Being a Ph.D. student is sometimes like riding a rollercoaster of emotions. Some days I love it, but some days I only feel anxiety. Today I have felt both.
The most common negative emotion that I have as a Ph.D. student is performance anxiety. I feel that I don’t know enough, I don’t have ideas enough. I am not enough. I compare myself with my supervisors and other Ph.D. students and only see what they know and what I don’t. These feelings have a name: the impostor syndrome.
The performance anxiety is often triggered by presentations or by meetings, as was the case today. Another Ph.D. student presented at a meeting, and I had many good and relevant questions and inputs which felt good. At the end of the meeting, my supervisor asked the other student what his ideas were for the future and what he would do next. The other student had a long list of ideas, goals, and papers he was planning to write, and it sounded like he had his whole Ph.D. figured out already. Comparing myself to him made me feel small and worthless. I don’t know what my first paper will be about, and I don’t know my next experiment design yet. At the same time, I know that I’m not supposed to have everything figured out already. And I know that not having everything planned in detail makes me more open to new stuff. But sometimes, on days like today, I simply feel that I am not enough.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there is the skyrocketing self-confidence — days when I feel that I can do anything and learn everything. The feeling of self-confidence is, thankfully, more frequent than performance anxiety, and it is what makes me love my job.
What usually gives me a boost of self-confidence is teaching. The best moment is when I see that a student truly understands the topic, the moment all loose ends come together. It is wonderful to know that I helped the student understand the thing she/he has been struggling with. Today I had the second webinar in the course I’m teaching, and a student wrote to me and said that he thought that I am an excellent teacher and that I am so good at explaining. This small gesture of appreciation made my day go from a day of performance anxiety to a day of feeling that I’m on top of the world.
As with everything, there are good moments, and there are bad moments in being a Ph.D. student. To diminish the bad moments, I’m trying to remember to not compare myself to everyone (why should I? No-one else compares me to others!). And I’m trying to see everything I have learned and done rather than all the things that I haven’t. And most importantly, I’m trying to remember that I’m enough as I am!