What scares you most?

Oct 31 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's Halloween so I thought I might write a bit about the things that have scared me in my career and how I have overcome them. Some are obvious, some less so, but the overwhelming theme in addressing what I have perceived as weakness at some point has been to just work like hell on them. It's not fancy, but sometimes you gotta bang your head on a wall for a while before you break through.

Public speaking
There are very few people who take to public speaking naturally. The first time I gave a talk at a scientific meeting I thought my knee caps were going to detach because they were shaking so badly and I'm pretty sure I sweated through my shirt. That experience only heightened my fear of speaking and the next few talks I gave were painful, both in their delivery and the physical havoc my body endured. But after 5 or so, I noticed that I was feeling better and realized it was critical to get more experience. I started seeking out opportunities to present (grad student conferences, local hobbyist groups that my work might interest) and I steadily gained confidence. Nerves before a talk are now a distant memory and once you become comfortable on stage it comes across to the audience.

Scientific writing
Another hurdle for a lot of students is gaining confidence in their writing. While this is another case of practice helping, it also helps tremendously to read a lot and to pay close attention to edits people make on your work. Whereas "track changes" can facilitate moving drafts of a paper around it can also make it easy to correct writing without considering why you are making that correction. I think it is critical to use hard copy drafts in the early stages of writing a manuscript and to think about the changes others make to your writing. This is true throughout your training, as different mentors can offer unique insight. Although I was confident in my writing after my Ph.D. I still learned a lot about the subject as a postdoc. I will always remember my postdoc supervisor telling me that he knew he didn't have to worry about my writing anymore when I started refusing to make certain changes to the text and he realized I was right.

Unfortunately, practice makes perfect here too. If you are pushing yourself, this is largely a business of rejection. The majority of us will see our manuscripts and grant proposals kicked back at us more than we would like, but you need to be able to get over the emotion of getting things rejected and learn how to spin that effort into something productive. Perseverance can be as important as most things in the business.

Coming up with Big Ideas
I have written about this before, but it is worth mentioning again. For a variety of reasons I wanted to take a step sideways from my postdoc work, but doing so required that I start a research program largely from scratch. We can debate the merits of this (I might do it slightly different if given a second chance) but starting your lab does require you to move in an independent direction. For me this came from merging my somewhat diverse training and identifying a whole in the literature that I could fill. Coming up with this was at times frustrating and at times painful, but it was very good for my transition to running a lab and worth the nights staring at the ceiling.

If this doesn't scare you, you've either already had substantial experience developing and implementing a course, or you have no idea what it is like having 3 slides done at 10:30pm the night before a 9:00 lecture for 120 students. The first course I had to teach myself, I constantly felt like I was ten steps behind and that I was short changing the students. They certainly did not get the experience that my students this year will, but there's not much I can do about that. Everyone has to learn and there is no substitute for learning by fire. Those first students may not like you, but even though they have no idea, they are taking one for the team so that future classes will benefit.

Outside of running my lab into the ground (I'm trying NOT to practice this one) and natural disaster that wipes out our data, I think these were the biggest professional fears for me.

How about you?

17 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Right now? Failure to launch. Full-on physiological stress response just thinking about it!

  • Wow, you seem to have covered all the major areas of scientific research. Are you trying to scare the grad students? 🙂

    I'm currently afraid that I might have a skeleton in my closet, a.k.a impostor syndrome. I get comments from people (who don't know a lot about the academic process) along the lines of "You are at University X, there's not much up to go from there." While I look at my publication record and the economy and say, I'd love to get a job period.

  • Katharine says:

    Funnily enough I should be going into grad school with excellent speaking and writing skills. I have those covered.

    Big ideas, though - what do you find it takes for the average grad student to really hit their stride with churning these out?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    5%ile grant paylines

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    A lot of those fears up there are mine. But my biggest boogie man revolves around funding. And drugmonkey's 5% payline is right up there......the salary cap.....this is what keeps me up at night...

  • odyssey says:

    What DM said.

  • HFM says:

    The randomness factor. At each step in the career process, you've got to get lucky. Yes, the lucky are usually also good, but I'm not sure the correlation is as strong the other way; the talent-assessment system produces false negatives. I'm good at what I do, but there's a lot I can't control.

  • gerty-z says:

    I am in the midst of double-whammy. I have the Dr. Becca "failure to launch" full on terror, but then I see the 5% payline and...ugh.

  • JaneB says:

    What DM said!

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    'flat budgets are the new increase'

    and 5% lines.....


  • HCA says:

    I've gotta go with DM on this. I can write papers, speak, and am generally pretty good at generating ideas (how good they are remains to be seen). I'm fairly optimistic about job prospects just based on the relatively high success rate folks in my field seem to be having at the moment.

    What scares the shit out of me is having my tenure decision essentially resting on being able to get one/several major research grants in the current funding environment.

    Think about it - the odds on a split bet on a roulette wheel are roughly the same as the odds of an NIH grant. In theory, I'd be better off taking my startup funds to the casino.

  • NatC says:

    Right now? The job market.
    More specifically, the sheer number of people I'm competing with in the job market, and how little control* I have over what happens next (Hat tip to HFM's comment on randomness).

    *Over and above everything I've already done up to submitting the applications

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I suppose I should have listed negligible funding lines, but I guess I'm getting used to that.

  • DJMH says:

    Moving from being a trainee to running the show.

  • CoR says:

    Yeah, I second PLS here -- already used to the 5% terrification.

  • Fred says:

    DM: 5%ile grant paylines

    NCI is pretty close to that right now ...

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