants to be with me at home. He is very good at making my heart strings pang and the guilt gates open. “Mummy why do you have to go work?”, “Mummy can I come to work with you?”, “Mummy don’t go to work I’ll miss you too much and my heart will hurt”, “Is it the weekend yet?” …just some of the statements my son says to me on a morning. My standard response to this is you know mummy has to go to work so that I can pay for nice things for us”, “If I go to work we can afford to go on holiday”, ” mummy can afford to buy you birthday presents and pay for swimming”. This final statement usually does the trick. So I drop Noah off to school, and then drop Bunty off at my Bampis (Welsh for grandfather). It is at this time, I take a deep breath, a sip of my tea in my travelling mug and a long drag on my e cigarette. This is one of the nicest feelings in the world. I begin my journey to Uni. Now this is a very interesting part of the day. I do a lot of my thinking in the car. I start writing paragraphs In my head, and if I think of something good I record myself or if I hear an interesting word on the radio I record it! I always wonder if anyone does this…I know I’ll forget it by the time I get to Cardiff otherwise. I wish these thoughts would come to me when I’m sitting at my desk trying to write!!

Now driving back and fore to Uni has its ups and downs. It’s been great for getting some down time before and after Uni; an opportunity to have an hour with myself uninterrupted and a chance to catch up on Radio’s 4 Woman’s Hour (yes since starting my PhD I have become a self confessed Radio 4 addict). However, I have witnessed some of the most extraordinary driving. As the months have passed doing this commute and negotiating the M4 I have decided to take a more laid back approach to other drivers. They were driving me nuts (no pun intended!), so much so that the commute to work was putting me in a bad mood – I was having to de brief with colleagues in the office before I could get down to any work. On a daily basis I gave myself a pat on the back for making it to work in one piece!

IMG_2205

So, how do I negotiate my time to ensure that I am first and foremost mum to my little boy while keeping the house in a habitable state and getting down to studying? The answer to this question is easy for me! I have a rock solid support network and parents and in laws who adore our son and love to spend time with him. My mum is my wing man. Not one day has gone by where my mum has not helped me – practically and emotionally.   There is not enough space to write down the things she has done for me and my family and I am eternally grateful to her for supporting me to pursue my dreams (I can’t help but be soppy when writing about my mum!). I am also extremely lucky that I get most of our ironing done by my mum and my partners mum! In my defense I am useless at ironing – I have ruined many clothes in the process! So for the sake of my partner and sons appearance (in school and work) this arrangement is helpful for all involved! I don’t want readers to think that the only way to negotiate this situation is by having amazing support…because I know for a fact that there are many students who do all these jobs by themselves and do it well. I have tremendous appreciation for those who pursue their dreams whatever their circumstances, and it is this point I want to finish on. There have been a few people who have said to me things like “I don’t know how you do it!”, “when do you find the time?” and “maybe you should have waited until your son was older! I just laugh out loud (literally lol) and say “It’s easy!!!!!”…The look on their faces is priceless!

Gemma Harrison-Thornton,

PhD student, Cardiff University

The Little Engine That Could – Judith Benbow

Hi Everyone,

My name is Judith Benbow  and I am in the School of Healthcare Sciences; based at Ty Dewi Sant. My research is a mixed methods study exploring resilience in front-line nurses in Wales; I am interested in what enables nurses to develop resilience.

Just like in the story “The Little Engine That Could”, many nurses keep chugging up the hill traversing what seems to be impossible challenges in order to get to the top. I am exploring how these nurses negotiate these challenges to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering quality, individualised, compassionate care.

the-little-engine-that-could
If you are not familiar with story of  the little blue engine you may want to click on the link and enjoy some inspiration for your studies.

