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I have a huge doubt about the work I am doing. Although the results have been reproduced many times, the idea is not really known or even explained. I have been struggling to write it in a way that explains it well (I am still not a good writer), but I understand what the whole idea is after one year of hard work. However, a colleague did not find it interesting, gave no comments, and that made me doubt how I am so passionate and I find this to be interesting, what seems to be useless to others.

I have been away from publishing for four years due to dramatic experiences in academia, and now as I am getting older and writing my first paper in that field, my heart is racing wondering whether I am really a good researcher in the first place. Sometimes I want to cry, I feel I am putting a lot of work to explain something never explained and sometimes I feel it is crap.

Also, during the process of submission, a colleague submitted a supposedly high quality paper to a journal claiming that the work was novel, but the editor's response was that it was not original. That makes me so much afraid: what if I sent the paper and it never got accepted? I worked so hard all over the year and I want to make a good reputation for myself. I don't know if anyone has been in a situation like that, I am dealing with huge fear and anxiety. As a researcher, I was always interested in what I am passionate about, but I feel sometimes I am very dumb maybe. I don't know but those feelings are not nice and sometimes I want to cry. Any advice would be appreciated.

Lastly, the co-authors are still trying to understand what I am doing since they have never worked in this area and that makes me so much more afraid.

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    I have tried to edit your question to make it slightly more readable. In particular, the first paragraph was quite difficult to parse, please feel free to edit if I have changed the meaning of anything.
    – GoodDeeds
    Oct 1 '21 at 17:03
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    It's easy to get emotionally attached to your work, but over time you learn how to hold things a bit more lightly. Also something to keep in mind is that your passion for a subject is relatively personal. Oct 1 '21 at 17:14
  • Some good advice I remember from the Director of Engineering, when starting a "high tech" career in industry: "You will have to live with the fact that 90% of your best work will end up in the trash bin." But with hindsight, 90% might have been an optimistically low estimate.
    – alephzero
    Oct 2 '21 at 4:16
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    You have "co-authors" who have "never worked in this area?" So why on earth are they "co-authors"???
    – alephzero
    Oct 2 '21 at 4:17
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From my perspective, after reading your question, it seems to me that the source of your anxiety might be a deep lack of self-worth (which can be solved over time, with effort and determination). To be more specific, you have created an identity of yourself as a researcher, and it is clearly an identity that you are deeply passionate about, but you are also very afraid that others might challenge that identity, and destroy it.

In your mind, the success of papers and grants is an absolutely essential, fundamental aspect of your identity as a researcher. That is, you are deeply attaching your worth and value as a researcher (perhaps even as a human being?) to the results of your paper. Perhaps you are worried that, if this paper is not accepted, and you cannot find any idea for pushing the paper forward towards acceptance, then you have fundamentally failed as a researcher, and if that identity fails, you might not have any backup plan for an alternative identity.

Of course, these assumptions that you hold about your identity and your worth as a researcher are clearly mistaken, and perhaps you already suspect that this is the case. Nevertheless, your anxiety is still holding a grip on you, and you are hoping that someone else can bring some clarity to your situation.

First, let us deconstruct your identity. In other words, let's make it clear that you are not your clothes, you are not your car, you are not your house, and you are not your wealth. If you don't have a certain car or a certain brand of clothes, that does not mean that you are worth any less as a person. In the same way, you are not your research papers. Your worth as a researcher cannot be defined by the success of your papers. And if you doubt this, just ask your colleagues and everybody else in academia about the multiple times they failed to get a position, got rejection letters, failed to get grants, and failed to get papers published. All of us have a long history of failing, it is not just you who is facing this issue. This is a universal experience in academia.

The challenge I want to propose to you is: can you be at peace with failing, even if you tried your best? Can you train yourself to dissociate failure from your sense of self-worth? Perhaps, can you train yourself to love failure? If everybody around you told you that your work was not that great, would you still feel passionate enough about research to continue regardless? This is crucial. Nobody can force you to gain a sense of self-worth and find internal strength to deal with regular failures. No matter what other people tell you, no matter how much they try to comfort you, ultimately the only person who can strengthen your mind is you. And this is achieved by telling yourself, everyday if necessary, that it is alright to fail repeatedly.

