When I first came in as a first-year graduate student, I was young and full of hope, and I thought, “This is fantastic. I get to study exactly what I love.” Sometimes PhD programs say they’re four-year programs. They’re not. In psychology, they’re five or six. About halfway through, after I got my master’s, I thought, “Yay, I have my Master’s, but I’m only halfway through, and I’ve got three or four more years of this”. One of the problems of academia is that it can really be about criticism, if you let it be. Science is the idea that you’re trying to create new knowledge. As humans, we’re not actually that good at predicting things. A lot of times, we fail. We have this idea, it seems really well thought out, we do it, and it doesn’t work. It took me a long time in graduate school to accept failure as new knowledge. Not as, “You stink at this,” but as, “Now you know something, so let’s move on.” During the time period before you learn that, you submit a paper, get reviews back, and people are saying, “This isn’t very good, what are you thinking here?” You’re thinking, “Oh gosh, I’m just not any good at this.” I definitely thought at some point that this wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do this for a living, and I wouldn’t be any good at it.
I remember talking to my advisor about that. He basically said, “You need to get a publication so that you feel good about it. You need to take some time off and do a bunch of reading. Just read a bunch of articles that you’re interested in. As you read one article, they’ll cite someone else, and you’ll go read that paper. Just take that time off, and by the time you’re done with that, you’ll have immersed yourself in this world and know where your interest is.” I did that, and he was absolutely right. At the end of it, I had all these ideas, and tied all these different things together. He said, “That’s how you’ll know that you can do this. To you, it’s not about the job, it’s about the pursuit of knowledge.” That was a really good point for me. But even once you become a professor, your challenges are not over. You’re never done. There are always ways to improve, and you tend to have doubts, but I think what keeps me going is that I still find this stuff really interesting.