The Benefits of a Doubt

Here I am, 3 years into a 3.5-year Ph.D. research project, at a stage people say every Ph.D. student goes through. Self-doubt. Panic. Fear. Disillusionment. Uncertainty. Existential angst. I’m tired.

Like many before me, I chose biological research in the hope that one day I could make a difference. I come from a very different background than most of my peers: I’ve moved from electronic engineering to molecular neurobiology. That could be a good thing: In a world where computer-driven systems analysis is becoming increasingly integrated with traditional wet lab research, interdisciplinary scientists like me will be highly valued. That’s what I’m told.

I’ve come to think that this basic uncertainty will never go away. And maybe it shouldn’t. It is part of who I am and the work I do.

But it’s not easy! I suffer from feelings of inadequacy. I’m older than most of my Ph.D.-student peers, and I fear I’m not making as much progress as I should be making on my interdisciplinary Ph.D. project. My work feels slower. It requires multiple approaches, different kinds of troubleshooting, different ways of thinking about the problem, and more information—more things I feel I should know but don’t. The “more”-ness even extends to the quantity of competition: There are more fellow researchers to compare myself to.

And the difference between the fields can be striking. In contrast to carefully engineered systems, evolved biological networks can be noisy and variable. How can you be certain you’ve identified a real trend? Is it possible to remove subjectivity completely, or at least sufficiently?

As scientists, we have to interpret our data, extract meaning, form hypotheses, and support them. But how can I be sure that I’m not blinded by confirmatory bias and that I don’t unwittingly mislead my audience? What should I include? What can I omit? How long should I continue to try to prove myself wrong?

Starting from a place of such uncertainty, it’s hard to envision the future. Will I ever ask a question valid and important enough that someone will give me money to try to answer it? Will all my papers be rejected? Will I ever feel like an expert?

I’ve come to think that this basic uncertainty will never go away. And maybe it shouldn’t. It is part of who I am and the work I do.

So, I will embrace this uncertainty and use it to guide me, rather than allowing it to hold me back. Doubt will help me question things that others might not and, hence, hopefully to see things in new ways. It will allow me to be more fluid and more open to alternatives. Fundamental doubts, I’d like to think, can lead to fundamental insights.

I must zoom out and keep an eye on the big picture. This isn’t always easy when whole days are spent drowning in a sea of data and self-pity, wondering if the microscope objective may have been dirty for those two images that just don’t seem to fit with the other 63—or are those two images the interesting ones?

And I must remember why I love doing this. It’s the learning, the constant reaffirmation of the interminable wonder of the natural world. The world will never run out of things to teach me, and hopefully I’ll never run out of questions to ask. Yes, the uncertainty is scary, but in a weird way it is also exhilarating: Who knows what will happen? The spark among the doubts is a glimmer of hope that one day I will see something that no one has ever seen and figure something out that has never been known—something that matters.

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