Learning how to strut your professional stuff

Everyone enters a PhD program with some serious skills deficiencies that are a barrier to both the completion of a thesis and enjoyment of the process. Some people jump into a new field and have a huge body of literature to become familiar with. Other students branch sideways and have to get up to speed on a whole suite of technical skills.

For other students, skills deficiencies can relate to their work practices or personality. Completing a PhD in a timely fashion requires project and time management skills, and an ability to work well with others, particularly your supervisory panel. If you are not naturally organised or have little experience managing a large, unwieldy project this can be an issue that requires directed training or guidance by your panel.

Depending on a student’s starting point entering a PhD, one of the hardest skills to build up is confidence. Some students come into a PhD with a healthy amount of confidence, or even a little too much. But many students have trouble building up the confidence to undertake everyday academic tasks like emailing colleagues, talking to people at conferences or asking a question at group seminar.

This sounds like a fairly trivial problem. If a student is capable and hard working, a lack of confidence shouldn’t be a barrier to the eventual submission of a high quality PhD.  Unfortunately for some candidates limited self-confidence can be utterly crippling.

First, it’s difficult to steer a project through to completion when you can’t ask even your most trusted supervisors for help or are terrified of submitting written work for feedback. These fears eat huge amounts of precious time in a candidature and they represent essential academic skills.

Second, a lack of confidence is a huge obstacle to enjoying the PhD experience. It’s hard to enjoy the experience of working on your own project and developing your own ideas when it can literally take a week to build up the gumption to send an email reminding your supervisor that his or her feedback is now long overdue. This is unlikely to be a carefree week but instead one of sleeplessness and anxiety.

Having confidence in oneself and ones work is an essential skills, just like solid laboratory, computational, fieldwork, interview, time management and communication skills. After a PhD is submitted, a newly freed student will need the confidence to apply for jobs, perform well in interviews, move into a new group and work with ever increasing independence.

So how can self-doubting students learn to strut their professional stuff? From a student’s perceptive, this requires a degree of awareness of the problem. A student with limited confidence in himself or herself will be best served by a supervisory panel that understands their issues and can help build confidence. Having this kind of intimate relationship with at least one of the advisory committee will help redress this skill “deficiency”. Students should aim to have someone on their panel who can meet this need.

I would also suggest that students in this position set themselves ambitious targets that slowly push them a little further out of their comfort zone. For example, if a PhD candidate is anxious about receiving critical feedback on written work, start with sending it to a friend or fellow PhD. Gradually confide in others, including that member of the committee who is most trusted. Push yourself, but do it slowly! Don’t start by sending a paper out to review in Science that is likely to be eviscerated!

After conferencing a few years back with my dear colleague Linden Ashcroft, I’ve become fond of the idea of professional KPIs (key performance indicators). This is a great way to push yourself. For example, if you fear asking questions, set yourself some achievable KPIs (or goals). Start by setting a KPI to ask a question in student reading group or journal club. Then push yourself to ask at a group seminar, a department seminar, or even a local conference in a friendly session.

From the other perspective, if you are supervising a PhD student with confidence issues, investing time into developing a trusting relationship is a great starting point. When there is trust on both sides of the relationship, it’s much easier to have frank conversations about building confidence and to provide feedback a student with that isn’t misread as a personal criticism. A student is also more likely to follow the advice of a trusted supervisor who is encouraging them to do scary things like present at a conference or apply for an award.

I supervise one student who has issues with self-confidence. He is brilliant, has an incisive scientific mind and superior technical skills. However, being highly talented rarely translates into having a strong belief in oneself. We’ve now spent over three years working together and we have the style of relationship where I can be blunt. I can now say, “it’s your confidence stopping you doing this” or “you can trust me to say where you are doing well and were you need to keep working”.

Confidence issues can be limiting to a PhD and career progression, but there’s lots that can be done by students with low confidence or by their supervisors to help build up a student lacking in self-assurance. And it’s more than worth the time and effort. Seeing someone previously crippled by a lack of belief in himself or herself finally build up the nerve to strut their stuff professionally is an absolute delight.


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