The perfect researcher (and why I am not it) by Zoë Ayres

Just another typical PhD day for me. Highlighting another research paper, trying desperately to retain the salient bits. Mixing it up with different coloured highlighters. Grabbing a cup of coffee, hoping that the information might go in if I let the caffeine sink in. And yet it never quite does. I beat myself up, telling myself I am too stupid to do a PhD. Walking away from a meeting, I feel ashamed, as I know I read the paper that was being discussed, I just can’t quite recall the details. Rinse and repeat. This, combined with many other small things, which in isolation were hardly something to fret about, left my mental health in tatters.

It’s not just a bad day, or a bad week. It’s all the time. I am struggling to engage in reading papers. As soon as I pick them up, I glaze over or I get distracted. My reading list grows forever longer – the weight of it playing on the back of my mind. My inner voice constantly telling me I am not doing enough to succeed.

The Struggle

Reflecting back now, I think I was struggling with several intermingled feelings and expectations I had placed upon myself. The first: what a researcher looks like, or perhaps more specifically, what a perfect researcher looks like. I imagined a perfect researcher to be someone that knew the literature inside out and could recite anything under pressure. They likely would spend hours squirrelled away reading research papers, and do it just for fun. I wasn’t that person. Not even close. This led to increasing feelings of self-doubt, which spiralled rapidly into depression and anxiety. Some days I felt completely worthless.

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved my subject area. I also know that understanding the literature around our research topic is really valuable. It can help us better understand the context of the work we are doing, as well as generate ideas. But it was (and still isn’t) a way that I learn well. I absorb information much more readily through interactions and debates with others or through doing something practically, which enables me to really understand the world around me. 

ADHD and me

This is also where the importance of diagnosis comes in. I am still awaiting formal diagnosis for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), although I have worked with a therapist for several years, and I now believe it is highly likely I have ADHD. ADHD goes vastly underdiagnosed in women. This is postulated to be due to societal conditioning, where women often feel the need to fit in more than boys at a young age. This means that many girls are not “disruptive in class” and therefore often do not get identified as having ADHD early on (at least when I was in school in the 90s). Other “ADHD Inattentive” symptoms include being easily distracted, forgetfulness, difficulty sustaining mental effort, and lack of attention to detail, among others.

Now if you are struggling to read a paper or two, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have ADHD. There are many reasons we might find something difficult to read: our motivation may be low; the research may be communicated poorly; or we might have reached burnout. But for me, combined with my other symptoms of ADHD, connecting the dots and understanding why I was struggling was like someone had finally turned on the light.

I wonder what my PhD might have been like if I had known I had ADHD earlier. Even now, just knowing that I have it (without having yet had the opportunity to go on medication) has helped alleviate some of my anxiety and depression that I found absolutely debilitating during my PhD. I have learned to give myself some grace, and realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if I allow my ADHD to be a little bit more visible. It has allowed me to let go of scrabbling for control: whether it is forcing myself to read papers even though I am struggling, or creating lists of lists to try and counter my poor working memory. A little bit of self-compassion goes a long way. 

Embracing my neurodivergence has enabled me to realise that struggling to read papers is not a character flaw. It also doesn’t mean I am stupid. I have many other strengths, and have developed ways to keep myself engaged when reading papers (for example using the “Read Aloud” function so I can listen to them on the go, and hit the “rewind 10s” button if needed).  It has also pushed me to lean in more to collaborative working (which I love), knowing that the strengths I bring to the table, like great conceptualisation and long-term planning, can be complemented by others who love to get deep into the details. I also work when I can. This means I might not work the typical 9-5 that others do (my brain doesn’t work that way), I instead spread my hours out to work with what works for me, when I can. 

Breaking the mould

We all have biases, both implicit and explicit. In academia, there are plenty of biases that are routinely reiterated, including who really “belongs” in research spaces. For example, lack of diversity in senior management at many universities can make us feel like we shouldn’t be there. Despite this, researchers have found that diverse teams are associated with a range of positive outcomes in organisations

In an environment that is constantly, silently telling us we are not good enough, it can be tough to stay afloat. Like me, you may have internalised what a “perfect” researcher looks like, or how a “perfect” researcher acts, and thought to yourself “that isn’t me”, that you don’t belong, and that someone is going to figure that out sooner rather than later. If so, I say this to you now: navigating the challenges of academia is difficult enough without holding yourself to a standard that is not obtainable. Perfect doesn’t exist.  It is a myth. Know that you deserve to be where you are, and that all your unique talents should be recognised. 

Zoë Ayres

Zoë is both an analytical scientist and a mental health advocate, working improving mental health awareness in academia. Her work is on both reducing the stigma around mental health as well as working with universities to improve support available. Zoë is the author of a series of mental health posters – find out more at Outside of work Zoë enjoys gardening, travelling and archery, and likes going for cocktails with friends. You can find her @zjayres on Twitter.