Stress in Research. Part V: If you really are an Impostor, then it's not a Syndrome

By Charles Sutton on September 3, 2018
As you know, there isn’t really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.
Zadie Smith

The final post of a series on stress in research.

A nice way to end this series would be to talk about impostor syndrome, but I’m the wrong person to write that blog, because I don’t think that I’ve ever literally felt like an impostor. My self-doubt comes out in a different way.

I’ll need to get a bit more personal, but an important warning first. If you are currently serving on a committee that is considering whether to offer me a new job, promotion, prize, or award, please can you stop reading now. Thank you.

My self-doubt comes out like this. I am secretly convinced that I am not good enough.

We have already discussed how the Tournament of Research is public. So I can see the accomplishments of those who have surpassed me in the Tournament, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to compete.

I can see how quickly the field is moving, and how many new ideas are being introduced every few weeks, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to keep up.

I can see the pressing problems that our research field is facing. I secretly doubt whether I am clever enough to create new ideas that are subtle enough to solve these tricky problems. I doubt whether I am good enough to create the kind of work that I would like to create.

This series of articles has had three themes: one theoretical, one practical, and one psychological. The theoretical insight is that the research community is structured in a way to grow and foster your self-doubt, and it succeeds in almost all of us. Self-doubt is, therefore, not your fault. More practically, self-talk can be a good way to continue doing good work in the face of self doubt. The psychological theme has been on the role of ego in research: necessary, but always carrying the dangers of jealousy and doubt. Combining the final two themes, the last advice I will give about self-doubt is about using self-talk to manage your ego.

A lot of advice suggests fighting self-doubt with positive self-talk: “I really am good enough! I belong here!” Try this and see if it helps you. Different strategies will work for different people. For me, positive self-talk does not seem to help; it is too hard for me for disregard the objective evidence that there really are people out there who are better than me.

So instead of reaffirming my ego, I use self-talk to deny my ego. I push my thoughts away from myself, and towards the tasks in front of me, which are easy to get excited about, and then the fear goes away. Imagine an actor, petrified with fear while waiting to go on, who once onstage and forced to perform, slips into the role without effort or doubt. I try to feel like that when I sit down to my laptop. Said another way: People report the fear that they are an impostor. But it does not matter what you are, it matters what you do.

Because, in the end, none of the dark thoughts matter. I am inadequate, I am not good enough, and it does not matter. It does not matter because all the doubts, all the dark thoughts, are self centered claptrap, exercises in destructive solipsism. The doubts are all about me, but when it comes to work, how I feel is unimportant.

It does not matter how good I am.

As long as I love the work that I do, and people are willing to pay me to do it,

As long as I continue to learn through my work, to learn from my students, colleagues, and collaborators, at the same time that they seem to be learning from me,

As long as I can see new directions for my work, to expand my knowledge and perhaps others’ as well,

As long as there is a chance, even a slim one, that I can create something that will change the way people think, or in a small way, improve the way the world works,

As long as I can do all this, it does not matter how good I am. As long as there remains much to do, I am going to try to do it, whether I am good enough or not.

Even if I reach the end of my career, and never do something that ever fully matches my ambitions, my work will have accomplished something, even if indirectly and in a small way. I have had the privilege to participate in the worldwide, centuries-long conversation of the community of scholars. And this larger conversation has made a difference, I am sure, even if my own part has been small. I have been part of the life of the research community, preserving, growing, and sharing knowledge. That is enough to make my professional life worthwhile, even after all the papers that I’ve written have faded into obscurity.

And that’s how I deal with self doubt.

Ill-Judged Britishness, and Self-Deprecation within a Power Dynamic

By Charles Sutton on August 5, 2018

I really should know better. Twice now, I’ve done this to myself. I was a social event with one of my PhD students, like a party during a conference, where I was introducing them to a colleague. Feeling relaxed after a beer or two, I attempted an ill-judged joke, “So-and-so has the misfortune of being one of my students.”

Often that type of humour works well for me, and is enjoyed all around. Well, maybe I’m not perceptive enough to tell if anyone else enjoys it, but I do.

The misfortunate joke never works, though. Both times the student turned and looked at me like I had three heads. Why would I say something like that about myself? Why would being my PhD student be a bad thing?

The second time this happened, I at least maintained enough poise to explain myself. “Nothing to worry about,” I said quietly to my student. “I’m just feeling a bit British.”

“How?”

“Self-deprecation,” I said.

“Oh, of course.” Immediate understanding.

Stress in Research. Part IV: A Tsunami of Logistics

By Charles Sutton on July 7, 2018

The fourth in a tidal wave of posts about stress in research.

Here’s a source of stress for people who have gotten a bit more senior in their careers, like new professors or managers.

On a previous post in the series, a colleague commented:

What gets me is the daily tsunami of logistics: questions that need responses, decisions that have to be made, scheduling, and millions of small deadlines.

