Meeting, Overcoming, and Exceeding Expectations

climbing my own personal mountain: photo credit Matt Hintsa

Hey Brian, imagine running into you here!

Unlike anything before in my life, graduate school has been a challenge and exercise in personal growth, an uphill journey. I entered grad school thinking that “I love school, I love to learn, so grad school will be as good as my undergrad! It will be a piece of cake, just a crown atop the head of my undergraduate career. Right?” At particular moments, it has left me feeling like the king of the world, but there have definitely been some large challenges, work-related and personal, that I have had to overcome.

Meeting expectations. Who is setting expectations on me? First of all, there is my boss. I was operating under the assumption that she wanted me to work my hardest, 80h a week, and for me to push my mental boundaries to their limits in the pursuit of the answer to my scientific question. I worked and I worked and nothing seemed to be working at first. And I couldn’t help but wonder why? I was doing everything correctly, all the science was sound, but why were my experiments not working?  What would my P.I. think? What will my lab think when I present this mediocre result in a lab meeting? Where is my future going!?!

Overcoming expectations. Being a student means learning. Which definitely means making mistakes. When exerted to my extremes, I wear my emotions on my sleeves and will lash out if my logic is judged as a negative (a trait I am definitely working on). When I make these mistakes, and lash out, I am creating a perception of myself on the people who only know me in a work context. My fellow lab-mates will look at me in the strangest of ways after having emoted in front of them, be it happy, sad or angry, and will smugly act as though they know my innermost thoughts and feelings. How do I take the high road? How do I overcome their expectation that I will breakdown from stress? Am I a bad person because I showed emotion at work? How do I make myself a better student?

Exceeding expectations. An experiment has run correctly, the result was proper and was reproducible. Getting that elusive “good work, Brian” from a member of my lab. This is the moment where I am made to feel as if I was finally doing something right, all of the work, the stress, the papers, the long nights (and procrastination involved therein) have been worth it. Yet, when told good work, I still shrug it off. I deflect the praise and say things like “well, if I can do it, anybody can;” “it’s not rocket science;” “we’ll see if it’ll hold the next time I do it.”

Why am I putting myself through all of this trauma?

The answer lies in the fact that I am a student. I am young, I am learning.

The one lesson that I’ve learned in the past year, the most important one that is, is that you can only be as good as you treat yourself. Do not let other peoples’, even your boss’, expectations limit what you are capable of. Do not stop to think, simply perform. Do not let the stress get to you; retain perspective. Be good to yourself, and you will be good to others. All of the expectations that I thought I didn’t hold I did indeed hold, and they were projections of my own expectations of myself. Why should I stress out about this, when I can control it; when I am the one who is creating my own stress?

All scientific inquiry, much like artistic pursuit, is an onion. You peel back one layer of the problem only to find that there are an exponential amount of more questions to be asked. At the mere age of 21, I entered my graduate program, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed thinking “Brian, you are going to publish in your Master’s, land a sweet gig for your Ph.D. and then get to take your pick of Post-Doctoral fellowships after you graduate so that you can become a professor and teach first-year students in science that there is nothing wrong with becoming a scientist.” After the past year of research and learning the pace at which it occurs, I will be happy no matter where I end up, no matter what I’m doing, as long as I am learning and making science happen.

I am looking forward to the next year, where I will learn what awaits me in my Ph.D program and much much more, and being able to share my thoughts and perceptions with you along the way!!!

Is this going to be a normal field trip? With Brian? NO WAY!

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