Affirmation in science is a rare beast
August 22, 2013
GMP has an observation up at Academic Jungle that resonates:
2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you “Good job.” Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn’t mean much, like your partner or your parents. …The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. … I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what’s that, a pat on the back every few years? That’s a lean affirmation diet.
It’s totally true. Frequently so, anyway. Those who are supposed to be reviewing and helping with your career locally, such as a Chair or even Dean type of person, are universally motivated to tell you that you are not good enough so that you will work harder. Grant review, paper review…there are some warm fuzzy comments made but somehow the criticisms seem to loom larger. Peers who want to talk about your papers like to bring up the stuff you didn’t do or the flaws or explicate the methods. This is science and a healthy part of it, but it can be hard on the ego since there is never any impression of universal acclaim followed by more and more and more unquestioning approval of your work.
There is a subtle feeling we encourage in science about expectations as well. Sure, you just published a paper, got a grant from the NIH or graduated a PhD student…..but here’s the trick. If you really belong, if you are really one of us…that is expected! So why should there be any special notice for your accomplishment?
Each novel accomplishment for your career simply raises you to a new level of expectation. Just scored your first Nature paper from your own laboratory? Hey, that’s great. But now you are a CNS Glamour Lab and, well, of course that is what you do. (Hey, when’s the next one coming out?)
Over the years I have tried to go out of my way to congratulate my peers, especially the more junior ones, when I see they got a new grant award. Tried to take special notice of their papers and congratulate them on trainees flying the coop. Say something about their selection for study section. I’ve tried to remind some of my closer peers more directly when I see them as an important part of the field and our overall endeavor. And I don’t just limit it to the plebes like me or extramural scientists either. SROs and POs in the NIH need to get some positive feedback too. Your senior faculty won’t be hurt to know you think of them as the best person to serve as Chair or even to make a run at a Deanship (should they be so crazy).
I am not natively a person who is effusive in praise. So I’ve had to make a conscious effort. I’ve done so ever since coming into contact with the Imposter Syndrome in blog-discussions, which was a big factor in crystallizing my thoughts on this.