Feeling stupid?

Have you ever felt that you are just simply not smart enough to do your job?

Do you know that feeling of being not educated well enough, even though you practically spent every waking minute of your entire life studying?

Yes? Then you are probably a scientist. Because that’s exactly how most of us feel EVERY DAY.


Don’t be, it’s a natural side effect of research and it’s important. If we don’t feel stupid, we are not asking hard enough questions, we are not pushing ‘our way into the unknown’.  As Martin A. Schwartz puts it ‘We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result.’

That’s an important thing to learn as a PhD student. Not only we don’t know, nobody does. That’s what research is all about. But it can be frustrating. We have to learn to live with the fact that the things we don’t know are infinite, or we will end up in depression. There are many ways to deal with yet another experiment failed, another theory crushed, another project puffed into thin air in front of our eyes (sometimes literally).

How do we cope with frustration? Swearing can help, or crying, or excessive drinking.

None of the above work particularly well for me. But I have learned to not take failure personal. I take it day by day. After a long day ends with the realization that things went entirely wrong somewhere along the way, I let it go. I go home (or better, I go to dance class). I sleep over it. With a bit of distance,  I sit down and find one thing that that latest failed experiment taught me. And then, I try again. And again.

I think the scientific process works pretty much like evolution. Trial and error is the way forward and the whole thing takes A REALLY LONG TIME.

illustrated by visualflaneur

(inspired by ‘The importance of stupidity in scientific research’ JCS 121, 1771, 2008)

This entry was posted in Illustration, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Feeling stupid?

  1. Vladan says:

    I’ve accidentally found this blog, and as I’m currently a project student (final year of my undergrad) starting my PhD in Mol Bio/Biochem this year, this was really encouraging text… Not competent enough to talk about feeling you are mentioning here, as I had just a glimpse of it during my thesis project, but still it’s great to know what to expect and how to deal with it…

    • evaschmid says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m happy to hear that my post was helpful to you. Research can be a daunting endeavor and knowing what you are getting yourself into is an important first step . Not being intimidated by it all is the next, and we are all still working on that one :).

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