One of the most challenging aspects we face in academia is how to measure our self-worth. On top of the constant amount of work we deal with, this further burden can make us feel like we are misinterpreting what we have to do to be “that exceptional”. So, when it comes to comparing ourselves to others, it is natural to feel inferior, or inadequate even. Ultimately, our confidence is what suffers from it, both from an individual and a collective point of view. In the second part of her series of essays, Alice discusses how her relationship with self-worth and competition affected her confidence during her PhD.
As discussed in Part 1, not having quantifiable feedback on my progress constituted a significant part of my worries. Nevertheless, the official milestones were symbolized by progress reports. As much as I wanted them to represent a quantitative estimate to refer to, they just did not. They turned out to be more of relative opinions than something closer to marks, serving more as personal criticism than objective viewpoints on my research. While the outcomes of my reports were not great, it was difficult to see them as related to my work alone: in my head, the automatic response was to translate “this is not good enough” to “you are not good enough”.
When a job becomes this engrossing, projecting the self in the work we do becomes an automatic subconscious behaviour: this is what I do, therefore this is what I am. Consequently, when I was faced with this kind of criticism, I started to pick up more and more tasks, as if this would make my personal value worthy of better judgement. I was willing to work on more projects, organising events, or helping people with their research. I would say yes to everything that could help me feel useful. My confidence was intertwined with the amount of work I was willing to take on.
As a result, not only was I a slave to increasing amounts of work, but I was also losing focus due to the spiral of worries I got myself into. The fact that I took on many tasks was not helping with the stress of carrying out every single task. Indeed, this kind of stress was targeting my self-worth, inducing me to consider taking on even more work. Clearly, this system was due to collapse. In no way this circle of implications was sustainable in the long term. Again, it took me a considerable amount of time to re-evaluate the unsustainable approach I set for myself.
As much as in the moment it made sense in my head, in retrospect I could acknowledge that my self-worth had not improved due to the amount of work that I was able to carry out. Most importantly, the value I thought I would have earned with this overworking strategy was non-existent: I did not earn any medal for having endured all of the efforts. The increasingly stressful pace I set on myself just made me more insecure, directing the worries the wrong way. What I needed to improve was not my self-worth: I needed to let myself fail before I could understand how to improve and feel like a valuable researcher.
As part of a community of researchers, it is natural to put our peers on the other side of the scale. It is equally natural to feel like we are falling behind them: we are frequently surrounded by exceptional researchers, some of whom make it seem so effortless to live in such a stressful environment.
We constantly need to be in contact with people in our research field, but despite how enriching the experience can be, it can also represent a further source of self-doubt. In a particularly competitive field, there is a certain urge to prove we are proficient, which in some instances can turn into an unpleasant experience. I was considerably put off by these attitudes, especially because they represented a threat to my self-worth: why didn’t I know that, why couldn’t I do that? Therefore, I would always try to refrain from directly comparing myself to other researchers: avoiding social interaction served as a self-defence mechanism to prevent constantly feeling unprepared, consequently getting back to the aforementioned loop.
However, confrontation is part of the progress too, especially when dealing with research. As much as I dreaded it, avoiding it was both unhelpful and impossible. So, it was important to learn how to turn these episodes into constructive experiences, rather than live in constant unease. Moreover, the lack of a universal measurement for this imaginary scale we construct in our head makes most of these worries fictitious. For instance, finding a comparison measurement for the respective backgrounds, projects, and personalities is not feasible.
Nevertheless, from this point of view, working in a competitive environment can be advantageous: it is more motivating to see this imaginary gap as an opportunity for improvement rather than an insuperable obstacle. There are many people we can learn something from. And, surprisingly enough, sometimes people might want to learn something from us too.
To be continued…
How do you deal with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Alice Cuzzucoli is a mathematician, book hoarder and film enthusiast. She completed her PhD in Pure Mathematics specialising in Algebraic Geometry at the University of Warwick. You can contact her via email at email@example.com or follow what she’s reading on Goodreads.