Thursday, March 30, 2017

Peer(sonal) review

Toward the end of my PhD, after many setbacks, I felt like I was clinging to non-failure by my fingernails. I had a few papers, only one of which I was actually proud of, and none of which seemed that close to being published. When the only one I actually liked came back from peer review at a very respectable journal with critical yet not devastatingly critical reviews, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed like I was being vindicated: I COULD do this science biz.  I had produced something of value to the world, and it was basically my intellectually independent work.  I was going to graduate after all. Peer review’s verdict: you're not so bad, old sport.

But as I dug deep into addressing the reviewers’ points, I realized that although they did not hate the paper, they had uncovered a major flaw in my argument. I became terrified that I was about to be unmasked, un-vindicated, needed to retract the work and ditch the project, would have to somehow graduate publicationless. Check out Levi Garraway's story about retracting a submission; then imagine you are not Levi Garraway, but his student, and that the retracted manuscript was the backbone of your thesis. Every day I’d trudge to the lab, desperate to come up with some breakthrough that would save the paper.  If my commute got delayed for some reason, I’d be thankful for a few extra minutes away from what I saw as my inevitable spiral into failure. I cried almost every day. This was the second-darkest period of my PhD.

Every time I’d be about to get new results, my heart would start pounding with the suspense: would this be the moment things would turn the corner, and I’d be back on the path to redemption? I had zero perspective. I realized that I was 100% identifying myself, and my value as a human, with my work, but only on a dim level, and I couldn’t stop it. 

I magically managed to come up with something that got the paper published and I graduated, and I guess the fact that I got through that increased my confidence. But since then, I’ve realized that that mindset is not, for me personally, a desirable or sustainable way to live as a scientist.  For me, it’s so natural to equate my career achievement with my actual worth, that to motivate my work in any other way than as a means to prove myself is like a confusing brain teaser. Is it possible to take my work seriously but not personally? So… I’m supposed to be motivated by the love of knowledge? By the challenge? Do people actually do that?  One of my major goals for my postdoc, in addition to getting some good research done, is to figure out how to be happy as a scientist.  Comments are welcome: Are you able to conduct research without getting overly invested in a particular result?

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