Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I’ll have what she’s having: Faking it in academia

At start of the second year of my PhD my supervisor told me it was TIME. I don’t want to name names, or implicate anyone in criminal activity, so for the sake of maintaining anonymity let’s just call my supervisor “Dr Winnifred Rose Louis”. Winnifred said to me, “Barlow, my good lass, it’s time you presented your research at a conference.”

The conference was the annual meeting of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists, and the year was 2006. Obeying the command of my supervisor, if not the dictates of my own heart, I accordingly submitted an abstract, was accepted, packed my bags, and jetted off to Canberra. I was not, however, a calm little academic.

My main concerns ran as follows:

1. My research will be publically debunked.
2. My inadequate grasp of the intricacies of the literature will be brought to light.
3. The other academics will hate me.
4. I will hate the other academics.
5. My shyness will overcome me in all possible embarrassing ways.
6. In general, I will be discovered for the fraud that I am.

Now these fears may come as quite the surprise to those of you who know me. I am aware that nowadays my booming voice regularly rings through the psychology halls, engaged in lively debate with my fellow empiricists. But back them I was a green, wet behind the ears PhD student, and I was absolutely paralyzed by fear at the thought of strategically networking with fellow researchers. It was primarily that word, “networking”, that had me running scared. I had always thought of networking as a bit of a dirty word – I had an idea that it consisted of schmoozing and romancing people that I did not like or respect, all in a desperate bid to get ahead.

And yet… Winnifred had spoken and I had obeyed. There I was, at my first conference, sick to my stomach, and feeling woefully inadequate. My talk had, despite my worst fears, gone off smoothly. I came across as a passionate and engaged young thing, and those who attended were universally kind. That was all well and good, but the highly structured presentation was not what I was worried about – it was what was coming next.

“There are some people that would like to meet you Fiona, and that I would like you to meet.” Winnifred told me after my talk. “We are about to go and have drinks at the poster session, I will introduce you to them there.” Mouth dry and heart thumping, I escaped to my room. The social setting of the poster session made everything worse – how could I do this!?

It was at that point I made a critical decision – I would fake confidence. I would breathe deeply, straighten my back, beam a smile, and talk clearly. I, in my shy and retiring way might not be able to make it through networking, but I could certainly make an attempt at faking.

Both Men and Women can fake it.

Decision made, I marched down the stairs to the conference room where the poster session was being held, and bravely faced the waiting masses. What transpired next was a blur. Winnifred shepherded me from person to person, and eventually, confident that I could navigate the vicinity on my own, left me. To my surprise, that afternoon and in to the night I met a range of fantastic people – researchers who like me were passionate about racism and discrimination, people who could chat about statistics and theories and the wonderful phenomena of existence that we study in psychology. Suddenly, networking wasn’t so scary or so crass – really it was just chatting to people who were interested in the same things as me, who found a joke about regression funny like I did, and who could tell me personal anecdotes about the researchers that I admired.

I still maintain friendships and collaborations with researchers that I met at that first conference. When I see them at conferences now it is like a family reunion, and I am thankful that I had the presence of mind to fake what I could not legitimately produce that first time.

To this day I still fake it – producing a facsimile of confidence when I feel none, and cracking a seemingly off-the-cuff joke in my lectures that is in fact elaborately rehearsed and ruminated about. But those times are rarer, and what was once acting has become a reality – I can genuinely enjoy conferences, dinners, networking and public speaking. I suggest that this is the way that it is for most of us. We take a while to find our feet and engage with other academics outside of the comfort zone of UQ (or even here as new PhD students!). But the benefits of engaging through public speaking and networking are intellectually stimulating, socially rewarding, and infinitely valuable for our future careers. I urge you all to attend every conference you can, to present your research in a talk rather than a poster session, and to choke down your fear and approach the academics that you would love to chat to. Although scary, I promise you that it will be worth it – and remember, clichéd as it is, faking it until you make it is a fantastic approach to take.

1 comment:

  1. As someone that is about to attend their first conference, who shares each of your six original fears: Thanks for the sage advice and calming words.