If someone had told me that in 2020, I’d be halfway into completing a FULLY FUNDED MSc. programme, I would’ve slapped them in the face and said ‘get behind me Satan’. Granted a lot of that statement would have been rooted in the negative lense that I saw my life through at that time, and a crippling inability to see the ways that Jesus was working things out in my life. Thankfully, things are slightly different now. When I first started working in research, I had been unemployed for about two months, when I went for my interview I had no idea what my bosses were going to ask me to do. I’d been away from academia for about 3 years and the practical aspects of my Honours degree that I thoroughly loved, were more than a little fuzzy. On that day, my mum told me to go in and just give it all I had. It was a huge boost to my self esteem then, and now as I think of how cute I looked on that day. I thought I was going in for an interview but praise God, they had actually decided that they wanted me onboard but needed to see me face to face. My plans after my Honours degree was to specialise as a haematologist. Now I’m building my professional life in HIV research, with an emphasis on early infant diagnosis, and I couldn’t be happier. So what are the traits you need to get to where I am? I’m glad you asked!
1. Believe in your sauce. When I decided that academia was for me, to say that I was nervous was an understatement. For the first few months at work, concepts that used to be familiar now felt foreign to my very much matured brain (I was 28 at the time). I am grateful that I had my lovely husband rooting for me all the way. He would listen to me telling him about concepts that were new to me too, and engage in conversation with me. He would also remind me that had I not been capable, they would have FOR SURE not hired me. This is something that I have had to remind myself of especially when I’m hit with a heavy dose of imposters syndrome. Believing in your own sauce doesn’t mean that you’re oblivious to the things you don’t know, or that you blag your way through things (in my industry blagging ain’t gonna get you anywhere). Believing in your own sauce means being aware of where your strengths lie and not being afraid to utilize them when needed.
2. Speak up. My bosses are ridiculously good researchers in the field of HIV. THe more publications I read and found out just how good they are, the more I started to feel like I didn’t have anything to offer. When I commenced my MSc. programme, the awe & admiration I have for my bosses, became crippling. I found myself saying yes or keeping quiet, even when I didn’t agree with a certain course of action. As I grew in confidence (and also had my husband speak to me on this), I realised that my voice was important too. It may not have carried as much wisdom and knowledge (yet) as my supervisors but the last thing they wanted was a parrot who regurgitated their ideas and was a yes (wo)man.
3. Don’t stop learning. This is one that I had no other choice but to do. I had no idea of how testing was conducted for HIV diagnosis. My understanding of it was elementary, and definitely not on the level of someone who wished to work in that field. I can’t tell you how many journals I’ve downloaded in recent months. How many terms I’ve gotten acquainted with, and how many more terms I still haven’t gotten acquainted with. Being aware of how much you still have to learn is important BUT unless you take action, you’re going to stay in the same place.
4. Be flexible and laugh… A LOT! In this journey of being a student, ESPECIALLY a more mature one at that, things will go wrong. Balancing being a great partner, daughter, employee, student, sister and aunt is tough work. I’ve dropped the ball countless times, and guess what you’re not immune to ball dropping. This isn’t a negative prophesy I swear! The reality of life as a student, especially in research is that you’ll drop the ball somewhere. Your supervisors will drop the ball somewhere. The Gantt chart mapping the expected timeline of various tasks will become something that mocks you, reminding you of how far behind you actually are. Sometimes I feel as though mine laughs at me every time I look at it. 🤔 Experiments will fail, your controls will invalidate specimen results and leave you in tears, you’ll save over recent versions of your thesis but you know what in the end it’ll all work out.
5. Don’t sell yourself short. When my supervisors told me that they’d be paying for my studies, I felt very much like what the prophet Isaiah writes in Isaiah 41:14, I am but a worm, how do I even deserve this. It sounds extreme right? But isn’t that the trajectory our mind follows when we believe very little of ourselves? This point is very tightly tied to point 1, believe in your own sauce. Believe that you have something to offer, believe that you’re there for a reason. This can sometimes be a tough one to remember as your progression begins to grant you access to rooms more advanced and intelligent. HOWEVER, if at the core of you, you’ve built your self-esteem and value to be unattached to anyone or anything else, it may be difficult to remember but it won’t be impossible. You think Beyoncé cares about the people who don’t believe in her talent? You shouldn’t either. Show up, set the place on fire (with your talent, not literal fire), and then let your work speak for itself. Accept that you aren’t like anyone else, and that is your greatest gift. Stay in your lane and excel in your lane!
BONUS TIP: Get comfortable with your work being critiqued. This is the hardest one for me, and the one that the Lord continues to humble me through. The first iteration of my research protocol was horrible. The more that precious document bounced between my supervisors and I, the better it got. When I submitted it, I couldn’t believe how far it had come from that very sad first version. To get to the masterpiece that my protocol is, was a labor of love. I remember the first email where my supervisor had removed information that I had become personally attached to. I had to swallow my ego, cry at home…sometimes at work, to come to terms that the prerequisite for life in research is being comfortable with sometimes having your work critiqued. Sometimes your ideas will shine bright like a diamond, and other times those more experienced than you will offer a different angle that you perhaps hadn’t thought of. There is a time to defend your ideas, and there is a time to realise that maybe your idea isn’t as great as you thought it was.
P.s. Try keeping yourself in as much of a positive circle as you can. If I had married anyone else, I may truly have ended up setting things on fire… literally! 😂