Guest post from Caitlin Brumby, a PhD researcher in the Dept. of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.
I joined Kay’s PhD leadership coaching course more because it sounded interesting rather than anything else. In hindsight, this may be one of the better places to start from, it gave me pause to think about almost everything discussed, and one train of thought has stuck with me more than the others. Something I thought about more and more throughout the sessions was giving real thought to one nagging worry:
‘Perhaps I’m not the right person for academia in the long term, would I eventually fit in amongst these well respected academics? Me? They know everything!’
I’m one of the masses suffering from the imposter syndrome I suppose, a constant feeling of inadequacy, when actually, looking at the facts and feedback, I’m doing pretty well.
I don’t think I’m the perfect PhD student, in fact, I know I’m not. I get incredibly distracted by the big picture, the elegance of experiments, new techniques on different continents and cool 3D microscopy models. I often loose interest in the small details. The small details are sort of your job as a PhD student. I also have plenty of interests out side of academia; photography, sci-fi, games and trying to train my rescue dog to have more tricks up her sleeve than I have. I felt guilty about these, like I shouldn’t let myself have these distractions. Should the PhD be my life? Maybe forgetting about these things is part of the ‘sacrifice’ we all hear about to make it in academia. Maybe there isn’t a slot for me in academia, maybe I can’t do it?
I’m leaving this way of thinking behind, or at least trying to and it’s genuinely down to the discussions had during the coaching sessions.
One session allowed us to talk to academics across departments at Sheffield, a mix of new and established careers – but all impressive. All these academics have excelled in their fields, yet all kept their personal passions alive or a strong priority. Hobbies, sports and families weren’t sacrificed. Of course staying in academia is a lifestyle choice, it will never be a 9-5 job, and getting overly excited about something microscopically sized won’t be great to talk about at my partners work doos, but, I don’t think it’s as dramatic as I feared. More importantly to me, there simply is not a ‘typical academic’ or a foolproof recipe for making it as an independent researcher in charge of your own funding.
There are so many differences between academics, even staff next door to each other in the same dept. There are so many career paths leading to the same point, so many backgrounds and ages. I could go on. These should be celebrated more! Achieving an academic position isn’t a case of molding yourself into it as I feared. You have to make your own space, carve your own way, train yourself, and if you’ve worked hard enough (I guess a little bit of good timing helps too) then you can slot yourself in.
These sessions have taken things back to basics and made everyone think about what we want, how we can progress in the best and most prepared way we can. Filling up our toolbox to pave our way through our academic careers, however far they may go.
If I want it, and I do good research, there is a me-sized place in academia – I just have to make it.
On a side note: the students I had the pleasure of doing the course with I already admire, and I think they will make great PI’s or lecturers. However, some now have their hearts set on a career outside of academia. I think we (‘we’ being some of the academic community) need to stop thinking this is a negative thing. These people will be amazing wherever they go, and will be set up with great training from their PhDs and sessions like the leadership coaching group. Academia is competitive, and some areas do seem over subscribed but it’s also not right for everyone, and that is completely fine!