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.
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.
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?