Recently, I participated in a conference where I met a female graduate student who apparently had watched me present at other academic conferences as well. After watching my latest presentation that day, she told me that she wished she was like me on the academic stage: knowledgeable about her topic, confident and a good speaker.
I would not object to any one of those descriptions, since I have some practices I have found to be useful when getting ready for a presentation. First of all, I try to do my research well before a presentation, make the research hypothesis, the main arguments and the conclusion, as clear as possible, as well as the connections between the research question, the main arguments and the conclusion. I often also explain how the research question occurred to me in the first place. I do not read from a paper; I try to have a Power Point Presentation and add some visuals to engage the audience. If I think the paper/presentation needs improvement, I admit to the audience from the beginning that this is still work in progress and that I would welcome suggestions for further improvement during the Q &A. I am also a vivid speaker who makes those who might sleep in the room wake up. I use the stage well, I have solid tone of voice, and use intonation well, and yes, therefore I sound confident most of the time.
This confidence stems from two very valuable life lessons I was taught by my professors. First, once upon a time while I was getting ready for my dissertation defense, one professor told me to be confident, since I would be the one who knew that topic the best in the room. Second, another professor shared with me the importance of being able to say “I do not know” when I did not know an answer, instead of trying to answer a question by walking around it.
The female graduate student who approached me was about to do her first presentation at an international academic conference, and shared with me how excited she was. I told her to see it as stage fright and enjoy it.
Yet, I felt uncomfortable telling her that, since it was kind of like false advertisement. While I had a confident façade, there was always an accompanying underlying feeling of insecurity as well. Moreover, I realized that I enjoyed it a little bit too much when she said she admired my confidence.
The reason I enjoyed it so much was probably linked to the fact that I still had some insecurity left in me that suggested that I could do better. Although I do my research well, I often prepare my presentations at the last minute. That instills a fear that I left some gaps or that I made a mistake.
Also, when I listen to others present, I get caught up in thoughts of insecurity, asking myself why I do not know so and so, why I did not think this or that myself, and accusing myself of waiting too long on a research question I had in mind when I see someone else did it, probably much better than I would ever do. When I teach a class, I ask myself if I could have prepared the topic better. When I write a paper, it is the worst: I often think that the idea is not original enough, that anyone could have thought about this.
I also know I am not the only one. Several friends, who I see as great academics, shared with me their own insecurities, so I started to wonder as to the reason of this latent insecurity in academia. My hypotheses are:
Those who know more and more also know what they do not know more clearly.
Academia is rich in talents, geniuses and hard working people, so the threshold for success is very high.
In order to get tenured, promoted, and the like, academics constantly need to perform and perform in so many areas (teaching, research & publishing, getting external grants, performing in administrative tasks) that there is always some legitimate grounds for some kind of insecurity, for it is often not possible that everyone excels in all of these.
Likewise, academic disciplines borrow more and more from one another and therefore an academic trained in one field may feel insecure when (s)he is expected to do more and more interdisciplinary research.
Well, I lay out the research question and the hypotheses. Anyone willing to take up the challenge to do research about this is welcome.