The Little Engine That Could

Good Luck everyone!
Judith

An Introduction to Marybeth Smith

Hello,

It’s often the case when you work in a large company or institution that you find yourself contacting people whom you’ve never actually met … sometimes even asking them for work! Although I’ve been covering Research administrative duties since the end of November 2013, and I’ve been in post officially since February 2014, it’s still not been possible to meet everyone in PGR. So if I haven’t met you yet, please accept my apologies and allow me to introduce myself …M Smith_pic_PhDays

 

Research Support Officer
My job is Research Support Officer, providing administrative support (or professional services) to the Research and PGR section. The Research support team is still coming together and there is work to be done on clarifying responsibilities and procedures. But in practice, I can assist with:
• Admissions queries
• SIMS queries
• Academic regulations pertaining to PGR degree studies
• Enrolment and Induction information
• Monitoring reviews process – forms, deadlines, required work, organisation of meetings
• Thesis submission and Viva
• Staff-student query organisation
• Finance and equipment queries – as a first point of contact, refer to other departments
• Liaison with UGC, Grad Centre about training and funding opportunities and events
• Letters (of reference, permission to travel, confirmation of registration, etc.)

I’ve actually worked for the School for 18 months, having joined the School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies (SONMS) in November 2012 as an Admissions Assistant (Undergraduate and PGT). Prior to that, from 2005-2010, I worked in the Schools of European Studies, Architecture, and Physics & Astronomy, primarily in Postgraduate.
Quite a lot has changed over that time — virtual learning and working environments, increased collaboration, paperless processes, etc.–and processes and procedures can vary considerably even across Schools within the University.

But much remains the same – especially in the structure of PGR degrees and in the particular nature of working relationships amongst students and members of staff (academic and administrative). And much has also improved. I’ve seen how facilities, resources and opportunities (both academic and social) have expanded for research students over the past decade. Right now we’re looking forward to the expansion in Eastgate House, which will include new and dedicated facilities and space for PGR/Research.

One thing which cannot be emphasised enough is that students need to take charge of their degrees and take advantage of the resources available in the School and throughout the University. In the coming months, we hope that the PGR community will grow and become even more active and engaged in shaping the PGR experience within the School.

Autobiography:

  • Resident in UK since 2004
  • Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA)
  • First trip abroad – to Ireland, six weeks in July/ August (high school trip) – my first lesson in understanding that the British Isles don’t really have a ‘summer’
  • First trip to the UK — study abroad semester at the School of English and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norfolk 1993 (when Britpop was sweeping the nation)
  • First degree – BA English and history (concentrations in English language/linguistics and medieval literature/history) from Temple University in Philadelphia (a city campus, like Cardiff). Studied Old English and Latin (also know a bit of German and Spanish). Worked in a bakery, a coffee shop, a department store, catering company, and a book store.
  • Further studies — I’ve since done some Postgraduate studies (not yet completed) at Cardiff University in Medieval British Studies. Main interests – early medieval (Anglo-Saxon and Celt) period literature, archaeology, church history.
  • First real job — corporate communications assistant (General Accident Insurance); since then, I’ve been employed in editorial and marketing for an academic publisher (Harcourt); content management for a software start-up (Kenexa); editing, production and project management for a proposal production group (KPMG Consulting ); and as a freelance writing/editing.
  • Taught English to employees of SanofiPharma in Montpellier, France for a semester internship.
  • Own a bass guitar, guitar and a metal detector – not yet proficient in any of them!
  • Hobbies, interests and side projects– writing; genealogy/genetics and social history research; archaeology; travel; live music (Globe, Cardiff Students Union), performances (WNO, Cardiff Philharmonic, RWCMD, etc.) and theatre; books and film;hill walking;visiting heritage sites; lectures and workshops (Cardiff Lifelong Learning does some great ones, but there are history and civic societies as well as national heritage sites that also deliver worthwhile talks); photography.
  • Pets – currently, one tortoiseshell cat named Olwen whom I found living in the garden of my first home in Cardiff 10 years ago
  • Current challenges – growing veg, learning to drive, cycling

Hope to see you soon.

Marybeth Smith