I well remember that moment of transition when moving from undergraduate to postgraduate; that moment when my tutor asked me to call them by their first name (perhaps a rite of passage no longer so exciting, since first names are used so commonly by all students) coupled with the feeling that surely I must finally understand my subject because I had a degree to my name. It was swiftly followed by the realisation that I knew absolutely nothing, and there was still a mountain to climb before I got my PhD.
Then, a few years later, I can recall being a postdoc, a position of quasi-superiority over PhD students who might, if they felt so inclined, come to me for advice. Except I was 24 and a postdoc in the USA where PhD’s take much longer than the UK, so actually I was still pig-ignorant compared to them. It was more a question of me needing their help (but despite that I got a much better rate of pay, which seemed a bit unfair). When I hit 25 I remember thinking, right I’m an adult now, can’t pretend to be a studenty sort of person anymore, but of course I was just the same person as I was at 24 years and 364 days. The transitions are arbitrary and what matters is as much internal as external. Rites of passage may help – holding that PhD degree in one’s hand does pay testament to years of hard work – but the reality is each phase is just that. One never reaches journey’s end of excellence and, in my view, it would be really boring if one did.
It seems to me that at every stage of the way, one is always a fresh novice, starting from scratch on some new challenge. Just when you’ve mastered one thing you’re asked (or volunteer yourself) to do something totally different for which you’ve had no preparation, a bit like all those celebs on Strictly Come Dancing; at least most of us don’t have to do it – whatever the ‘it’ in question may be – live in front of an audience of several million people. I certainly feel like that about my blogging. My entry into the field was pretty accidental, or at least ill-thought through, but I have recently passed the 2 year mark (I wrote a bit about how I started here). I still feel a novice, that there is much to learn, but by and large the comments I receive are immensely encouraging and I’ve gained confidence that my writing is serving a useful purpose for some people, with different posts striking chords with different individuals. This makes it all worthwhile. Nevertheless, each piece of writing I now do (which extends not just to the Occam’s Corner blogs on the Guardian, but recently to printed broadsheets and other blogs sites too), I feel I have to approach afresh, reconsider my style for each different audience. So, I’m a novice again at each new venture, although certainly with more confidence than when I first set out.
This post is prompted by finding myself falling into yet new ‘spheres of action’, about which I’m sure I’ll blog in the future when they are well and truly underway but which I’ll leave unnamed for now. I’m not sure if the world is divided into those who never feel fear that they’ll fail and those who nearly always do, or if the former group just disguise their fears better. I do feel it is important to realise that there is always more to learn (unless, perhaps, if you’re on a production line or some other repetitive job) and that you will never truly be ‘expert’. It doesn’t matter if you look at someone and think they’re the bee’s knees, those knees may well still tremble from time to time. Look at that plenary speaker at the podium, and (s)he’ll probably have had a bad night’s sleep in advance of their performance; watch an adept act of persuasion on a committee in your department and you may not realise the individual comes out sweating and asking for reassurance they did a good job; and all those committee chairs I’ve written about previously, at least some of them will know full well they did a lousy job and should not throw their L-plates away just yet.
I feel fantastically fortunate that somehow I find myself, not just doing the science I’ve loved all my life, but a whole slew of new activities which stretch me in different ways. I feel simultaneously spoilt, for instance, that the Royal Society has given me opportunities to get stuck into all kinds of new things and worried I don’t know what I’m doing (as I described before about a previous situation here). I think this is normal and the only thing to do is to get on with the scary new challenge. But, and this comes back to what I wrote previously about impostor syndrome, you have to use the fear to your advantage, as an actor might with stage fright, to get the adrenalin going. If it’s fight or flight time, the choice is obvious – get stuck in and give it your best.
I have about half a dozen talks lined up in the months ahead to different organisations’ Women in Science/Leadership sessions, mainly at universities but a couple are not. I feel it needs saying all the time – and not just to women – you will only get better at something if you try it out for size. Running away is not a solution. But, and this is a big but, do not assume either that things will necessarily work out first, second or third time; nor that those people you admire succeeded painlessly and at the first shot either. I’m still learning and I love that, but it does mean that constantly I feel as if I need those L-plates reapplied.