Finding Your Way In (Computer) Science: Self-Esteem

Apr 25 2011 Published by under academia, computer science, women

A long time ago, someone I really dislike recommended a book to me called, "Finding Your Way in Science." For a long time I avoided reading it, because I decided if my arch-nemesis liked the book it couldn't possibly be good.

But it nagged at me, so I gave in and bought it. And actually, so far it's not bad. Good job, arch-nemesis!

The book does read like a self-help book for scientists, and it's definitely biased toward the life sciences, but to its credit it does have some outstanding nuggets.

There's one nugget in particular that I recently found myself dispensing to a young FCS who was struggling with issues relating to her self-worth as a researcher. Given the prevalence of self-esteem issues greatly affecting women in technology, it seemed like I should repost it here:

Never place your sense of self-worth in the hands of another person.

And the corollary is:

A wise person is unmoved by either scorn or praise.

These are both important bits of advice. If you place your self-worth in the hands of another, then every time you are rejected (which will happen frequently over the course of your career), it will feel like being punched in the gut. It's very tempting to be over-the-top excited when Dr. Famous lavishes praise on you, and Dr. Awesome invites you to serve on a program committee, and Dr. Woot cites your paper. These are all good things to be happy about, but on the other hand you don't want to be devastated when Dr. Famous rejects your paper, Dr. Awesome gives you a scathing review, and Dr. Woot rips you to shreds in front of 2000 of your closest colleagues.

Be like a tree and all of that. Roll with the good and the bad. If you take this view, the outcome of a single event matters much less.

I've found it helps to take a career-level view instead of an event-level view. John Regehr writes about this - don't get too attached to a single paper, proposal, or job. Don't tie up your entire self-worth in the outcome of a single event. Everyone gets rejected!

Image description: Book cover parody of "Everyone Poops"
by Taro Gomi. This text reads: "Everyone Gets Rejected
By Female Computer Scientist". It has pictures (by Gomi) of an angry
looking person, a horse's behind, a goose, and an apple.

11 responses so far

  • Pramod says:

    This is good advice, but how does one go about implementing it? Simply repeating to oneself that I won't be demotivated by rejection won't work, right?

    Now that I think about it, maybe it will.

  • rknop says:

    Yeah, I've done a bad job of taking this advice, even though it's good advice. Reading student evaluations is always more painful than it should be.

    Part of the problem is that it IS other folks' evaluations of you that decide whether or not you get to continue. It was a *single* turned-down grant that sent me into a spiral of despair and can't-get-out-of-bed-for-two-weeks depression a few years ago, although that was in context. (Previous turned down grants, and the knowledge that without one of these grants I wouldn't get tenure.)

    Plus, while you shouldn't judge yourself based on other peoples' scorn or praise, you DO want to pay attention to constructive feedback. The very hardest part is telling the difference between scorn and constructive criticism. Indeed, sometimes the latter comes cloaked in the former, which of course does nobody any good at all. And, even when it doesn't, it's VERY easy to take constructive criticism as scorn.

    Re: not taking praise to heart, also good advice, but be sure to put anything concrete on your CV! (Awards, papers, etc.)

  • John Regehr says:

    Now I want to read the whole book, not just see the cover!

  • msphd says:

    Not sure I can agree with this advice. I basically tried to follow this, and what happened was, I wasn't competitive enough. At the end of the day, science is VERY COMPETITIVE. That means you have to win most of the battles or you're going to lose the war and end up unemployed. In some fields, that means you have to do whatever it takes to keep fighting. Cling to every scrap of positive feedback you get. Keep trying to get your paper into that high-impact journal, no matter how many times it gets rejected. See recent posts by Drugmonkey, for example, pointing out that you have to pay attention to what the expectations are and make sure you hit all the marks, or you're not going to make it.

    These things, so far as I can tell, go against everything any therapist will ever tell you about how to live a satisfying life. No one can be a tree. We're not trees. We're human beings. And most of us would like to feel that our work is recognized and useful somehow, otherwise why bother doing it? Unpublished papers will never make you feel fulfilled, no matter how much you tell yourself that rejection doesn't matter.

    • Anonymous says:

      This seems like a highly unstable "solution": Let your fear of rejection drive you to increasing heights of "success"? I agree it's important to be realistic about the expectations for doing science, but the social context of doing science can easily get in the way of the actual science (not to mention one's contentedness). I've found that doing science when I'm worried all the time what people think of me and where I will get published and who will cite me and who might eventually hire me and what do they *really* think just makes me miserable and distracts me from learning. (That doesn't mean I'm good at turning it off.)

  • GMP says:

    I think FCS was talking about the emotional effect of scorn or praise on one's self-worth. I think the most successful people are indeed unbelievably persistent and focused on what they want to accomplish and are not easily deterred by rejection (not sure if they glow when praised, perhaps). This could mean they have a fairly immutable sense of self-worth and/or possess some efficient techniques to pick themselves up quickly after failure.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I think that it's not an unreasonable idea to believe that having a happy and satisfying life is inconsistent with being a scientist between grad school and tenure-- at least, for most people.

  • John Regehr says:

    I don't think it's unusual for people to have a happy life on the TT. I did, or at least reasonably so, and when I didn't it wasn't anything inherent about the job, but instead some random crappy situation that eventually resolved itself. Crappy situations happen everywhere.

    People seem to have built-in set-points for self-esteem, level of energy, and a few other things. The needles corresponding to these quantities waver, but not by much, or for very long. Academia does seem to select for people whose egos fill the room.

    • Anonymous says:

      "Academia does seem to select for people whose egos fill the room."

      This made me laugh. And I BADLY need supplements so I can compete.

  • It is very easy to be wise after the event, and everyone has their Achilles heel. Telling people that if they change their personality they will do better can actually have the reverse effect if they try and fail.

    If you are trying to do unconventional research you are far more likely to have highly critical peer reviews, papers rejected, and problems getting funding. So who would plan to end up doing such research? I suspect that those oozing with self-conficence will quickly be able to make a successful career with more conventional projects, and telling someone who is naturally an introvert backroom thinker that they would do better if they were an extrovert seller of ideas that appeal to the establishment is not very helpful.

    If you have been viciously bullied at school, as I was, you learn to think through what you are doing very carefully before you speak - and even when you have a good idea you are not likely to draw attention to yourself by shouting from the roof tops. Such an approach might well produce well thought out reseach - but is going to loose out when funding goes to those who shout loudest about their half-baked plans.

    I ended up doing unconventional research and what I now know I needed was a fertile environment to work. Effectively I needed a "patron" who would cheer me up when I was down and who could advise me as to how to sell the idea. I ended up in an unsupportive academic environment. The project finally folded (despite showing very promising signs - such as a paper accepted in a top scientific journal) when I was bullied to accept early retirement at the time I was suffering from post traumatic stress from a family tragedy.

    I can easily look back at "wrong" decisions - such as my "stupidity" (in retrospect) of accepting a well paid senior academic post in new technology univeristy with no research image instead of a poorly paid lecturer job in a top university where there would be non-technologists who understood what I was doing - and provide the moral support I hadn't realise I needed.

    If the book helps some researchers to lead a more satisfying life, that is fine, but we must remember that the scientific rat race does not encourage good unconventional research projects, and it is the quiet introvert who is often the best at spotting the cracks in the estabishment theories.

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