Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Lack of Positive Feedback: The road to self-doubt

My scientific life has been plagued with fear and self-doubt. I'm not sure if this is a woman specific thing, or a general feeling, but I have been thinking a lot about it in the last few weeks. During my Ph.D. my advisors gave me very little feedback. One advisor said good job all the time, but it was so perfunctory we never believed it. The other advisor never seemed to be satisfied with results, always wanting more. In science negative criticism is abundant. We have peer-reviewed articles, grant proposals, and conference heckling, but positive affirmations are rare. In my desire to be successful, I have been emailing my former advisors for advice on starting a lab. After several back and forths, one of them said not to worry, that I would be just fine. That email meant so much to me that I kept it. I think it was the first positive affirmation that I had in 6 years of interactions, and that is pretty sad. I know several students who only see their advisors every 1-2 months. So it is no doubt that we develop questions as to our own capabilities.

My postdoc has been very affirmational. Everyone treats me and my ideas with a great deal of respect and this has boosted my confidence enormously. However, it is still easy to get down, like when I go to a conference and see a similar presentation to my research. One group is working on an alternative solution to the problem that I am addressing, and their work is much more elegant than my approach. Despite the fact that I have been at it for one year, and they have 6-7 years behind them, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the good points of my approach. It is very practical and could be used by a wider selection of people. Additionally, it has a substantial body of literature backing it up, whereas the other approach is being investigated only by that one group. So I feel better.

All of this got me to thinking. One of the greatest problems in motivating minority scientists is probably this lack of feedback. If we already question our ability to be successful due to lack of role models, it is difficult to develop confidence without positive reinforcement. I never had this problem in high school or undergrad. It started in grad school, when I no longer had regularly reported grades with which to gauge my progress. When I set back and reflect, I realize that by many standards I am very successful, but without weekly A's on my homework, it can be difficult to stay focused and see the big picture. This is one thing that I hope to provide in my lab. It should be run more like a business, with regular progress reports and evaluations, and possibly 360 evaluation, where the students tell me how I'm doing as well. The goal is to learn and without feedback how will we ever get better?


At 12:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just the fact that you thinking about these issues leads me to conclude that you will be a successful mentor and PI.

I was "raised" in a lab that wrote weekly reports, where the objective was for the student to critically evaluate their work. Although at the time it was often what seemed an unnecessary chore, I think this was one of the most valuable actvities of my graduate career. Now, I ask my undergrads and assistants to write reports, I know that they hate it, but hope that one day they will acknowledge their value (beyond keeping me informed).

At 4:22 PM , Blogger carolufl said...

I completely agree with your comments on the lack of positive feedback. I am an engineering grad student on my fourth year, and I was just talking to another female student about it yesterday: what happened to our self confidence? By my senior year in undergrad, I felt like I could give a fair explanation to so many phenomena and now I feel that to really understand anythingt, you need at least a couple of years researching it. I lost so much of that self confidence!!
I all about getting feedback of any kind, positive to keep me motivated and negative to steer me away from something that will be a big waste of time.
Sometimes advisors have been too far away from the lab, I don't know how they can really claim that they know what's going on in their fields..

thanks for the interesting blog, it's one of my favorites!

have a great holiday season

At 11:44 AM , Blogger wildvineyard said...

I've been looking at this problem from the other side of the desk now for about three years, and the problem for me as an advisor is simply lack of time. I don't have the regular meetings with my students that I should because I'm always rushing home to pick up the kids. I make an effort to give my students lots of positive comments, but I'm afraid they sound empty, as you mentioned. I know I need to do more to get them thinking critically and giving each other feedback, but my good intentions always fall between the cracks of the million other things I have to do. So I tell my students if they want me, they have to come find me and demand time with me. If they wait for me to come to them, they'll be wandering forever in the wilderness. Same is true for all of us--if we want feedback, positive or negative, we need to seek it out, not wait for others to come to us.


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