In the past few weeks I’ve had to revisit some of my papers in progress. I feel like I’m running in place: every time I go to move forward, I uncover a new issue that sets me back. I write the same tasks on my to-do list time after time. As I am immersed in feelings of frustration and self-doubt, it’s easy to forget that these overwhelming moments mean I am developing myself and my work.

Science is a slow process of improvement. The best ideas are put forward with understanding that they may be wrong. Failures are an inevitability. The reason why the scientific process has integrity is because it allows for improvement through errors – that’s what gives scientists integrity too. I am dedicated to producing the best possible science, and to do that I have to confront being wrong and do better.

Within ourselves the same is true: mistakes are necessary for improvements to follow. We wouldn’t progress if we had the right answers all along. If we did everything right the first time, we would miss the rewards and knowledge gained from solving a problem. This gets to the core of why I am in grad school and love science: the edge of my knowledge is only as far as I decide to push it. And if we allow ourselves to improve, so will our science.

To take a page out of an introductory biology textbook, the species that survive are adaptable to change. The problem is that we rarely see the changes by natural selection because they happen gradually. The differences only become apparent retroactively. I have been measuring my progress the wrong way: myself and my work are undergoing incremental improvements because I continue to work diligently and adjust to new information. I am not stuck, or moving backwards, I am just evolving slowly which is hard to notice over short periods of time (like these past few weeks). I know that all my work will be better for this effort. When I look back at where I was years ago, the change is astonishing.

I need to keep reminding myself that I’ve felt struggles like this before and overcame them. And I am better for it. The moments I am most proud of have come when I put myself out of my comfort zone. Here are two times that I met a challenge and made it out the other side:

  • I had never completed an extended field season before my PhD. Missing out on field work was a weakness that I needed to strengthen. Only a couple months into my PhD, I found myself spending two of the most rewarding years of my life to date doing fieldwork and living in my study area. I was solely in charge of my data collection and the direction of my research. The daily progress was hard to see, but from start to end the changes were huge.
  • When I submitted my Vanier application, I got the advice from a mentor to write a proposal for a great project, not the one I thought I was completely prepared to do. It allowed me to go beyond the boundaries I set for myself and be truly creative with my ideas. I also had to work on developing a personal narrative, which takes some deep reflection on who you have demonstrated yourself to be and envision your role in the future. I felt extremely vulnerable. Though I quickly started to worry my application was terrible, it felt like the best and most authentic thing I had ever done. A few months later the struggle paid off.

Even though challenges are a catalyst for growth, growth doesn’t happen without a push. In these instances, I pushed the edge of what I was comfortable doing, and in that discomfort is where I found rewards. During these periods, it’s easy to feel distressed and hard to have perspective. Luckily my achievements don’t happen in isolation: I have support from my mentors, advocates, colleagues and friends as I tackle these things. We all need support, so I urge everyone to talk to trusted and caring people, including counselling and wellness programs available to students.

It is scary to admit things aren’t turning out as you hoped, and you don’t have all the answers. When someone suggested I write about this I was resistant because I didn’t feel like I had an ending yet, and I still feel that way. It would have been nice to write about struggles completely retrospectively because I could offer you a neatly packaged reflection beginning with my problems with a concluding resolution!  Luckily, I was convinced that unfinished stories are sometimes the best ones, because it’s the journey that matters most.