Every new professor mentions this. If senior professors complain about this less often, perhaps it is because they are simply better at ignoring questions that need responses. More on that later.

Making decisions is stressful for those who lack the training or personality. A PhD trains you to think deeply and carefully about an issue. Scientifically speaking, you want to reserve judgment when you don’t have all of the information, not go ahead and make a snap decision anyway. As an administrator, though, sometimes that is exactly what you must do. Maybe the thing that stresses me the most, though, is when I inevitably fall behind the tsunami, I hate the feeling that I’m letting people down. This feeling is actually one of the things that bothers me most about academia, even though I’m well aware that if I did spend all of my time attending to logistics promptly, I would still be letting people down, in a deeper way.

The logistics tsunami is, like all tsunamis, perilous. The obvious danger is that you spend so much time sending emails like a tired diplomat that you lose your time for work that requires deeper thought. Your ability to do deep work is why you won your job in the first place, so not doing it once you’ve reached a higher level is not so great.

The logistics tsunami brings another, more insidious danger. This danger is not about losing your time but losing your mind. Your unconscious mind, I mean. A lot of our most important thinking happens unconsciously, our brains churning in the background while our focus is elsewhere, until the wonderful moment when a thought finally pops into our consciousness, like Athena in the mind of Zeus. For me, this usually happens when I’m walking. For you, it might be in the shower, or when you are sitting with your coffee. I really like the way that Female Science Professor talks about your brain on administration. When you start doing too much administration, the tsunami starts to take over your unconscious mind, and the wonderful ideas that pop up start to be about what you can spend a tiny slice of your grant budget on, or how to phrase that sensitive email, instead of what to write your next paper about. This is the most terrible danger.

I have now delayed for too long the part of the blog where I explain my optimistic but wise, surprising but helpful, advice on how to manage the tsunami. I am afraid that I must report that the delay didn’t help me come up with any better ideas. All I can say is

  • When you have many decisions, you must decide quickly. This is the secret that good decider-people know that you and I don’t. Me, I like to mull over things. Then by the time I actually make a decision, I know I’m sure, so I feel a lot better about it. That’s OK for big decisions, but not so good for deciding whether you want to meet tomorrow at 1pm or 2pm. When it doesn’t really matter, wrap up the matter quickly.

  • Learn how to partition your time. Deep thinking requires uninterrupted blocks of time. These are hard to find, but you must. I think that the optimal block size varies from person to person. Some people split things up by day. You could have “teaching days”, “admin days”, “research days”, and so on. Some people enforce no-meeting days. Some people will work Sundays, but only on research. Some people don’t check email before 4PM. Some people send lots of emails late at night because they’re tired anyway. I don’t split things up by day, because I like to do small tasks when I get tired from concentrating. I make sure to schedule meetings back to back, to try to keep blocks of time for deeper work.

  • Protect the time when you are most creative. When you go to partition your time, you’ll want to remember what time of day you are most creative and have the most energy. That is the time that you need to reserve for the most creative work. If people often drop by your office — we all love an open door policy — then this is the time to not be in your office.

  • Make good use of odd chunks of time. As much as we bemoan smartphones, they shine at this. If you only have 10 minutes until your next meeting, the tsunami will happily offer you things that take only 10 minutes to do. To be an effective professor, you need to play Tetris with time.

  • You need a to-do list. If you know about things you need to do that aren’t written down, a part of your unconscious will repeat them over and over, so you don’t forget. You have many more important jobs for your unconscious mind than that. I like the principles behind the Getting Things Done system very much, although my practice is distinctly imperfect.

  • Find a fast way to schedule meetings. Really a special case of the first principle. If you spend 20 hours a week in meetings, it’s easy to spend a couple hours a week arranging meetings. You need to make arranging a time as simple as possible, using whatever tools work for you. For example, I have my Google calendar hooked up to Doodle, so when an administrator sends out a Doodle poll, I can respond in one click. Some online calendars have features for creating appointment slots. Some people publish their free/busy schedule publicly. Whatever works for you.

  • Know when “good enough” is good enough. The easiest way to get more things done is to spend less time doing each thing. Your research requires certain habits of mind, careful and precise thought, perhaps. I guarantee you that this level of clarity and precision is not required for your emails. Jenny Pickerill has a nice Twitter thread on satisficing as a professor. Satisficing is more painful for tasks that are more central to our mission. Any university class can be made 20% better at the cost of twice as much prep time — don’t do it. (I received this advice, second hand, from an award-winning lecturer!) I’m not saying that you should be puzzling out your colleague’s slides for the first time in front of the class, either. You need to find something in the middle, and the same goes for the service that you do inside and outside of the university.

