I’m fine

Because I am trying to graduate this school year and because I have several experiments to finish before that can happen, I have been spending most of my waking minutes in lab. The good news is, I’m getting lots done. The bad news is, I have no idea what day it is. I actually had to put a calendar on the wall and cross off the days as they pass in order to keep it all straight. And, still, I get confused. I didn’t go into work on Thanksgiving and since I often work fewer hours on Sundays, I had the impression it was Sunday and that Friday was Monday and so on. I’m left with feeling like today should be Wednesday and therefore the week is half over.

Thanksgiving was the first day in several months that I had been in town and did not spend any time whatsoever in lab. Since I do go out of town for four day weekends quite a bit (to visit my husband), I’ve been trying to make up the time by working weekends when I am in town. For this to work well, I really need a housekeeper. Housework is just not getting done. I took advantage of my free day on Thanksgiving to do laundry. The dishes have been piling up (no dishwasher in my apt.) and the dust bunnies are getting ferocious. Just the other day I had to grab a chair to fend off a dust bunny that attacked me as I passed the bookshelf. Don’t even talk to me about cooking. I’m so tired when I get home from lab I just don’t have the energy to cook something (and anyway, all the dishes are dirty).*

In the past, this sort of schedule would have led me down the short path to depression. But somehow, I seem to be managing fine. Granted, I’d really rather not have to walk past a tower of dirty plates and I’m completely embarrassed to have anyone come over, but overall, I’m doing well. I’m actually, honestly baffled at my complete non-reaction to the massive workload, dumpy apartment, and experiments going haywire.

Have you ever been in a fender-bender kind of accident or an almost-accident? The kind where you slam into someone’s back bumper and there’s no damage to the car (or you) or you have to veer off onto the shoulder because of something unexpected happening in front of you? You know how, in those situations, in the immediate aftermath of whatever it was you think, “Wait! Am I okay? Yes, I’m okay. Is everyone else okay? Yes, they are okay.” And you’re relieved and maybe a little amazed that “it” (whatever it was) was not a Big Thing and nobody was hurt? Because you know incidents like that can sometimes be Not Okay and lead to things like exchanging insurance information or having to call the police, or even a trip to the hospital. So you are amazed and grateful that everything is Okay.

Well, that’s sort of how I feel about my whole life these days. Some event happens, like I have no clean underwear because I haven’t been home for enough consecutive hours to do laundry in two weeks or my experiment gives me unexpected results leading me to question my entire model, and these are things that in the past could really have thrown me for a loop. I’d slow down at work, maybe not go in on weekends because I just couldn’t bring myself to go in, or I’d get depressed and call my husband and cry and say that I hate it here and I don’t want to stay and life is So Unfair. But these days I am able to shrug these things off. And every time, I am amazed that I am Okay. And I do a little self-check, “Am I really okay? Yes. Do I feel okay? Yes. Am I just repressing some not-okayness? No, I really don’t think so. Am I not accepting reality—am I really on the edge of spiraling down a dark, dark tunnel to depression? No. Really. I feel fine.” There’s a certain amount of disbelief involved. And elation. There probably aren’t that many people in the world who are thrilled to be fine. I want to shout it to the world.


And here’s the thing—I have no idea what brought on this fine-ness. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently. I’m just… me.

Granted, I’ve done a lot of work over the years to deal with my depression. I’ve gone to individual therapy and group therapy. I take medications. I use a bright light box in the winter for the seasonal affective disorder. I create social support networks for myself. I read about mood disorders. I see my psychiatrist regularly so that I can have an outside expert opinion on whether or not I’m really fine. I do a lot to maintain my mental health. So it’s not like I’ve been sitting around on my ass and suddenly everything is wonderful. But, only recently has everything come together so well that I honestly feel like a completely normal person. And maybe being normal doesn’t sound very exciting to most people. But for me, it’s a Big Step Up from where I used to be.

Normal. Me. Who’d’ve thunk it?


