At the start of the second year of my PhD, I had the opportunity to spend a few months at a research institution in the United States.
It was exciting! I’d just finished my PhD confirmation review and although I was nervous, I was sure it would be excellent. I had it all planned out – I’d go over there, charm them with my irresistible brand of self-deprecating humour, hoard some exceptional data and make some stellar collaborations.
It more or less worked out. All up, I spent nearly six months at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. I collected enough high-quality data from two trips to feed several solid peer-reviewed journal articles. And many years later, I have still maintained those encouraging collaborative relationships.
And my charming sense of humour? Well, that fell a little flat. It was a wreck.
In Australia, we tend to fall back readily on our comfortable self-deprecating jokes. I’m typically more comfortable disparaging than promoting myself.
At my old social running club, I told people I worked in a laboratory. I know lawyers who tell people they do filing for a living, or academics who say they mainly do administrative work. We wouldn’t want people getting the idea that we were puffed up and full of ourselves.
During my research visits to the States, I encountered a very different research culture. I was comfortable establishing and beginning with a low benchmark of performance, and I expected that it would be implicitly understood that this didn’t reflect any deep self-esteem issues. In Australia, a self-effacing remark would be understood or met with a remark expressing the contrary viewpoint. But at times, my new collaborators found my self-disparaging jokes to be quite shocking. A few colleagues voiced their concerns about my overall mental wellbeing.
In general, the American graduate students I met had a much healthier vocabulary to talk about their work and their performance. They were proud of their accomplishments in an intellectually demanding industry. They were excited by the idea of being awarded a doctorate and comfortable with the idea that this was a meaningful achievement.
By contrast, one Australian friend submitted his PhD thesis and rewarded himself in typically understated style by taking an extended run around Canberra. The next morning, a Saturday, he was back at university working, because the PhD didn’t really mean that much and it wasn’t worth getting a big head over.
I’ve recently discussed applying for an Australian Research Council grant for early career researchers. A necessary part of the application form is completing a sizeable section outlining research performance. Of course, an Australian researcher can’t get away with a succinct “Yeah mate, I’ve done some stuff”. Rather, we need the language and maturity to discuss our achievements confidently without resorting to distracting self-effacing tactics.
Personally, I thought I’d nailed this. I drafted my proposal, the performance section replete with sparkles and glitter, and sent it off to mentors and peers for comments. As feedback trickled into my inbox, it was unanimous that I’d failed at self-promotion. A trusted friend generously suggested that at best, I sounded mediocre.
After five substantive grant re-drafts, I couldn’t imagine how I could be more self-effacing. My supervisor capitulated. We would have to move on and merely hope that my rather ambivalent wording adequately conveyed my performance.
The ability to confidently discuss our work and ourselves is an essential part of participating in a workplace. We need to discuss ourselves and our accumulated experience. This is a necessary part of job applications and interviews, grant writing and interacting amongst ourselves.
While I greatly admire the maturity of my American colleagues in discussing their achievements, I understand it’s not quite as simple as getting over it and sitting down and writing an effusive statement of performance.
As a generalisation, for many Australians (amongst other nationalities as well), the disconnect between achievement and communication is chasmic. It’s awkward to toot our own horns too loudly. But it’s also culturally difficult. For a start, we tend to value modesty. For my humble friend, a luxuriantly long Friday night run around Canberra was an entirely appropriate reward for four hard years of PhD-ing.
Australia is also a place where perceived intellectualism is suspicious. We are perhaps unique in using ‘academic’ as a pejorative term. My lawyer and academic friends are reluctant to describe their employment accurately because they are worried about how others will respond, or whether this will seem elitist.
Overall, I’m not sure we have the personal or collective tools to confidently describe our intellectual accomplishments. In the case of grant applications, I foolishly spent roughly as much time writing a one-page statement of performance as an eight-page technical project description, detailing three years of proposed work. I had to pluck unwilling adjectives from myself, one by one. It was awful!
I’m trying hard to emulate my international collaborators and their toolbox for navigating descriptions of themselves. In the meantime, I think leaving the self-deprecating jokes at home is a good start. Instead of resorting to comfortable but unhelpful jokes to diffuse a professional situation, an approach of “I’m not sure how to tackle this task, but I’m confident I can make a good start” is probably more mature and more useful.