I recently found myself articulating something I wish I could have told my younger grad-student self: Go to your advisor even with problems you know she can’t solve. I went through some rough patches in my first couple of years of grad school, so much self-doubt that I’ve since learned to file away under “impostor syndrome.” And in those times when I wasn’t sure if I could make it, it was painfully hard to look around me and not see any gay science faculty. It’s like my worst fears were suddenly being proven. With empirical data.
I’ll leave for another post the importance of role models. For now, this is about being an advisee. I can’t say this advice is for everyone, but I happen to have the world’s best advisor (and yes, I’ve told her so). In retrospect, I wish I’d had the courage (and common sense?) to bring some of my struggles to her. For starters, it would have forced me to wrap words around my fears. In order to tell her about them, I’d have to shrink the bogeyman in the shadows into something I could actually name and describe. I think it would have made it a little less large and scary, facing it squarely like that.
Even more importantly, my advisor would have empathized and, in some fashion, understood. She certainly would have cared that I was struggling. I wonder what it would have been like to have that sort of validation, to have her hold a little space for me to wrestle with things instead of it all just taking place in my own head. I wonder what it would have meant to me to know, to be told, that it’s OK to be struggling and scared. To know that even if she can’t fix things for me, she’ll support me through it.
I know this is sounding like big deep scary emotional stuff — and remember that my advisor is, first and foremost, a scientist. And yes, I have a really good support network of friends I turn to. But turning to friends doesn’t break down the compartmentalizaton that was part of the problem. I could really have used some way of feeling like all these parts of me were OK to have as a scientist. I needed some validation in my professional life. The conversation wouldn’t have looked this deep on the surface. But small simple things can still carry an immense weight. Just a small acceptance to make me recognize that I’m OK, warts and all.