What Makes You Unique?
Not Good Enough. These three words have been part of my sense of self since I can remember. First unconsciously, then later as part of staying mentally well as an academic.
Without going down the Freudian rabbit hole, in this post, I reflect on how I’ve been trying to shift my focus and find a counterbalance to the hyper-competitive nature of academia. Maybe it will help others. (Or perhaps it’ll just help you procrastinate writing for a few minutes. That’s fine too.)
It’s no secret that academia is not an easy work environment for people who are naturally not very confident. Academia is hypercompetitive, and you are constantly being evaluated and compared to others. Rejections are part of a day’s work, often more than successes.
Over the years, I realised that I needed to shift the focus rather than keep chasing something. In my experience, it does not matter how successful you are; the change needs to happen internally, not externally. Of course, getting a grant or publishing a paper will give you a confidence boost, but this boost is usually superficial and temporary. It does not change the underlying feeling of “I am not good enough.”
Like so many other life lessons, the inspiration for this shift in focus came from my yoga practice. In yoga, you often hear the words “stay on your mat.” These words mean many things, but one of them is that you try not to compare yourself to others. First, everyone’s body is unique, and we all have different physical and mental limitations. Honour them! Second, the joy of a room full of yogis comes from the fact that we all bring something unique. As an academic, I understand that we can’t do away with competition, evaluation, and comparison. These are intrinsic to research and academia and critical to maintaining integrity, high standards and deciding on funding. Still, to me, the words “stay on your mat” hold a seed of wisdom that I can use in my academic life.
After talking to my mentor, I started focusing on what makes my research unique. What do I bring to the room? Maybe the dot points below help you reflect on this. As a nice side effect, focusing on what is unique about my research or my approach to academia have even helped me when writing the “investigator capabilities” section in funding applications.
P.S. I am a biophysical chemist, so the language used in these dot points is STEM-focused.
P.P.S. The dot points are focused on research as this is where my sense of not being good enough plays out the most. I am sure it can be applied to teaching as well.
- Do you use a technique or methodology that is different to others or not common in your field?
- Do you have a unique way of looking at a specific problem? Maybe you bring expertise, knowledge, or methods from a different field to your current research.
- Does your research challenge the status quo in your field?
- Do you connect ideas from different fields?
- Are you a facilitator who excels at bringing together people that would otherwise not work on a collaborative project?
- Have you developed a unique tool or methodology useful to others in the field?
- Do you bring a lived experience to your research? (This is probably more applicable to humanities/arts/social sciences rather than STEM fields.)
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