Dear Younger Me,

You feel two things: important because you are a PhD student and scared of the PhD journey ahead. In fact, the more important you feel because you are pursuing a PhD degree and nobody else in your circle of life is doing the same, the more scared you become. Vice versa, the more scared you are of the journey, the more you feel the need to pump up your self-confidence.

You are annoying, do you know that? You are only learning how to do your data analysis, and are completely lost in the jungle of all these methodologies, theoretical approaches, previous studies, and their endless intertwined little traps where you keep falling into. However, because you are not accepting of the fact that you do not know and are only learning, you cover this up and mask it into being overly self-certain. You question your supervisor when there is no need to, take advice personally and get upset of it. The frustration that should be directed at yourself, you place at your supervisors.

Dear younger me: your supervisors are only humans. Keep in mind that they are actually doing very well. You tend to see only what they are not doing, such as writing any of your thesis for you or interacting with you as if you are a true colleague. You suffer because you are slowly beginning to understand that you are not yet at their academic level of understanding. They know it -and they show it. Please be aware of the fact that they are not only reading your scribbles and commenting them both in person and in email, but they are also dealing with your attitude -ignorance combined with all possible attempts at hiding your slowly growing understanding that you are ignorant. Meaning, you, my dear, are a Besserwisser.

The sooner you learn to be humble, the better. Admit that you are only learning and do not yet know anything. Stay in that place of openness and curiosity and put your ego aside. That is the only way to ever truly learn. There will be many ways you will be humbled along the road, and you should take them as blessings, not as setbacks or punishments. When your article is not accepted in the journal you had wanted to publish it, when someone really challenges you at your conference presentation, and when your supervisors tell you to re-write it all (again!), take these as normal parts of the path and also as possibilities to get rid of your attempts to be perfect in a way that, in doing research, is far from perfect. Embrace all chances to admit you have taken the wrong approach, misunderstood something, tried a method that will just not work, or spent a lot of time reading something that is not useful (or that you have not even understood in the first place).

Dear younger me, when you stop acting like you already know everything, you start learning. The PhD journey becomes real -messy, fun, frustrating, adventurous. When you not only know that you don’t know but are also willing to show it instead of trying to defend your ground, your supervisors will respect you more, not less, and your work can proceed in unknown ways. The more you get rid of the need to know, the more space you open up for learning, taking unfamiliar perspectives, and doing things in a way that comes from the need to understand instead of the need to  know better.

So dear younger self, embrace a not-knowing -attitude and let it show. You will have the chance to be a know-it-all, if you still want to, later on, after you have graduated and other people (perhaps your own prospective PhD students) are willingly giving you the position of someone who indeed knows better.

Heidi_Toivonen If You Want to Be Brainy Start With Humility
Heidi Toivonen

About Heidi Toivonen: I am a Finnish clinical psychologist with a wide experience from a variety of different health and social care and medicine settings. Lately, I have been working with developing services that support employment, such as vocational and career coaching. My PhD research concerned the construction of agency and its lack, nonagency, in psychotherapeutic conversations. In the future, I aim to continue doing research and teach. My research interests include e.g. national stereotypes, stereotypes related to researchers in different fields of science, agency of patients with serious illness, and user’s sense of agency in human-computer -interaction.

More information about Heidi Toivonen:

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This letter ( If You Want to Be Brainy Start With Humility ) is part of the collection “letter to the younger self” and has been written for helping the “new generation of students” learning from who was there before. You can see all the letters at the following link:

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