*Just so you know, I’m keeping up with cleaning the bathroom because, well, ew. A big help has been that scrubbing bubbles shower cleaner thing where you press a button and it sprays cleaner all over your shower. It’s awesome! No mold or mildew, not even on the shower curtain liner or in the cracks and crannies, and I have yet to actually use elbow grease to scrub the tub.

Moving Forward

Yesterday, Advisor and I went to the microscope and looked at my slide and he says, “Yes, that looks like a beautiful wild-type pattern.”  Thus confirming what I already knew but deep down in my soul hoped was wrong.  Then we talked about What To Do Next.  He liked the experiments I had already thought of and agreed that they were the next course of action.  (Aside:  It always makes me feel good when I propose a course of action and Advisor agrees to it because it confirms that I really have learned a lot and can think scientifically)

I was talking with R who asked how I was doing with all of this and I told her I was just moving forward as best I can.  I was really really angry on Saturday when I got the result, but I don’t have time to wallow in that feeling or to feel sorry for myself or any of the rest of it.  Yes, I was angry.  Yes, I was upset and briefly felt like the universe was out to get me.  Yes, I am worried about what this means for my thesis.  But, time moves on and I need to move with it.  That sucked–on with the next experiment!  I’m supposed to be having a committee meeting soon and I want as much data as I can possibly obtain to give to them so that they can help me decide on what the thesis (journal article) will look like.

In addition to growing as a scientist in grad school, I have grown as a person.  There was a time not so long ago that I could not easily have moved forward.  In fact, I probably would not have been able to get out of bed for a day or two after such a thing had happened.  So being able to move forward so soon after a Bad Thing happens is a huge improvement over where I used to be.  And that makes me feel good, too!

Reality bites

Officially, there is no requirement for publication in order to get your PhD at my institution in my program.  Unofficially, there is no way in hell you are leaving here without at least a portion of your thesis being submitted to a journal.  Since I would like to graduate sometime soon, all of my effort has been on fleshing out “my” paper (I say my paper, but in reality there’s likely to be four or five authors, I’ll just be the first one).

In science, I feel like we often live in a dream world.  That dream world is made up of What I Know To Be True I Just Haven’t Done the Experiment To Prove it Yet.  This, in turn, is based on a particular hypothesis which is (hopefully) based on previous data.  We float along in this dream world, blythely doing our cloning and setting up experiments and fitting them into a nice little story that can be told in five figures.  If you are lucky, your dream world and reality are in perfect harmony and when reality steps in, your results are everything that you dreamed they would be.

If you are not lucky, reality will grab you by the collar, pull you down an alley, hold you at gunpoint and force you to admit that your data do not match your hypothesis.

Guess which version of events happened to me yesterday.

I had a lovely outline for a paper.  Two of the papers published in our lab had certain unanswered questions at the ends of them and I was taking those questions, getting data, tying it up in an elegant velvet bow and getting my degree in the progress.

Based on information from papers X and Y, I had formed Hypothesis Z.  I did Experiment 1 to test my hypothesis and got Result A.  Based on Result A, I did Experiment 2 and got Result B.  So far, so good.  Based on Results A and B, I did Experiment 3 and got result Fish.  And I thought, “No, no, the result cannot possibly be Fish because the result is supposed to be C.  All of the evidence I have so far says that the result should be C.  There is no room in my dream world for result Fish.”  But, try as I might, I cannot get result C.  The answer to the question asked in Experiment 3 is Fish.  Even worse, Fish is…nothing.  It’s a negative result.  In the experiment, I deleted a region from a gene and it was supposed to affect the localization of a particular protein and nothing happened.  No affect on localization.

And we all know how journals just love to publish papers based on negative results.

