Back in secondary school and during my undergraduate, there was no hiding that I was a competitive student. I definitely had a passion for learning and was very focused to understand what I was being taught, so I think achieving good grades was a manifestation of those traits. Of course I also wanted to be one of the best in class, because I think I found identity in that. So that also gave me some more drive to be diligent with my studies and to put in that extra sacrifice.
But validation of smartness all the way through high-school and some of undergrad is obtained through a system that sees everyone answer the same questions in the same exams. So having a standardized curriculum was the way the system assessed individual merit. The symbol of a competitive edge over others was a percentage difference in marks. In the sciences, gaining that competitive edge usually required remembering facts, principles and knowing the right equations to apply in the right context. The teacher is tasked with teaching you exactly what you need to sit the exams. There was an element of certainty in everything because science exams always have an answer sheet.
Things changed a little in undergrad because science was no longer just question sheets but my course required me to use critical thinking to bring together science concepts to solve hypothetical problems, with the organized thought process often presented as an essay. Of course, there were usually expected targets that had to be addressed to obtain a good grade and the information that was needed was already out there.
My first taste of real science research came via my 3rd year and 4th year undergraduate research projects. Everyone had a choice of their own research topic and there was no longer a definitive answer sheet lying around somewhere. Academic competition lost its original meaning here. But there was still a safety net because the undergraduate projects were not expected to be impactful but really just a grasping of the scientific process. Again, there was also someone to put a mark to my work.
The DPhil is very different. The concept of certainty vanishes here and this is the realm of newness- the forefront of science. This can easily become a negative space. Undoubtedly, I think I can attribute some of my negativity to the loss of the normal smartness validation and its associated gratification. There are no grades to achieve and I can no longer reference that system for self worth. So the new reference has become the quantity and quality of research results and the competition is the race to be published. Having any worthy results itself can sometimes seem elusive, so even gratification from research success is much longer-term, which leaves valleys of emptiness and questions such as ‘why am I doing this?!’
Coming to accept this research progress emotional topography is one of my new insights into the reality of scientific research and perhaps embracing that reality will be a form of stress relief.