Tara Safavi data mining researcher

Realizing the extent of what you don't know, or: a first year in review

20 April 2018
Tags: grad-school  personal  imposter-syndrome  phd 

There were a few times this past year that I thought I was failing in every aspect of my life. In one such moment, I wrote this down:

Realizing the extent of what you don’t know is exciting, but also overwhelming, terrifying, and paralyzing.

That was it. That’s still it. Granted, a PhD has many challenges beyond open-ended research. Work-life balance immediately comes to mind. But I think the biggest intellectual challenge of this job is that there’s no predetermined answer to the questions you’re asking. There may not be an answer.

A PhD is a difficult balancing act. In my experience it’s surprisingly easy to shift to extremes. One moment you’re mired in the minutiae of a technical problem, the next you’re pondering the shared future of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. In the past year, this high-variance lifestyle exacerbated the extremes in my personality, particularly with imposter syndrome. Each time I realized the extent of what I didn’t know, I doubted myself as a scientist a little more.

I don’t claim to have solved imposter syndrome, but a few recurring themes have nudged me toward balance. The first is recognizing what affects my self-confidence. I’ve learned that while external validation doesn’t motivate me much, criticism (external invalidation?) significantly discourages me. Knowing this helps me root-cause in times that I feel demoralized.

I’ve also identified personal patterns of high and low productivity. As a CS PhD student it’s easy to feel guilty about not getting enough done because you have “free time” — fewer classes than in college and (usually) no imposed work hours. That said, you can’t use all that free time toward getting more done. It’s not physically or mentally possible. When I realized this, I stopped feeling bad about times of low productivity and stopped forcing myself to work in times of low productivity. The least productive time for me is after lunch in the afternoon. Fortunately, my schedule is flexible enough that I can pick my work hours, an amazing (and unique) benefit of doing a PhD in CS.

I learned the importance of reaching out to other current and former graduate students. I did my undergrad at Michigan. When I started my PhD, I felt kind of disconnected from the other PhD students who were new to Ann Arbor. But even though I didn’t need help picking classes or finding the best restaurants in town, I was still a new graduate student. I did need people who I could relate to about the unique experience that is a PhD in computer science. In fact, some of my favorite memories from this year were at low-key gatherings for Michigan grad students, like ECSEL’s socials and roundtables.

Finally, to some degree, I stopped listening to others’ advice. Paradoxical indeed. Seriously, though, I believe that the best evidence to cherry-pick is anecdotal advice from others. No one else has it all figured out. Even if they do, they’re not you, right?

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