Friday, May 18, 2012

On Wiser People and Doubts

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." 
Bertrand Russell

This is probably one of my most favorite quotes of all time.  It also, I think, accurately reflects much of what happens when you have earned (or are in the process of earning) a Ph.D.

The Ph.D. process is meant to make you both a jack of some trades and a master of one.  That is, you are expected to have a general knowledge about an entire field (basic as that knowledge may be), but also to become one of the (if not THE) worldwide experts on a little, tiny bit of subject matter within your field.

For instance: Because of my dissertation work, I am probably now one of the top researchers on the one specific type of policy that my dissertation examined, at least to the handful of academics that actually care about said policy.

...You have no idea how many times I revised that last sentence because I thought it was stretching the truth, changing, adding, or deleting phrases such as "top five", "top ten", "maybe" "definitely", "probably", "in America", "I can state with confidence", etc. etc. etc.).  In the end, I still pussed-out and added the "at least to..." clause to the sentence. That, right there, is part of the problem.

"I am an expert on my own dissertation topic!!!"
That is, this provides an excellent example of what Bertrand Russell was talking about.  The more knowledge you have about something, the less confident you feel about your abilities. (Conversely, 'fools and fanatics' are absolutely certain of their talent and abilities.)

This feeling is referred to as impostor syndrome, and I've also seen it referred to as the 'phony police' (as in, the phony police are going to come and arrest me for being a phony scholar).  Even writing a sentence on my own personal blog about something that is probably more true than not (that I'm an expert on my own damn dissertation topic) requires me to put in tons of qualifiers until I feel comfortable typing it.  In truth, the sentence as is still makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but as Bill O'Reilly said: "F*ck it!" (video link, nsfw language).

He made it through grad school
...without experiencing any
feelings of inadequacy.
Now I'm sure there are people who finish their dissertations and never experience any self doubts about their abilities as a scholar.  I've just never met any of those people, and like the majestic Sasquatch, the only evidence that they exist are blurry photos and television shows.  (Side note: Those people are typically referred to as 'assholes').  I'm also willing to bet that feelings of inadequacy/'faking it' are more common among Ph.D.s. (and especially Ph.D. students) than not.  This is one reason why I tell my friends in grad school that it takes at least three years to realize you're not a complete idiot.  (You still feel like a phony, just not so much of an idiotic one).  As such, it seems that it's normal to think of yourself as 'faking it', which really isn't of much consolation.

Giving a Hammer to a Ph.D.
On a related note, in researching for this post, I came across an article on how to spot a 'fake' Ph.D. (that is, someone who got their degree from a diploma mill).  One thing in the article jumped out at me: "Give a hammer to a phony Ph.D. and he'll treat everything he sees as if it is a nail. Trained minds don't do this."  I get what the author is saying: Fake Ph.D.s think they know everything about anything, and their research findings are more important (and more generalizable) than they really are.

However, I think the reverse is true as well: "Give a hammer to a 'real' Ph.D. and he'll realize that his hammer is only good on certain nails, used on certain boards, under certain environmental conditions, which will never actually be in the same location at the same time. Sane minds don't do this."  

That is, during the Ph.D. process you're taught to cite anything you say that could possibly be attributed to someone else.  You have to qualify statements with phrases such as "The evidence suggests that...", and "While not confirmatory, it appears that..."   As such, I think you internalize the idea that you aren't an original thinker, and are not a 'real' scholar who is able to be an 'expert' on something. (Or maybe not.  Again, who the f*ck am I?)

Constant Judging as Part of the Process
"I've seen better
theoretical models
selling toothpaste
on TV!  Hrumph!"
It also doesn't help that every aspect of obtaining your Ph.D. degree
(classes, comps, dissertation) involves being judged by 'senior' members of the field.  Even after you become a Ph.D., most of your work is subject to peer-review from anonymous 'experts' in your field (and given the low acceptance rates from top journals, is subject to frequent rejection from those same experts).   The entire process of getting a Ph.D. and being an academic involves multiple and repeated cases of being judged by someone with *supposedly* more knowledge than you have, about your work on a topic that you're supposedly an expert scholar in.  (Hence the title of this blog).  All of this leads to a very f*cked up view of your own abilities, and frankly, is extremely exhausting.

Semi-related note: This post also helps shed light onto one of the reasons my posting schedule is infrequent and completely random.  I swing between the extremes of "Hey, I know what I'm talking about!  Maybe I should post something that might help someone in the future!" to the other end of "Post on a academic topic?  Who the f*ck am I?  A nobody who couldn't tell his ass from a hole in the ground!"  Unfortunately, the latter kinds of feelings are (still) more frequent than the former.  I'm still working on getting over this, and I'm not sure I'll ever really be free of these feelings/thoughts. (However, buying and drinking good quality beer seems to help just a little bit).

That's not entirely true. I can, in fact,
tell my ass from a hole in the ground.
[Insert joke about being full of crap]

Image Credits: RussellO'Reilly, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Hole

Note: The actual Russell quote is: "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."  It is from Russell's 1933 essay "The Triumph of Stupidity".  However, I think the paraphrased version is easier to understand and more snappy.


  1. Oh my gosh, so much of this resonates with me. Great post.

  2. Thanks - really well-written and interesting post.