Becoming an Expert

Most events in my professional life cause me enough nausea-inducing anxiety to instigate thoughts of quitting and joining the cult of van-living hippies taking over our nation’s highways. From simply introducing myself to a well-known birder to meeting with a potential research funder, the tasks involved in becoming a professional scientist, or a professional anything for that matter, make for an intimidating environment that can feel interminable. I get the impression that a majority of young professionals feel some degree of imposter syndrome during their lives, and perhaps this is simply a function of becoming a successful adult, but my question is: when does it stop?

In his Letters to a Young Scientist, E.O. Wilson urges us to “March away from the sound of the guns. Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own. Once you have settled on a specialty, and the profession you can love, and you’ve secured opportunity, your potential to succeed will be greatly enhanced if you study it enough to become an expert.” Since we can’t all be co-founders of the theory of island biogeography, I want to know when you can justifiably and confidently call yourself an expert in a field. Where is the line between student and professional and how can you tell when you’ve crossed it? Does it take an interview on All Things Considered to become a “somebody” or can successfully answering a question in a seminar gain you that designation?

In the field of ecology, much of the problem solving (at least in my experience) ends with a shrug and a, “Huh, that is a tough problem.” Many animals do not lend themselves to study without a great deal of resistance. There is great joy and great frustration in attempting to find a way to overcome that resistance, and it is only with perseverance that anything productive actually gets done. It’s not easy and most graduate students I know who are working 10-12 hours a day feel like they’re just skimming the surface of their focal research. Questions beget questions faster than answers so that sometimes it’s difficult to remember to take a moment and look back on everything you’ve done.

Sometimes it takes an outside observer to convince you that confidence is an acceptable, even necessary trait and that you are making progress regardless of your setbacks. In preparation for a meeting with a potential collaborator recently, my hands were sweating and my nerves were on high alert, prompting a friend to express to me, “You’re the expert. They should be asking you for advice. Don’t be nervous.” My initial instinct was to brush this compliment off in disdain and embarrassment, but there is concrete proof that keeping track of your accomplishments and the compliments people pay you can be extremely beneficial to your mental well-being and your career (Clance 1978). In my opinion, an expert is someone who obsessively researches their topic of choice and can succinctly convey that information to both colleagues and laypeople with confidence. In that case, perhaps expertise is scale-dependent and we become experts sooner than we would be wont to believe. So follow the sage advice of Dr. Wilson and march away from the sound of guns. Especially when those guns feel like they’re pointed at you and all of your accomplishments. There is always more that can be done and there is always someone one step ahead, but in striving towards expertise, don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate all that you’ve accomplished

Cosey Sekish, Expert Ornithologist at your service.
Cosey Sekish, Expert Ornithologist at your service.

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