I've always wanted to do my best. To impress. More than that – to be the best. To be infallible. I wanted every one of my submissions to my supervisor to be the same. Perfect.
Throughout the first three months of my PhD, I kept trying to write that perfect paper. Those frustrated attempts now lie in shreds, scattered across my hard drive like so many pieces of ticker tape. I couldn't do it. It was immensely frustrating. My friends were writing papers all over the place. I wasn't. I was unproductive, and I felt ashamed. It was becoming more and more apparent to me that I'd picked a project that I hadn't the slightest clue about. I'd been ambitious – arrogant might be an appropriate word. But then I found the framing device, my theoretical grounding, and I was back on my feet again. Feeling as insecurely confident as usual. And I wrote. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. What I finally handed in to my supervisor that first time was a twenty-thousand word monster, and I was ragged when I finally submitted it, sometime in the February or March of 2010.
I'd worked so hard that I couldn't see the writing in front of me any more. When I went to my supervisor for the post-submission discussion, I was hoping for praise, even proclamations of genius. The response rapidly dispelled any pretentious desires.
“Were you drunk when you wrote this?”
When you face criticism, it's hard not to get upset. And it's especially hard not to be upset when it comes from your supervisor. I thought of my supervisor as a mentor, and yes, I wanted to please him, to make him proud of me and to vindicate his acceptance of this imposter who'd had the gall to think they might one day be a Dr. Such feelings can make it really hard to submit that first paper, that first piece of work. It colours your relationship with your mentor, colours their expectations of you. And if you're driven to please, like me, the idea of disappointing a person who has both a personal and professional stake in your success is anathema.
But the thing is, that first piece of work is just that – a first piece. It is not your entire thesis. It is not the pinnacle of your work. Neither is your thesis come to that. You can always improve, you can always get better. That first submission is a chance for you to show what you can do, how you think, how all the odd parts of your mind click together. As much as anything else, it's a way for your supervisor to come to some understanding of your personality and your academic voice. After that first piece, it's their job to help you express and direct those tendencies in the best way they possibly can. If they're a good supervisor, like mine was, their job is not to judge you as a person, mould you and make your into an image of themselves, but is to imagine who, with the right help, you might become.
“Were you drunk when you wrote this?” he said, looking up, blearily, from the computer screen.
“Wish that I had been.”
We both of us burst out laughing.
“It's bonkers,” he said, “but I think we can do something with it. Go away, and make it work.”
That happened with a high proportion of my individual submissions. I didn't write nearly as many papers as my colleagues, partly because the ones I did produce were often as grotesque (in nature as well as size), as this first one. It happened to a lot of my thesis chapters. It sounds painful, and it was. But there was a cathartic ending.
That first submission, initially termed a “Kafkaesque nightmare”, is still there. Unlike the more sensible attempts which I gave up on, and which are now uselessly littering my computer, it underwent revision and extension, and, in the end, became part of my thesis. The first half, in fact. If I hadn't dared to submit it, if I'd been too worried about failure, I wouldn't have the thesis I have today. Your work is never going to be perfect and universally loved. So, with your first submission at least, take a risk: stop aiming for some abstract and impossible concept of perfection, and content yourself with something which might be far more flawed, but which might also, perhaps, be immeasurably more daring.
An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.