A Learning Process

For a long time, I’ve been aware that my anxiety could hold me back. Occasionally, this fear of ‘missing out’ would grow larger than the anxiety itself. On these occasions, I pushed myself, knowing that things could only get easier after that first time. It was really hard work. But I was right: things do get easier after that first time.

I applied this theory of pushing myself to my decision to go to university, to come to Australia, and to starting my PhD. Only a few years ago, I also had to apply it to catching a train, approaching a receptionist’s desk, and asking for assistance in a shop.

Stupidly, I thought that by giving myself these massive challenges to deal with (i.e. moving away from home, doing a post-graduate degree), I would stop sweating the small stuff. Like somehow the bigger challenges would serve as a distraction from the smaller ones. Ha. Ha. Good one, brain.

In my situation, one of the many components of aforementioned “small stuff” that I just have to deal with every day is independent learning. The trouble is, when I don’t have someone I can trust telling me I’m doing OK, I have to rely on myself for motivation. And I’m not too great that that. Actually, this is roughly how an independent learning process goes for me:

Functional Brain: OK, we have to learn how to do Thing X. (Functional Brain capacity at 100%)

Emotional Brain: Cool, but first, let’s consider all the things that might go wrong. All the things. SO many things! Don’t stop thinking of the things.

FB: *sigh* Yep. (Functional Brain capacity at 80%)

EB: Hurry up with the learning though, because people might find out how long it takes us to learn this Thing X, and then they’ll think we’re stupid.

FB: Makes sense, I’ll try and go faster. (Functional Brain capacity at 60%)

EB: I don’t think we’re going fast enough.

FB: You’re right, maybe we should ask for help.

EB: OK, but don’t forget, they will probably think you are stupid. Imagine being so stupid that you have to ask for help about something so simple as Thing X!

FB: Good point, I guess I must be quite stupid (Functional Brain capacity at 40%)

…as you can see, I don’t make things very easy for myself. I’ve spoken before about the “Imposter Syndrome“, and I think that’s what this boils down to. I’m just hoping that with conscious recognition of this pattern of thought processes, I can start to modify them somewhat.

I suppose learning how to learn is just another piece of the PhD puzzle.

Dependence Tightrope

I recently overheard a research horror story, so terrifying it may even be worthy of campfires and marshmallows. For now, I guess, we will have to make do without. Feel free to use your imagination though. *hiss, crackle, etc.*

A friend of mine has been working with some clinical samples for about a year now, along with a few others who have been involved for two to three years. One of their main hypotheses regards a group of proteins which should be present in a particular cell type within said sample. After a lot of struggling with nailing down gene expression, let alone protein quantification, they went back to square one to check their collection and storage methods. Lo and behold; the methods the group had been using had rendered their cells of interest inaccessible. The clinical samples they had been gathering over a period of years were worthless for testing their hypothesis.

Now, whose fault all of this is, is debatable. Shouldn’t the supervisor have known better? Shouldn’t the students have double checked? Either way, the horror story demonstrates the extreme skinniness of the line between trusting and questioning your supervisor.

While a good student does as their told, doesn’t a good scientist “question everything”? While this probably shouldn’t be taken too literally (have you ever tried talking while brushing your teeth?!), a PhD student who never ventures beyond the face value of their supervisor’s advice probably isn’t destined for a highly successful career in science. Whether the advice is sound or not, assessing its value is all part and process of doing a PhD (…and, probably: life).

As a naturally inquisitive but also dubious and pessimistic individual, I have literally given myself nightmares about what would happen if my supervisor turned out to be wrong. I am ALWAYS asking questions (most of which start with, “What if…?”), and I can assure you that it’s not good for your well-being. I am constantly left wondering which circumstances are appropriate for me to doubt my supervisor’s advice.

I suppose all I can hope for is that: learning when to ask questions and when to Shut Up  And Get On With It is just one of the many skills that I will develop in the process of obtaining my PhD.