You are special. Remember that. Each and everyone of us is unique and has their own strengths.
I remember the day when I heard I won a competitive fellowship very well. My supervisor came to me – obviously very emotional – and said: you know, no one in my lab has ever won anything that good. After a moment of silence, he added: come to think of it, you may well be the only one in the department.
I was on top of a cloud. A big one. Supervising multiple students at once. Writing papers that summarised the past 3,5 years of work. Winning this fellowship that enabled me to move to Oxford. I was the next big thing, you know?
Welcome to Oxford! My new lab has one PhD student in his final year and other than that, only postdocs with more experience than I have. People with fellowships can be found around every corner. There are no papers to write yet because I have to go through these struggles for data first. I started to appreciate the problems undergrads can have when coming to Oxford – from being the best, they go to being average.
Breaking up my long-term relationship at around the same time might not have been the best idea, but it did give me a lot of time for introspection at an important phase in my career – this infamous PhD/postdoc transit.
I reached a few conclusions after hours and hours of soaking in the bath and hammering away on the piano:
1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Yes, academia is competitive, but so is the top of every career ladder. Ask yourself what you really want and go for it. There may always be others that have a better CV – but can they bring the enthusiasm and passion you can, once you’ve found that special niche?
2. Take some time to listen to yourself, find out what YOU want. I realised I’d been compromising a lot to my BF. Being alone was scary, because I had to make all the decisions all the time! But I realise now that’s a good thing – at least for a while. Try for a second to ignore your supervisor, your peers, your parents, even your partner. What exactly is it you want? I’ve for example concluded I really enjoy teaching and even though my supervisor doesn’t, I’m going to build out my skills.
3. Find hobbies. This is repeated over and over again, but apparently for a reason! I’ve found life quite frustrating lately and hobbies help me relax. I often go swimming in the morning before work, which helps me start the day on a positive note. I completely relax in the water. After work, I often play the piano or guitar. It’s soothing and helps me calm down after stressful situations, enables me to approach them more rationally.
4. Learn to handle frustrating situations. I think there are two options: if it’s a situation you can change, change it. If you can’t change it: either you learn to live with, stop complaining about it and make the best of it. Or it you can’t live with it: leave! You do not have to stay in a lab for years on end, only because you started there. Yes, we do need letters of recommendation often, but just a letter of recommendation is not worth staying in a toxic environment for years.
In other words: take your life into your own hands and trust your own judgement 🙂