People who have succeeded in academia have trained themselves to think that, even if they fail one time, two times, three times, four times, it does not mean that they will fail a fifth time. History is not destiny. Furthermore, they have trained themselves to understand that in most cases, there is usually a second chance, and even a third chance. The important thing to do after each failure is to first get a good night rest, do something that helps you to calm down, find some comfort and laughter in a good comedy show, and once you have reestablished yourself mentally, you must start to discuss your paper with trusted colleagues and start elaborating a step-by-step plan to fix any problems with your paper and move forward with a positive attitude.

Please understand that, no matter how good you are, you will always face attacks and criticism by someone. Even the great minds of science have had to face repeated attacks by colleagues and society at large. Can you be OK with this fact? Can you be at peace with this and move forward with joy, no matter what? Can you accept the idea that the challenges will never stop coming, no matter how good you get? Instead of looking at the waves at the sea as your enemies, as something that you should be afraid of, can you try to ride the challenging waves? And if you fall from your board, and the waves hit you strong, can you get back to the surface, and look forward to riding the next wave with joy and anticipation? If you can train yourself to do this every day, then you can defeat the tendency of your brain to automatically cripple your energy and enthusiasm. Remember that all of us, no matter how famous, are all facing the same waves, and often failing to ride them.

Of course, even though everything ultimately depends on you, I still advise you to seek the counsel of your close ones and counseling from any experts on mental health issues at your institution, because you should seek all the help you can get. Just don't use them as crutches, or excuses to prevent you from doing the hard emotional work that needs to be done. And this hard work is the following: every time you get criticized by your superiors in public, every time your paper fails, every time someone attacks you, every time that research is not progressing smoothly, do your best to stay strong and balanced, and repeat to yourself: it's alright, it's OK. My self-worth does not depend on being successful every time. I am much more than just a researcher, I am much more than my nationality or gender, and I have value as a human being, no matter what happens. I will take a rest, get myself back in shape with a few laughs, and find a new way to address this issue with the help of my colleagues and close ones.

No matter how good you think you are, it's always possible to do a little better next time. Just keep trying your very best, and even if your effort fails, do not be hard on yourself. Always tell yourself that you did the best you could at that time, and that you will devote yourself to doing better next time. In order to survive as a researcher, you must value yourself and cherish yourself at all times, and once you get yourself into a stable emotional state, only then you will be able to face the constant challenges.

To conclude, what defines a successful researcher is not how many times they are successful, it is the way in which they gracefully deal with defeat and failure, and continuously seek ways to bounce back, and try to keep their passion for research alive and strong.

Do not be discouraged, and learn to let go of the paper's results. Try to get feedback on the paper from as many trusted people as you can, but at some point, you need to finish the paper, and offer yourself as a "sacrificial lamb" to the opinion of the journal's reviewers, with courage and dignity. No matter what the result is, in most cases there is a path forward, it just might take a few good rounds of busting your brain and rethinking your approach. Stay strong. You are worthy of being appreciated as a researcher regardless of the results.

My apologies for the long answer, but I felt your situation deserved more than just a few kind words of support.

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    What a beautiful comment, you made me cry and you just described me, I think your comment, will stick to my mind till I will die. If you dont you mind, I want to read your comment on my podcast since I had quite large audience I believe will benefit from this comment, if you would like to reveal who you are, name to give you credit that would be great... This is very meaningful and deep comment. I will never forget it..
    – Monika
    Oct 1 '21 at 19:15
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    For various reasons, I would rather not reveal my real name, but you have full permission to divulge my answer anywhere you like, and you can use my nickname djohn if you need to give credit. Just one last personal anecdote: I have a folder with 3 successful job acceptance letters in academic institutions. Next to it I have another folder with 30-40 rejection letters. Every letter was a painful punch in the gut, but I keep them for a reason. They remind me that it's not the end of the world, and I am still pushing forward, despite the suffering. Good luck for your career, take care.
    – djohn
    Oct 1 '21 at 19:34
  • "People who have succeeded in academia have trained themselves to think that, even if they fail one time, two times, three times, four times, it does not mean that they will fail a fifth time..." Exactly. Just because you fail at something doesn't make you a failure. That's a simple sounding lesson, but I'm surprised at how many adults don't understand that and think they are failures for some reason, or (worse?) don't even attempt something out of fear of failure.
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 3 '21 at 13:42
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It's okay for work to be incremental and not particularly remarkable to everyone in the field - sometimes the importance of the work will be more evident later, sometimes research as a community endeavor is about trying lots of different things out and reporting what you find, even if it just means some area has now been explored such that others don't need to do it. Everyone is working on their own things and may be most excited about their own little niche of research - that's just fine!

