I vividly recall sitting in a stark, white classroom on the fourth floor of the hospital where we met for one of the four first-semester graduate classes. There were about 25 students in the room and having been super-social the summer before, I felt I knew most of them pretty well. We had taken a difficult exam – our first in the program – and were waiting to see how we’d performed. I blinked at the score on my paper – it wasn’t terrible, but was hardly impressive. I looked up to see the grades – organized from highest to lowest – being written on the whiteboard in blue marker. As I waited and waited and waited to see my number appear, I finally realized 22 people – a vast majority – were better than me.
I can therefore pinpoint the moment where I started thinking I wasn’t smart/good/talented enough. I didn’t belong in grad school, let alone research. I should have worked much harder. I was obviously going to fail. People would soon understand they’d made a terrible mistake when they granted me entrance to the program and they’d force me to leave and everyone would know that I wasn’t good at all.
While I’ve had many good and bad days since, that feeling remains familiar. I’m not doing as well as I should be. And it doesn’t come from an assessment of my own work, it comes from a comparison to others. I was fine with staying home parts of this week – I’m not that busy, nobody minded, and it wasn’t that big a deal. But when Friend started to work on her paper, my stomach clenched and I was immediately anxious. If she’s working, I should work. I’ll fall behind! Be embarrassed over my lack of productivity! There won’t be enough stuff on my CV!! Oh, no; oh, no; oh, no; oh, no; oh, no.
"You have to tell me when you're working." I finally said. "So I'll know I should be feeling badly."
I attended a seminar yesterday, more out of hunger than of interest. There’s free lunch beforehand and, eager for a sandwich, I walked over with Boss and Tim, both of whom I love, and stood in line to get pasta salad, a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. After grabbing a soda, I walked in the room and glanced around for anyone I might know. I saw Dawn sitting in the very last row, so I walked toward the back of the room to say hi.
Our exchanges that morning – we share an office – were a bit tense. She teased me a bit excessively for being out part of the week. Talked about how hard she was working and the hours she put in. How her experiment failed and they would have to implement the protocol that was considerably more complicated.
My response? I was outwardly sympathetic, but inwardly wanted her to leave me alone. She was making me feel guilty and therefore I was somewhat pleased her experiment failed. Maybe if she was nicer and more understanding, she’d have better luck. (Which makes no sense, but that’s how I think sometimes.)
Anyway, I sat in the row in front of her, a few seats over, and happily examined my lunch while I opened the soda. I turned, mouth full, when someone greeted me.
“Oh! Hey!” I said after a swallowed, greeting another of the fellows who forms my cohort. He’s an international postdoc, though I can’t remember exactly where in Asia he’s from, and is terribly sweet and funny and soft-spoken. We’ll call him Ken. Mark sat to Ken’s right and I smiled at him as well, dabbing at my lips with a napkin. “How’s it going?”
Ken made a noncommittal sound, then said, “It’s going very good for you.”
I frowned, looked at Mark, who had adopted a serious expression, and cocked my head, confused. “Not really.” I said. “It’s just going.”
“Publication list.” Mark said simply and I blinked at him, realizing what was going on. Jill had sent out the publication records for the fellows in our group early this week in an attempt to confirm that everything was correct before it went in the final progress report document. We’re all funded by a training grant and therefore our progress – individually and as a group – is officially monitored. My section dominated the document – I was moderately surprised, of course, but that feeling superiority left me glowing for days.
I nodded at Ken and Mark, unsure as to what to say. They’d each had a single line, I think.
“We were shocked.” Mark continued and I scowled at him. Shocked? Does he think I’m inferior? I am not inferior! Perhaps we should bring out that document right now for proof!
“Impressive.” Corrected Ken. “You’re doing really good.” He diffused my offense and I smiled at him.
“Thanks, but it’s really not all that impressive under closer examination.” Realizing that they’d both probably looked closely at what was there, I sought to explain. “I have friends – a few good friends – and can contribute a bit to their work so I end up listed on papers and abstracts. So you just need to get some good friends – that’s all.”
Ken nodded while smiling and Mark attempted a more friendly expression as well. “You had papers.” He noted and I nodded in acknowledgment. “All from grad school.” I explained. “It took me this long to get them all out. It wasn’t work that was done here.”
“The rest of us looked bad.” He said, and I shook my head.
“Not at all!” I protested. “Mine was just a mixture of finishing stuff up and having a network of people who are presenting their work.”
