From Black Hole to Environment: Days 1 and 2
I'm in Canberra for the week, attending a conference hosted by CAASTRO, From Black Hole to Environment: Galaxy Evolution across Multiple Wavelengths (#BHcon17 on Twitter). I'm presenting a poster on the Radio Galaxy Zoo project I did back at the end of 2015 and start of 2016.
As an undergraduate student, I think I have a somewhat unique (or at least, rare) perspective into a type of event that is commonly restricted to graduate students and above. After two days, it's quite clear that I lack basic knowledge in most of the subjects that are being talked about. I'm trying my best to remain engaged with each talk and with the fellow attendants, but in each case, I will inevitably come up against a word or idea that I have no prior experience with. There is a pervasive feeling in academia that 'stupid' questions almost certainly exist, and it's whatever question is considered basic knowledge for that particular field.
The amount of background reading that would have been required, given that there was little way to know the full extent of each talk before going, was too much for me to invest before leaving for Canberra. So I'm left feeling like a very confused outsider whilst those around me ask (what I am sure are) thought-provoking questions and set up useful new collaborations/networks. It's my goal to be able to do the same, but my questions would be basic (and the answers uninformative to many) and I have little to offer or ask of collaborators in the near future.
Undoubtedly some part of my mindset is a result of the infamous imposter syndrome, which is ever present in society. I know that my being here is not merely by luck or grand mistake - indeed, I had to argue hard to be allowed here - and yet I still feel undeserving. Some of the discussions which my poster have generated have shown me just how many details of the project I am still fuzzy on. This is undoubtedly a good thing as it allows me to fill in those gaps now, but it is still a difficult lesson to learn nonetheless. When you have worked on something like this for quite a long time, I think it can be quite natural to feel intimidated and threatened. From my perspective, it feels like all of my hard work is being torn apart, with little regard for the skill and knowledge that I had when I did that work (i.e. I was a fresh-faced first-year university student, with no prior programming experience: mistakes abound). From the perspective of those asking the questions, they just want to make sure that the science is robust and that I have thought of all of the possible pitfalls of my work.
I think we can both be correct to some degree. We need to question the results and methodology of the science we see presented, but we also need to be considerate of how we go about doing that.