Writing, academic or otherwise, is very very hard. Very few people are naturally good at it, and even very good writers have room for improvement. I find the best way to write is to try to get your ideas down on paper without being too self-judgmental, then return to your writing at a later date (1 week, 2 weeks, a month, 3 months - the interval that works best is different for everyone) later to revise. It may take several cycles of this revision process to get to something you are happy with. It will never be perfect, so don't seek perfection, just seek to improve each draft.

If your co-authors are having trouble understanding what you are doing, then yes, that's a problem, but not an unsolvable one. You should work with them to find what they see clearly and where they get stuck, and use that to guide your revisions.

It's normal to submit to journals and not get accepted the first time. It's normal for good papers to be submitted several times before a suitable journal is found. It's normal for journals to require one or more cycles of revision before final acceptance. None of these things make it a bad paper or make the authors of the paper bad researchers. As long as the work itself is robust, it can be revised to be published somewhere. Too many people want to submit their work in the "top" journals, so those journals are more picky and reject most of what is submitted to them. Mid-tier journals will publish more incremental steps, including papers that confirm what has been shown by others already. It's most important for a paper like that to properly situate the work in what has already been done, and explain what about the approach makes it useful.

Academia is stressful even in the best of circumstances, and the best of circumstances aren't experienced by everyone. Stress, anxiety, imposter syndrome, feelings of failure and insufficiency - many people experience these. Some will talk about it, others may hide it and you will never even know that they suffer. People who seem to have it easy may be deeply struggling inside. People with a bright smile during the day may be crying themselves to sleep at night. When you read published papers you don't usually see all the times that same work was submitted and resubmitted, all the earlier revisions, the other three projects that only ever ended up half-done and never reached submission. You'll always be close to your own work at all stages of a project, good and bad; you see everyone else's only in its best state. It's not really fair to compare your own work at all stages with everyone else's best product, yet it's an easy trap to fall into.

It's perfectly normal to struggle mentally in academia, but "normal" doesn't mean you just need to cope with it. There can be benefits to seeking help with mental health in academia, whether that help is one-on-one therapy, some sort of support group (whether formal meetings or informal discussions with friends in similar circumstances), or medication - the best way to find out if any of these might work well would be to consult with a mental health professional.

Therapists/psychologists are experts in helping people manage conflicts between their emotional feelings and what they "know" logically. If someone has an irrational fear of, say, all snakes, it usually isn't enough for them to just read that "this snake is not dangerous". It's quite possible to read the first half of this answer, understand logically that these things are normal feelings, and yet still feel fear and anxiety about your own work. Therapy can help in both of these situations to build cognitive and emotional strategies to cope. With enough practice, the fear may lessen or at least the daily impact can be mitigated.

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  • Thanks so much, this was really helpful
    – Monika
    Oct 1 '21 at 18:39
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While I believe djohn's answer is much more relevant to your actual issue with this work, and Bryan has partially addressed your concern about communicating your ideas, I'd like to touch on that bit more.

Getting others to share your vision can be a monumentally hard task. Personally, I fail at that all the time! That induces a huge feeling of self-doubt: what if I am believing some absolute nonsense? What if I'm turning into one of these poor sods who could not figure out science for what it is and came up with some wild and also super incorrect alternatives? Would I end up with everyone pitying me, eventually?

Then, I also know many of these ideas I failed at communicating end up embraced by my collaborators couple of years later. Probably an issue of my explanations, then, rather than ideas being wrong. I know there is no other way forward for me rather than trying my best to stay honest and open to critique, and that should be sufficient to not become a bogus scientist. After all, there's nothing that can be done but doing what you believe but having enough plasticity to change those beliefs with sufficient counter-evidence being present. It is fairly hard.

I find that this entire struggle is best wrapped up by Sofia Kovalevskaya:

"Say what you know, do what you must, come what may."

Hope this helps.

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  • Thanks so much that was excellent point and if you master it, it is a true power, I confess I am still not there yet, but you mentioned very important be honest, and open to critique.
    – Monika
    Oct 3 '21 at 18:41

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