When I got Result Fish, I emailed Advisor.  Actually, I sent two emails to Advisor.  One was a long rant about how I cannot make the new software for the camera for the microscope do what I want it to do and nobody knows how to use the damn software and this is a Big Waste of My Time and I want someone from the company to come in and train us on this software so I don’t have to spend hours looking for functions that apparently do not exist.  The second email was more about my data and how it is Fish and not C and what caveats about Experiment 3 could lead to Result Fish and I have thought of an Experiment 4 which would get around those caveats and we will hopefully see Result C, but if we don’t and we still get Fish then I will cry.  Advisor emailed me back suggesting we look at my slides on Monday.  He (very wisely) did not mention anything I said in the first email.

Now, this is what science is all about, right?  I mean, I understand that we do the experiments because we do not in fact know the answer to the question we are asking and therefore the answer may not be what we think it should be and we will have to rethink our hypotheses and build a new model to be tested and that this happens every day to every scientist.  BUT does it really have to happen to me RIGHT NOW??!!!  I don’t have TIME for this shit.  I’m an 8th year graduate student, my husband has been living a couple thousand miles away for the past year and I’m 33 and my eggs are getting old and I Must Reproduce Soon and I’m tired of graduate school and being poor and being a student and constant failure and somehow getting stuck with the project that fails in every way imaginable SUCH THAT I am here in my 8th year and I don’t have a freakin’ first author paper yet!


Science blogging conference

I would really like to go to this conference.  I’ve looked at the conference program and in every session there are two or three things I’d like to go to.  The main obstacles are:

  1. Money
  2. Time
  3. Anonymity
  4. Did I mention money?

Let’s start with money.  The conference itself is free as far as I can tell.  No registration fees or anything like that.  However, I’d have to get to the conference and this would require a plane ticket or renting a car and driving a really long way by myself.  Both of those two things would cost money.  Then, there is the hotel stay.  I’ve looked at hotels and it seems like the cheapest is around $80 a night.  Then, there are meals.  So, I’m looking at probably around $500 for this conference altogether.  I’m a grad student.  My husband is a senior research associate.  We have two apartments, one of which is in a very expensive part of the country.  We are flying to see each other every 4 or 5 weeks.  We are poor.  There is not money in the budget for this sort of thing (especially since he just had to get a crown put in on one of his teeth and either our dental insurance sucks or crowns are obscenely expensive or both because it’s putting a huge dent in our finances).

Then there’s time.  I really, really must finish my PhD.  I am still doing experiments for my thesis!  And I’m already taking 4 day weekends once every 4 or 5 weeks to visit my husband.   I’m not sure I can afford to take a few days away from the lab to attend the conference.

Also, I write an anonymous blog.  It’s a little difficult to remain anonymous when you show up to things in person.  I can keep my screen name, and not say what university I’m at, but still if someone ever sees me somewhere else (like at another conference) then they are going to know who I am.  Sometimes I amuse myself by thinking about going to the conference wearing one of those Mardi Gras masks with all of the feathers the entire weekend and wearing a nametag that says “Mrs Whatsit” and having people ask me if I can “wrinkle” them home, and that would be pretty darn funny.  But since I wear glasses, it’s kind of hard to wear a mask (and I’m not getting contacts just for a meeting).

The time and anonymity issues could be overcome, but I’m still stuck on the money situation.  There are travel grants for conferences at my university but I don’t think they would consider this conference important enough to award me a travel grant.

So, the bottom line is, I’m going to have to wait until next year (hopefully there is conference in 2009).

Daylight Saving Time

I haven’t liked this whole switching back and forth between Daylight Saving and Standard time since high school.  Back then, I worked in a 24-hour restaurant and every Saturday, I worked from 6pm to 3am.  This was not a particularly fun shift and by the end I was usually dead tired (and sick to death of the drunk people who came in after the bars closed at 2am).  Every fall, it was made even more not fun by the switch from Daylight Saving to Standard time when at 2am, the clock got turned back.  Apparently this event got loud cheers at the bar, but for me it meant that I had to stay an extra hour (and deal with extra drunk people).

I never seemed to get any benefit from that “extra” hour, even after I left that waitressing job.  Most years, I would forget to change the clock and show up an hour early to church on Sunday.*  So, I never really got that “extra” hour of sleep that everyone says is the big advantage to changing the clocks.

