I started the day feeling discouraged and wrung out. Both physically—I’ve been fighting a cold—and mentally—I’m always fighting to stave off the thought that I’m never going to finish my PhD. My one significant accomplishment of late (the Paper From Hell was accepted for publication!!!) had been deflated by the realization that there were small errors in two of the figures. Very tiny errors, really; little points in the middle of a bunch of other points on a plot. They have no effect on our interpretation of the data or the paper’s conclusions. Still, they are real mistakes and will need to be fixed before the official version of the paper is published.
Fixing the mistakes means sending updated figures to the journal when I check the page proofs. I think you can do that, but I felt so embarrassed about having to do it. How could I have missed these details? What is the editor going to think about having to sign off on the changes?
I was feeling completely un-confident about my ability to do anything right.
In a perfect coincidence, that’s when the hashtag #FailingInSTEM appeared in my Twitter feed. Scientists were sharing their stories about screwing up in ways big and small. It was such a relief to be reassured that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even folks who go on to be very successful in academia and in life.
I learned that someone I deeply respect once had to issue an erratum to correct some misplaced points in a published plot. Suddenly catching a similar issue at the proofs stage didn’t seem so bad. This is the stage when I’m supposed to double-check everything one last time, right?
Sometime, when I’m feeling a bit more coherent, I’ll write a longer post on how academia promotes a culture of You Should Be The Best Perfect Best Amazing Perfect Researcher and how that’s fed the hungry brain monster of my perfectionism. For now, let me just say that I wish we talked more about our mistakes. It helps those of us who feel terrible about ourselves. It really does.