Academia and Low Self-Esteem: A Tale of Two Things by Elia Magrinelli

“Who am I?”

When answering this question some people might think about defining moments in their life. I have a clear memory of my early high school years; I was having an oral exam during biology class on the subject of animal physiology and evolution, something most of my classmates were struggling with, considering it a mnemonical exercise. That exam didn’t just go well for me; I aced it! I still remember the signs of awe in my classmates’ eyes at the end of the exam evoking a sensation that ultimately became a core memory and a pillar in defining who I would say I was for a long time. I was good at science. What maybe I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the feeling I had latched onto was not just that of mastering something, but the feeling of having my peers recognise me as someone who was highly talented, along with the feeling of acknowledgment. This identity and motivation, being recognised as a gifted STEM student, has pushed me over the years to achieve a lot academically, but it also came with some large pitfalls and insecurities. Furthermore, I believe that the academic system can amplify some of these insecurities, and this is why I wanted to share my experience here.

Experiencing Failure

Driven by my desire to receive affirmation from others I worked hard and chose to undertake very difficult academic tasks so that others would consider me as a capable scientist. I graduated with high grades during my Master’s degree, frequently going out of my way to help friends when they were struggling, and taking some extra courses and activities. I then received funding for a PhD abroad which also ended quite well. At my first postdoc, I worked a lot on multiple main projects and side projects, but I didn’t manage to finalise my main publication before the two years of my scholarship funding ran out. Having taken the decision not to relocate my family any further (as we ended up wanting to stay where we were), staying in academia for me meant essentially that I had a single chance to secure funding and advance in the hierarchy. And I failed.

I couldn’t get the grant I needed and pushing further into an academic career meant relocating at the very least, chasing after positions wherever eligibility criteria for funding would allow me to apply again, as well as setting back many other life goals. Most of all, I no longer recognised who I thought I was. Until that moment I had been “the one that succeeds in STEM”, and suddenly that was no more. This didn’t remove any of my achievements so far, or any of the things I learned and could do; it simply meant some other people had done better and were evaluated as a better fit for the position.

Without this external validation, assigning value to myself was challenging, and my self-esteem took a heavy knock. All it took just the one knock and all the strong motivation I had felt for a decade had come tumbling down, and I was not sure how to move forward. The façade that other people were seeing me as was not there anymore – I could no longer be seen any more as the gifted STEM student that succeeded at everything. I had been shaping my view of myself based on what others thought and said about me. Now I had no more shape. I was no more.

I spent the next few months feeling aimless, trying half-heartedly to understand what other options I had in academia and quickly realising that nothing would allow me to progress as I intended while staying where I wanted to be. While this was happening internally, it manifested externally as well, I had lost 4-5kg out of sedentarism, something which is quite unprecedented as physical activity has been something I had never abandoned before. Feeling more and more distant from the identity and the goal I had been pursuing, I ultimately asked myself: Why had I wanted to pursue an academic career in the first place? Furthermore, what could I do now? What did I truly want to do? Yet I kept feeling as if I had really achieved nothing.

Defining Our Worth

At this point, it is probably a good time to pull back from just my own story and try to define what I had experienced and why. If you do care about closure though, I will just say that my story ended (as of today) with me ultimately understanding that what I was enjoying the most rather than just being in academia was doing science as a bioinformatician. I also realised that this was possible through pursuing different job opportunities, and about a year after that event I did manage to find a job where I do just that in a private company. This said, I am not advocating strictly for a specific sector being superior to another, it is simply where I have happened to find my current place.

I want to make a point of how in academia, especially in the early phases of an academic career, most of the achievements and steps required to progress through its hierarchy depend on competing with others, rather than simply your individual ability. I also believe it is important to discuss that academia places high importance to achievements such as high impact factor publication and grants, something that is ultimately dependent from a lot of very intricate variables often disconnected with someone actual skills as well as often being based on some sort of competition. This can exacerbate the anxiety of  people who are internally motivated by the search of external approval as well as induce the same anxiety in people who are initially not falling into this dynamic, until ultimately they risk their mental health.

