– Alex Fitzpatrick –
In the 2002 video game Kingdom Hearts, one of the most difficult bosses you face is an evil shadow version of your character. At ten years old, it was certainly the most difficult video game battle I’ve ever played – in fact, it also led to one of the biggest fights between my brother and I, after he saved over my save file and erased my progress in that battle. I was furious, frustrated, and felt utterly defeated. It was several weeks before I tried again.
That video game boss is also a perfect representation of my struggles in becoming a scientist.
In my childhood, science was always around me – my father was an aerospace engineer with a love of science fiction that manifested itself as an obscene amount of memorabilia around the house. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always “a scientist”. I did fairly well in school, although as I got older I had more difficulty in some science classes, especially when mathematics played a role. I struggled with long equations and calculations. Anything with numbers would cause me to be flustered and lose confidence in my work. Still, I did my best and moved forward.
It was around 8th grade that my own personal video game boss blocked my progression. I was struggling in an earth science class and failing to reach the high standards I had set for myself. It wasn’t long before I was questioning myself – “Am I actually smart enough to become a scientist? What if I’ve somehow managed to trick everyone into thinking I was smart, but now I’ve been exposed as a fraud?”
By the time I reached high school, I was no longer setting my sights on a career in science. I took classes in fashion design and marketing, thinking about going to college for advertising. I still took college-level science classes, but I could never feel confident in my science literacy. I was constantly blocked by the shadow version of myself that would never let me feel secure in my abilities or intelligence enough to seriously consider a career in science. Looking back, I wonder how much of my mediocre performance in science classes was to do with my low self-esteem – after all, if you think so little of yourself that you expect to do poorly in science, how can you possibly exceed those expectations?
I wish I could say that I’ve beaten that final boss and have reached the next level. But I think it would be more apt to say that I’m still battling myself. I can, however, confidently say that the shadow version of myself has less health than she started out with.
In my undergraduate studies, I majored in archaeology. It was something I aspired to do since I first watched Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child and then immediately proceeded to dig a two-foot hole in my backyard. More importantly, it wasn’t really a science in my mind either – this is debatable, of course, and today I’d argue it’s definitely a science. But at the time, especially in the United States where archaeology and anthropology are intertwined, I felt like I was planted in the humanities, far away from that mean, shadowy version of myself and all of that difficult science that I could never understand.
I bounced around a lot in my undergraduate, moving my focus from one subject to the next. In my freshman year, I was determined to become a classical archaeologist who specialized in Hellenistic statuary. By my junior year, I was definitely going to be a circumpolar archaeologist looking at Viking Age material in the Arctic. It wasn’t until I spent a summer studying abroad in Scotland as part of my first archaeological excavation that I realized what I really wanted to do with my career.
The excavation was a joint project between American and British students, which brought my preconceived notions about archaeology into question. In the United Kingdom, archaeology is treated more like a science than what I had experienced in the United States; students were taught more about analytical methods and lab work in their first two years of their undergraduate degrees than I was taught in my entire undergraduate career! For a moment, I felt a kind of excitement that I hadn’t felt in years…could I actually be a scientist like I’ve always wanted to be?
With this in mind, I made the big move to England to do my postgraduate studies in archaeological sciences. This may have been the scariest decision of my life – not only was I moving alone to a different country, but I was also jumping headfirst into science for the first time in years…and at the postgraduate level as well! If you had asked me what an electron was at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. Most of my archaeological science courses were based in chemistry as well, which was a field of science that I had struggled the most in during high school.
Unsurprisingly, the shadow version of myself came back with a vengeance that year. I was filled with self-doubt and struggled severely in lab sessions, often resulting in constant panic attacks on the morning of a day in the lab. I had difficulty writing simple lab reports and could barely engage in any scientific writing. Reading journal articles was like attempting to read a different language, let alone trying to comprehend the concepts they were illustrating. It was like I was a child in a class of adults, unable to understand what was happening around me. I felt like I had made a grave mistake in moving here to attempt a science degree – there were many times when I thought about packing it up and moving back home. “You’re not smart enough to do science, why would you even bother?” my shadow self constantly taunted me, louder and louder each day.
And then suddenly, things snapped into place.
I will never be sure when things changed. Perhaps it was around the start of my master’s dissertation, the first time I had ever been placed in charge of a research project. Maybe it was because of my first conference participation that I became more confident. Or maybe it was getting admitted to the PhD program shortly after I finished my dissertation. But I had decided to do something radical and different – I was going to fight back.
It took some time, of course – the beginning of my first year of the PhD was difficult and I once again felt trapped in a corner with my shadow self, barely confident in my ability to even turn in a literature review draft on time. But I soon began to find that I had the resources to combat that version of myself – I had a supportive and encouraging team of supervisors, I was in therapy for depression and anxiety, and I began to reach out to others in my field on social media, creating a network of new friends and colleagues that had my back. By the second half of my first year, I almost felt like a video character – equipped with the best weapons and armor, all levelled up, I was ready to take on that final boss that was, in actuality, myself.
I wish I could say that I’ve beaten that final boss and have reached the next level. But I think it would be more apt to say that I’m still battling myself. I can, however, confidently say that the shadow version of myself has less health than she started out with – although impostor’s syndrome will always rear its ugly head at one point or another, I’ve become confident enough in my work as a scientist that I can usually swat those negative thoughts away like one would swat a fly. They’re just silly little intrusive pests that I’ve learned to live with, but not allowed to control me.
Low self-esteem and impostor’s syndrome nearly railroaded my life into a path that would not have been as rewarding or enjoyable as the one I am on now. And I’m sure that many scientists and academics have similar stories – maybe not ones with as much usage of video game metaphors as mine, but still, it is not an unusual phenomenon! My only advice to those who may be experiencing their own shadow self fighting them at every turn is to persist. No matter what that voice in your end says, you can overcome your own insecurities and fears and do whatever you set your mind on. This is a battle that you can surely win.
Alex Fitzpatrick, MSc FSA Scot – Zooarchaeologist and current PhD student at the University of Bradford. I currently write at my own blog, https://animalarchaeology.wordpress.com and manage a Twitter account @ArchaeologyFitz. I also run the social media for the science website Crastina @SciCrastina.