In most recent years, the time change has been especially grueling because I have developed Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I am now exquisitely sensitive to when the sun rises and sets and when I get out of bed and eat meals and go to bed in relation to that cycle.  So twice every year, my system gets thrown into a state of shock—a prolonged jet-lag—when the time changes.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the time changes throw me off-balance for weeks.  I’m not hungry at the right times, I don’t wake up at the right times, I feel tired all the time.  Really, really tired.

I can hear you all now, you’re saying, “But it’s just one hour!  How can it affect you so profoundly?”  You may also be thinking that the time change doesn’t affect you.  You would be wrong.  In blog-surfing over at Scienceblogs, I came across a post at A Blog Around the Clock mentioning this (pdf)** study by Kantermann, Juda, Merrow, and Roenneberg.

From the abstract:  “Our data indicate that the human circadian system does not adjust to DST and that its seasonal adaptation to the changing photoperiods is disrupted by the introduction of summer time.”  Good luck trying to convince my coworkers of that.

Chronobiology is not my specialty, but I was able to glean a few things from the paper.  One was that sleep timing changes according to the time of dawn during standard time, but is static during daylight saving time.  One caveat of this is that as far as I can tell, they did not do the same study with a population of people who do not switch between standard time and daylight saving.  The authors address this point mentioning that it seems unlikely that there is a threshold dawn time after which everyone’s sleep times would so abruptly stop changing.  Another interesting point was that how much you are affected by the time change depends on your “chronotype.”  I don’t fully understand the terminology, but I think in this case chronotype refers, in layperson’s terms, to whether or not you are a “morning person.”  It seems that morning people more readily adjust to the time change in the spring.

Practically speaking, what does this mean?  Well, this being a scientific study, the conclusions the authors come to are limited by the scope of the study and the data gathered from it.  The authors are careful to not state whether this affect is “good” or “bad.”  They do point out that the time change disrupts our seasonal timing, and that humans are seasonal animals although humans residing in industrialized countries have become less and less seasonal.  It could be that the time change contributes to our loss of seasonality.

Given the data in this study, I think we can reasonably assume that the time change has more of an affect on people than they realize.  The study shows that the time change affects activity levels, sleep and wake times, and sleep duration.  Many people think that they are not affected by getting slightly less or more sleep than usual but this is false.  The amount of sleep we get can have a profound impact on our cognitive abilities.

I feel somewhat vindicated by this study.  Now, when people are incredulous about my inability to adjust to the time change, I can point them to this study.  It can be a real comfort to have science on your side.


*Actually, the time change in spring was worse as far as church was concerned because sometimes it fell on Palm Sunday when the services were extra long and people would show up an hour late and end up coming into the middle of Mass and wondering what was going on.

**This paper seems to be an e-pub and has appeared before the print copy of the journal has come out.  The current citation for the paper is:

Kantermann et al., The Human Circadian Clock’s Seasonal Adjustment Is Disrupted by Daylight Saving Time, Current Biology (2007), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.025

The hard-copy print version will appear in the November 20 issue of Current Biology (volume 17).


One of the reasons I like WordPress is because it is easy to check the stats on the traffic your blog is getting. You can look at which entries got the most views that day and what links people are clicking on to get to your blog and so forth. Usually, my blog gets around 10 views a day, maybe 20 on the day that Scientiae comes out.

So I was a little surprised (and by surprised, I mean shocked beyond belief) when one day my blog had over 300 views. Several things happened at once. I commented on a post at A Blog Around the Clock over at Scienceblogs which then listed me one day on their daily blogroll (boy was I glad I had the Imposter Syndrome posts up by then and wasn’t stuck on Talk Like a Pirate Day), then I got a link from YoungFemaleScientist and then Scientiae came out and I got a link from Drugmonkey and–Holy traffic Batman! More links, more comments, more everything! I’ve been watching the stats and, I don’t mind telling you, getting a little nervous thinking, Oh shit, now I have to say something intelligent–there are people out there watching!