Social Skills in Context, or How being a Professor is Kind of Like Being a Mafia Hitman

By Charles Sutton on June 1, 2018

Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero was a fearsome Mafia hitman in New York in the 70s. According to an undercover FBI agent who knew him well, he was smart and savvy in underworld situations. He could walk into a restaurant where he knew no one, watch who talked to who, watch how they talked, and work out who was in the underworld, who received more deference, whether the restaurant was being extorted.

In other situations, a different story. The FBI agent, Joseph Pistone, was himself an incredibly perceptive observer (if he wasn’t, he’d have been murdered). He reports:

A lot of these wiseguys did not have the ability to move around the country. Once you got these guys out of New York City, they were like fish out of water.... As they schooled me in the mafia, I had to school them on how to make airline reservations. I am talking about a 49-year-old man, telling him how to make airline reservations to three different cities, with an open return, because we did not know what date we were going to return to New York City.
Joseph Pistone Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

Of course I was immediately reminded of computer science research. In research situations, I think of myself as reasonably socially aware: I have a network of mentors, students, and collaborators; I can meet new colleagues and have interesting technical discussions; I can even navigate the occasional difficult conversation when the need arises.

But outside of work, I can be a bit more awkward, or at least that’s what my wife says.

We stereotype technical people as having low social skills, and I’ll admit knowing people who fully meet that stereotype. The Mafia hitman reminds us that social skills are context specific: you can be savvy in one type of situation, and clueless in another. “Social skills” aren’t a single skill, any more than intellectual skills are.

And the term implies something else. Social skills are skills. You can learn them. And it is in the interests of your career to do so.

Stress in Research. Part III: The Trouble about Freedom

By Charles Sutton on May 5, 2018

The third post in what is becoming an increasingly long series on stress in research.

I joked before that there’s no reason researchers should feel stress: how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning? But more seriously, this flexibility is itself a source of stress.

Academics don’t really have bosses, despite what our senior leadership sometimes seem to think. We do have a head of department, of course, but the relationship isn’t like having a supervisor. I don’t have weekly meetings with my department head to report my progress on my current projects. And I would never go to my head of department and say I’ve got too much to do, can she tell me how I should prioritize my workload so that I focus on tasks that are most important to the University. The very idea is laughable.

Instead of having a boss, we have sources of work. Students from our own university and around the world ask us if we can supervise their research projects. We review and comment on reports from our own students. We are asked to evaluate finished PhD theses from students at other universities, in our own country and worldwide. Funding agencies from our country and others ask us to review proposals for multi-million pound research projects. Representatives from the government ask us to discuss connections with problems of national interest. We organize workshops and conferences. We meet researchers in other universities and governments to learn about their work and explore potential collaborations. The great thing about the blog I just linked to — it is actually called why academics feel overworked — is that it tries to make a complete list of where academic work comes from. My list just above is incomplete because I’m only mentioning things that I can remember happening in the past week. (And this, with me on sabbatical; I’m not teaching this year.) All of these sources of work are people who are asking politely for our help on important work of their own. None of these sources of work know about each other.

To be successful, of course it is important to learn to say “no”, and to learn to say “no” often. There are tricks about how to say “no” better, in a way that helps the person who have asked. Many other blogs talk about that, so I won’t go further now. It’s enough to say that even if you say “no” a lot, you will still have a lot to do.

Instead, I want to talk about flexibility. It’s no surprise that having a lot to do creates stress. But having the flexibility to choose what to do also creates stress. The problem is that flexibility creates guilt. Suppose I have tasks A, B, C, and D to do — too many — and my boss instructs me to prioritize C, even though I think A is more important. I might be annoyed or dismayed by a poor decision being made, but I’m not responsible for the poor decision.

When I prioritize, I am responsible. When I choose to do one thing, I’m keenly aware that there are many other things that I could be doing, behind each a person who would like a few minutes (or a few hours) of my help. For every thing I choose to do, there are other people that I feel like I am letting down. I am never quite sure if the thing I have chosen to do is the right one. Sometimes I’m quite sure that the thing that I’m doing is not the most important, but maybe simply the most important that I have enough energy for.

Why is the flexibility necessary? Why couldn’t academic work and research work be managed more directly, like other types of work? Our situation is not as unusual as it may seem — in any career, the more senior you become, the more you are expected to set the agenda rather than follow an agenda that is given to you. In academia and research specifically, there are two forces that mandate flexibility for good work.

The first: If you do not have freedom to prioritize, you do not have intellectual freedom, because part of intellectual freedom is deciding what to think about.

The second: The job of a researcher is about creating positive externalities. Our work is to perpetuate and create a large portion of human knowledge. When we succeed, the value of our work is enjoyed by society as a whole, rather than the institution that employs us. This is why the idea of going to my department head for advice on prioritizing is so laughable. We cannot ask the institution what is most valuable, because so much of the value that we create does not return to the institution. You become an academic because you believe the specialized knowledge that fascinates you has, in some small sense, importance to society as a whole. Another responsibility, and another stressor!