Jan 162014

Here is to another unfinished blog article I started last summer…

When I was a first semester graduate student at Stanford, because of some difficulties in the AI class (I took CS221 without taking the prerequisite CS121), I felt that Stanford made a mistake admitting me there. When people praise our work after my talk, I also often feel afraid that they will find out some caveats in our algorithms or findings that our work could not fully address. I have a wonderful team of students, postdocs, and research scientists at DFCI, and I often worry that my team will think I am not smart, hard working, or caring enough.

During the career training in Texas in 2012, I learned as women we are particularly vulnerable in feeling that we are not as great as people think and we are afraid sooner or later people will find out what a fraud we are. This is called Impostor Syndrome, and Sheryl Sandberg mentioned it in her book Lean In as well. It is an interesting revelation to me, although it didn’t stop me from feeling so just the same.

In a recent China trip, I watched the movie Hyde Park on Hudson. We normally see FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt, not false discovery rate 🙂 ) pictures as the charming and confident president. But seeing FDR being carried from place to place by his valet, I wonder how humiliating he must have felt. In the movie, his night conversation with George VI was quite interesting and endearing. We all have our vulnerabilities, but that’s OK.

When reading shorter biographies of George Washington before, I couldn’t help marvel at his character, beneficence and good judgement. During the China trip, I read a more detailed Washington biography by Ron Chernow. By the way, Ron Chernow is quite a master at biographies, and I read his biography on Alexander Hamilton 3 times. Anyway, the Washington book not only mentioned some blunders of his youth, but also his personality flaws and corkiness. I guess none of us are saints… George Washington might not be the most brilliant of generals, but his character and integrity made him one of the most respected founding fathers of America and probably one of the best human beings I have read about.

There are two things I learned from the Washington book that are directly applicable to the impostor syndrome. The first is that George Washington was always modest and respectful to his colleagues, even the competitor generals during the war who reviled him behind his back. The second is that George Washington was extremely loyal and supportive to his team members. It is like saying, “Sure, I may not be the best, but I never acted like one. I just do the best I can.” Who can criticize that?? This really disarms the impostor syndrome, but it is easier said than done. Interestingly, looking at my colleagues, I found Bing Ren to best fit these characters. No wonder he earned the respect of so many colleagues!

Jan 152014

I started this blog last summer, but didn’t finish, so let me kick off this year’s blog by finishing it…

A colleague sent me this blog from a Harvard Computer Science professor on how to have a balance and happy tenure track experience.

Very interesting advices! I especially liked her considering the job as a 7-year postdoc (FAS tenure track is 7 years) and to work in fixed number of hours and amount. Actually her advices could be good even for people with tenure. I thought life after tenure will be more relaxed, but the reality is that life after the tenure could be like on the hamster wheel. So it is good to read an article like this sometimes, slow down a little to smell the flowers and listen to our hearts. Indeed, we may not be the perfect parent, researcher or professor, but there will certainly be a place for us in this world, and that will just have to be good enough for me.

Once I was quite stressed out at work, and my PhD advisor Jun Liu kindly offered to chat over coffee. He asked me whether I liked what I was doing. I said yes but there was just too much to do. Jun said, “That makes the solution easier: pick the life style you want to have, and make work fit in it.” Another colleague Zhiping Weng also once told me that we don’t want work to kill us, so if sometimes we have to let some balls drop because we are too swamped, there is no need to feel guilty. Before that, I often felt guilty for not contributing enough on writing a grant, delaying paper submission deadlines, or giving an unsatisfactory talk. These conversations definitely made my life much better! I have learned to not feel guilty on past failures, so I can save some energy to do better the next time.