“You should have told them to just wait for next year when you didn’t have much to report.” Friend offered when I was telling her the story on the way home. And though I know I’d given her that information – that publications are going to be difficult to come by for this next year – I was moderately offended.
“I could,” I said, thinking quickly over what’s in the pipeline – what can go as abstracts, when the meetings are, how much I could have ready… - “get a list of the same size next year.” The chapter wasn’t on that list, nor was this current project that’s analyzing even as I type this. There were a couple of papers in preparation that can go on next year’s list if they get published. And there are like 10 meetings to which I could submit abstracts (we, um, like meetings in my field) so if I wanted to travel constantly and write a whole lot, I could continue to look good on paper!
The flip side – and likely the reason I got so defensive with Friend – is that once the seminar started, I was put neatly in my place. Speaker was young and he works in a different section of a niche that’s familiar to me. So I followed what he was saying pretty easily – he spoke well and I’ve read relevant literature and actually published a piece myself – and noted that he was truly impressive.
As the talk went on, I noted that he was taking figures from all the papers on which he was first author. The citation information was placed discretely in the corner of each slide. All excellent journals, I noted, and a plethora of publications. The guy was good at what he did. Then I saw the Science paper from what I assumed was the end of his graduate career. I’ve never met anyone with a Science paper, so I was impressed despite myself.
I internally coached that it wasn’t helpful to compete with people. Just assess your progress, note your goals, and see where to relax and where to improve. Like Propter Doc rightfully notes. (She, by the way, makes me feel inferior with all her service accomplishments. I probably have a reason all of you make me feel badly too. I have a problem.)
And yet I still sighed a bit over Speaker. But it wasn’t as though he had a Nature paper, I decided. But then it showed up – one from last year. Science and Nature and all the top level field-specific journals. He’s completing his first postdoc and, I assume, touring the country interviewing for faculty positions. He won’t struggle – he looks too good on paper, seemed approachable and knowledgeable during the question portion, and complements rather than duplicates what we do here. Plus, I know something about his field – he wasn’t faking it. And when Leo tried to attack one of his figures, I internally scoffed. It appeared in Nature, I thought with a sneer at the big meanie. You’re not likely to find a gross error with work he published in Nature.
I don’t feel particularly badly about myself in comparison to him though. I quite simply don’t want to work that hard. I’d rather leave early on Friday, go to Friend’s apartment to pet cats and be fed dinner and watch Nanny McPhee. I didn’t have my laptop so I could process the data I’d transferred to my USB drive (though it is running now - that's the second time I mentioned I was working on a Saturday morning, by the way), I didn’t feel the need to be writing or reading or making plans. I’ll need to run in on Sunday for an hour or so, but that’s OK. I don’t need to be outstanding. Honestly, people, I built a fort in my living room on Thursday! I don’t think they give Nobel prizes for that.
What continues to tug at my conscience is that I made other people feel badly. It was inadvertent. When asked for publications, I just copied and pasted from my CV, which I faithfully update when anything new appears. I noted that I was surprised that I had a larger list than anyone else, but it really is due to collaborations, in which I excel. It does bulk up a CV when you contribute slightly to a number of projects. But when it comes down to first author – I was responsible and in charge and did this work – stuff, I’m going to be very light in the next year. I’m figuring out ways around it – I’m also resourceful because I don’t work as hard as I should – but it’s going to be evident.
That my way of working made people feel shocked or impressed or inferior bugs me. My own inferiority complex tells me that Ken and Mark are absolutely smarter and more productive and harder working – they just don’t have the luck or collaborative network that I do. So I wonder if I wouldn’t wave off any congratulations. The cover? Oh, Boss did that – he worked and worked and worked on that paper. The graduate publications? Well, Advisor is very hands off, so I had control over where and when the papers went. Not everyone has that luxury.
My point is that comparisons aren’t fair or healthy or good. I’m a terrible offender though, constantly picking someone to whom I don’t measure up, then getting too depressed to do any work at all. I think Friend is a lot smarter than I am, and given a lab that was even slightly less dysfunctional, we wouldn’t even know each other since she’d probably work all the time. I have a truly outstanding mentor and environment and can barely get to work some days. Let’s be honest – some days I don’t even try.
I wonder – a lot – what’s wrong with me. And I think part of the problem is that I’m a competitive person in an environment that rewards such behavior. And punishes – somehow creates this internal system of self-loathing – when one can’t score near the top of that list being written on a whiteboard in blue ink.