In thinking about how all of this happened, I realized that a major factor was that what I wrote struck a chord in a lot of people. People are commenting and saying thank you for writing these posts because they felt this way for a long time. This is immensely gratifying. Shouting* that you feel like an imposter is not easy and the only thing that makes it worthwhile is if it helps someone else. An increase in blog traffic is nice and all, but I find helping people to be a lot more satisfying.

A couple of interesting points have come up in the comments and on other blogs. One is that men suffer from imposter syndrome. This was mentioned in one of the papers I read, but the authors also thought that somehow imposter syndrome affected men differently than women. Not being a man, I really can’t speak to that, but it’s clear that there are men out there who are not nearly as confident in their abilities as they project.

Another interesting topic has been what mentors can do to stave off imposter syndrome in their charges. Bikemonkey mentioned it here, and Alethea also talks about it here. Bikemonkey asks, “A related question is what degree of confidence do you project as a PI and mentor?” then adds, “…in some senses the highly confident PI is not good for the imposter syndrome trainee.” Alethea on the other hand suggests, “…I am not sure that an unconfident PI such as myself, who lets the young women in her charge see the bumps and warts of handling it all – family, grants, travel, article submissions, is such a great example and will thereby bring new, liberated scientists into the coterie.” As a graduate student, I appreciate the sentiment. Certainly, as a student you don’t want to have the uneasy feeling that you are on a ship that is barely staying afloat. So, you do want your advisor to project some degree of confidence. On the other hand, having an advisor who is confident to the point of arrogance would definitely get those old imposter feelings bubbling. There’s a difference, though, between allowing your students to see the realities involved in being an academic scientist and telling your students you don’t think a grant will be funded because you are an idiot. Alethea, I’m sure, is talking about the former and I appreciate it when faculty allow me to see the complexities of academic life. It doesn’t make me want to be an academic scientist, but that’s not because I think I can’t handle all of that–it’s because I don’t want to.

Neurolover has this important piece of advice, “One piece of advise I’ve seen offered on how to counteract imposer syndrome is to be specific about praise with your trainees: not “great talk!”, but details about why the talk was good. Then, when the person starts going down the imposter syndrome path, they have factual information to draw on to counteract it.” To which I say, AMEN! This particular example struck a chord with me simply because I know for a fact (because I have done it myself) that people will say, “Good talk,” to a person even when they think it was a horrible talk (not to be two-faced, but to be polite). Generic words of praise are very easy to brush aside.

Not all that long ago, a student in my lab defended his thesis. It is customary for the advisor to introduce the student and often this introduction is full of praise for the student. In this case, my advisor spoke of specific things about this student that made him a good scientist and why exactly he was a joy to have as a student. Looking back at other thesis defenses in my lab, I remember that my advisor did much the same for everyone. And I thought, how sad that we have to wait until we have almost finished our careers as graduate students before we hear something like that. I have gone into my advisor’s office specifically requesting a peptalk because I am down in the dumps about my experiments and the best that I have heard him say is, “You have a good scientific mind.” Um, thanks, but what does that mean??? How do you know I have a good scientific mind? What about me makes you say that? I’m in here because my PCR has failed for the umpteenth time and I need a little bit more than, “You have a good scientific mind.”

When discussing with my labmates our advisor’s introduction to the defense, one of us wondered what Advisor would say at her defense and when we assured her that it would be something good she said (in a classic imposter syndrome moment), “Well, he has to say something nice then, doesn’t he?” Which emphasizes the need for students to hear praise throughout their careers and not just when the advisor, “has to say something nice.” Back when I was a tech, I had a mandatory once-yearly evaluation in which my boss was required to tell me what he thought I was doing well and what he thought I needed to improve upon. I’ve often thought the advisor/student relationship could benefit from the same system.

