Tag Archives: grad school

Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

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When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

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