Allow me to use a small example to clarify what I’m trying to convey: let’s compare how academic CVs are written in comparison to those for industry. In my experience, an academic CV puts front and centre your publications and grants, which ultimately are a result of a very complex mix of luck, opportunity, privilege, location, socioeconomic background and more. For an industry job, CVs are written directly highlighting personal skills and individual abilities. This is maybe a little dense so I will try to lighten up the content with an analogy. Let’s imagine a photographer who writes their own CV either in an “academic style” and one for the private sector. In the first case, they would be likely to highlight whether their work made it into prestigious journals and whether or not they received an award for that, making it easier for the person viewing the CV to understand how the photographer fared in comparison at different steps of their career. On the other hand, a CV built for the private sector would be more likely to look like a portfolio that highlights the skills and capabilities of the photographer, giving examples of how well he can set up portrait photos, landscapes, macros or whatever would be needed for the job in question. The interviewer would then have a good idea of the photographer’s skills and whether or not they fit the requirement.[ Added another example, let me know if this one is better and thus would like to swap it ] This is maybe a bit dense to digest, so let’s take the time for the obligatory sport metaphor (it’s the only one, I promise). Let’s imagine a sprint runner writing a CV in the “academia style”, they would probably highlight the rank they achieved in the most prestigious competitions they run, the examiner would then have a good grasp at knowing where the sprinter was in comparison to their peers during steps of their career, playing with a specific set of rules. Now let’s imagine the same runner making a CV in the style of an industry job. They would most likely write their best set of times they ran in the different types of specialities, giving a good idea to the examiner of their overall performance.

What Happens When Low Self-esteem Gets the Upper Hand

Having defined how academia structure focuses on competitive results it is time to look at the dynamics that tend to happen to people with low self-esteem are prone to fall into. In my case, my personal history had most likely channelled my low self-esteem into a case of “superiority-complex”, probably as a result of the positive feedback loop in which succeeding in science was giving me the attention and praise I wasn’t able to gauge on my own. While the more popularised perception or stereotype of the superiority complex is associated with people who behave somehow arrogantly towards others and consider their abilities inferior compared to theirs, this describes only a limited situation described by the term. As first described by psychologist Alfred Adler (The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, 1964), it’s a dynamic in which people who are moderately talented at something while having low self-esteem feel motivated to work hard and obtain the approval and attention of others recognising their worth, while struggling to value themselves. The problem these people often face, as for my personal case, is that soon or later there will be a moment in which the expected approval from others won’t come, for one reason or another. For example, someone else will simply do better than them. These events can break the feedback loop critical to their own identity, thus causing trauma.

While I am currently aware of this dynamic, it is still something that is part of my internal motivation dynamic and has pushed me to more than just academic endeavours. For example: at my current job, our office is roughly 50 km away from where I live, which thanks to the great infrastructure of public transport I can easily cover in about 50 min, mixing 30 minutes of biking and 20 minutes on the train. Seeing me arrive at work in bike attire many colleagues asked in semi-admiration if I was coming on my bike alone. You probably know already what happened next. After awkwardly correcting my colleagues I started figuring out in the background whether I could have actually done this small feat, and I have finally started doing the whole stretch of commuting by bike. It is a great ride just near the lake which I really enjoy and works as a great exercise, but I know that part of the reason why I decided to do that, is because I caught wind of how other people would have considered this as something cool and hard to do.

Finding Your Own Value

I don’t like to conclude stories with a sad conclusion, but I don’t have a magical solution to this situation either. What I will do instead is leave you with a personal recommendation for navigating the current academic system. I think this could be especially helpful for those like me who struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. It is a message that is somewhat coming from the work of Jean Paul Sartre (Being and nothingness – “L’etre et le neant”, 1943). Yes, I am citing French existentialism as a conclusion. No, I am not fun at parties. To my own knowledge, I don’t know if Sartre ever made a direct statement on how to navigate the academic system with low self-esteem, but I still believe some of the messages of his work and of existentialism overall could be of help. If you happen to be new on existentialism, in broad strokes it is a philosophical discipline that puts the human existence and individual subjective experiences at the core of finding reason and meaning in life. As human beings, we are capable of rational thought, and we are also capable of defining who we want to be outside of what other people think of us and might want us to be, and we have all have the right to do that. With this though, comes as well “the existential angst”, as in the anxiety of finding your own place in the world. Since we are capable of thinking and have free will, we are also responsible for freely defining who we want to be and not rely always on others to find this meaning.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does”

Finding value in the approval of others is not necessarily something bad, but we should not entirely base our value on the opinions of others alone. Yes, this can be hard work, but it’s also necessary work we ought to do: we owe it to ourselves. If in academia or in any other line of work you might find yourself out of touch with your own values, take a moment to remind yourself of what you can do, of what you have learned to do from the past and what you like doing. It is something that helped me figure out what I could and wanted to do, and maybe it could help you too.

Elia Magrinelli is a data scientist at Sophia Genetics. He was born in Italy and approached higher studies as a first-generation student. He attended the University of Milan and obtained a Molecular Biology PhD at the University of Nice. While he started his science career in developmental neurobiology he progressively caught interest and expertise in bioinformatics and genomics. He has worked over the years at many science communications initiatives, such as with AIRIcerca and Bio-Room. He can be reached either via Twitter @EliaMagrinelli or his website eliamagrinelli.wixsite.com/home

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