Ultimately, though, all the praise in the world won’t help if the person with imposter syndrome doesn’t see the reality of her (or his) worth. So, I think it is just as important for advisors (and friends and family) to watch for things like devaluing accomplishments. Don’t let a person get away with saying, “It was nothing.” Do not assume the person is just being modest. Tell them, “It was not nothing, it was very good work and you should be proud of yourself for doing it.” Perhaps they won’t believe you. But at least you have done what you could to counteract their false assumptions.


*Which is what blogging really is when you think about it. You’re saying something that the whole world can hear.

I Really Am Good Enough and Smart Enough: Imposter Syndrome Part III

Imposter Syndrome Part I

Imposter Syndrome Part II

So now that we’ve established that a significant number of women in science suffer from imposter syndrome (including me), and that imposter syndrome is potentially contributing to the attrition of women from science, what do we do about it?

For me, the key to starting to overcome imposter syndrome was realizing that there were other people like me. Women who, for no apparent reason, thought that they were frauds. It was truly eye-opening. And a relief! I wasn’t crazy—other people thought this way, too! Or rather, maybe I was crazy but I was crazy in a specific way just the same as lots of other women. It can be profoundly comforting to know that you are not alone in your deepest, darkest fears. And once I had that realization, I could talk to other people about my feelings of self-doubt and my fears of people discovering I wasn’t as capable as they thought I was. My talking about how I felt opened the door to other people talking about how they felt and I knew the women I was talking to were pretty smart. These strong, capable, intelligent women were scared that they weren’t really all that strong, capable, or intelligent. Once I saw how profoundly their self-perceptions were warped, I was able to think that just maybe my own self-perception was a little bit off-base. Maybe I wasn’t secretly a dunderhead. Maybe I really was as smart as I appeared to be on paper. Maybe, just maybe, I was selling myself a little bit short.

So, from my own experiences, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to talk to other women about imposter syndrome. Let other women know that such a thing exists. Of course, not every woman suffers from imposter syndrome (my friend, R, for example). But even if you don’t feel like telling other people about your own insecurities, you can at least talk about the problem of imposter syndrome. You can at least make other people aware. You can at least give other people a name to what it is that they are feeling.

You can also recognize your own feelings as disconnected from reality. Start acknowledging your accomplishments. Learn to say these words:

“Thank you.”

The next time someone says to you, “Wow, you must be smart,” (this often happens to me after I say that I’m in graduate school for cell biology and frankly, it embarrasses me) do not demure (like I usually, do—hey, it’s a work in progress!) say, “Thank you.” You ARE smart. Stupid people do not get to where you are in life. If someone says to you, “Great work on that experiment,” after you just spent the last 3 weeks working 18 hours a day troubleshooting a procedure and the whole thing culminated in a heroic experiment in which you did not sleep for 24 hours, do not say, “It was nothing.” It was NOT nothing. It was SOMETHING! It was a very big something and it took a helluva lot of time and effort and chutzpa and you should be proud. Instead of saying it was nothing, say, “Thank you.” It’s just two words, it should not be so hard to say them.

Give encouragement to the women around you. Clance and O’Toole (1) found that men often felt like they were frauds, but this did not keep them from advancing in their studies and careers. Clance and O’Toole speculated that this may be because these men received encouragement from peers, from mentors, from society in general to continue despite their fears. Imagine how much easier it would be to keep on advancing if you had someone encouraging you every step of the way. Imagine how much easier it would be to overcome your fears if there was someone telling you, “You can do it.”

And finally, be kind to yourself. Tell yourself that you are intelligent, that you earned your accomplishments fairly. Tell yourself that you deserve the good position you find yourself in. Imagine how much you could accomplish if YOU told YOURSELF, “You can do it!” Look yourself in the mirror and say,

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”


(1) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy.

This paper can be found here (PDF). It includes an “Imposter Phenomenon Quiz” which you can take if you really want to. The authors suggest that a person scoring 60 or above is suffering from Imposter Phenomenon. I scored 83. Clearly I still have some work to do!