Confident or not, here I come

How to build self-confidence and crush academic networking

In a recent online discussion in PhD2Postdoc, one participant asked what a ‘shy’ type can do to overcome her reluctance to put herself forward in a networking environment and, more generally, ‘promote her research’. We brainstormed some great networking strategies, but it’s the theme of self-confidence that I wanted to tackle more deeply here.


As someone who has known first-hand that debilitating lack of confidence through the PhD and postdoctoral years, the answer to this problem still alludes me. What I can offer, though, are a few observations and an alternative way of thinking about confidence.


The observations

Self-confidence is in short supply among academics. You may not think so, based on the very large egos of some very senior academics, but I promise you it is. By its very nature, research is unpredictable, what we’ll discover is a mystery, and all that uncertainty can make you feel very unsure of yourself.


This is particularly so if you’re relatively new to doing PhD or postdoc level research. Do I have a research question? What other perspectives or research are out there – and do they need inclusion? Does my argument hang together? What is my argument? What methodology is best to use in this context? How on earth am I going to access and collect data? It’s hard to feel confident doing something (even more so ‘promoting’ that something) when you’re still learning ‘how to’ do it.

Compare the difference between a total cooking novice trying to flip a pancake and a seasoned chef.


Self-confidence is hard to establish and sustain in a highly evaluative environment such as academia. I often think of academia as the intellectual version of the Olympic Games, in all its Darwinian and cut-throat glory. The difference, I think, is partly that academia can be a far more enduring career: academics in their 60s abound, Olympian athletes in that age bracket do not. That’s a long time for anyone to have their performance held under intense scrutiny. The other difference is that the psychological and emotional preparation and support that buffers Olympic athletes from critique is frequently absent in academia.


The take away from these observations? 

1. That feeling of zero self-confidence is not unique to you – it is not a sign of self-deficit. It is a universal feeling that arises any time a situation is unfamiliar or new to you. The feeling is completely normal.


2. Have some compassion for what you’re asking of yourself – you’re already in the race at the intellectual Olympics. Don’t also expect yourself to do it with grace, precision, and rock-solid self-confidence. No one is asking that of you; notice there are no ‘feeling’ requirements of PhD candidates or postdocs.


But still…what to do.


A reframing of the problem – and some action steps 

How can someone who feels debilitating self-confidence get on with the job of promoting their work, approaching strangers and ‘networking’ with them, or whatever other tasks are too terrifying to contemplate?


Rather than focus on the realm of feelings, focus on tasks and behaviours. Trying to change the way you feel first – before taking action – is futile. For instance, today, I feel motivated to write. Tomorrow, I’ll feel irritated at the thought of writing. But I’ll write – both today and tomorrow – irrespective of those distinctly different ‘feelings’ about writing. I know that papers, posts, correspondence, get written by the act of writing. I have learned how to write, so that’s a task, a behaviour, I can do.


Identify what actions or behaviours you deem to be the preserve of the confident academic. For instance, what are the actions you think ‘confident’ academics or colleagues take? Do they smile a lot? Speak in a loud voice? Present at a lot of conferences? Know an extensive number of people across campus? Mention their latest [insert publication/research win] at every opportunity?


If in doubt, ask them how they’re doing those things (if it’s unclear to you). Invite them for coffee, tell them you’re wondering how to promote your research or meet people at conferences (or whatever), say that you’ve seen them do it very effectively, and ask if they share pointers and their experience. Then sit back and listen (and take notes). They may even offer to help you. And don’t be surprised if they tell you ‘the last thing they feel is confident’.


Break down those tasks or behaviours, and start with the smallest step. Say this confident academic in our example told you that they identify academics in other disciplines on campus working in a similar area, and then introduce themselves. You’d break that ‘action of a confident academic’ into tiny chunks:

  • Look on your Uni’s intranet to find academic staff in other Faculties/Colleges working on a similar topic to you (this search and making a list is a task you can ‘do’, no pre-requisite feelings required)
  • Send an email to that list of people, say you came across their work, and you’d be interested to meet and learn more about what they’re working on (writing an email is a ‘task’ you can do. Hitting ‘send’ is a task you can do.)
  • Schedule a time and date with said people on your list (putting meetings in your calendar is a task you can do)
  • Get yourself to the venue (you can do this, via whatever mode of transport is familiar to you)
  • Say hello, shake hands, order coffee (all 3 things you can do)
  • Repeat what you said in your email: ‘you came across them on the intranet and they’re doing work on the same topic as you, and you’d like to learn more about their research’ (practice saying this beforehand if it helps)
  • Sit back and listen and nod (these are doable actions)
  • Rinse and repeat with the rest of your list of people.


Take the next step, and the next…until. The odd thing about building confidence is that it arrives on the scene after you’ve taken the action that you thought required confidence first. It’s a reverse when/then scenario: not ‘when I feel confident then I’ll do x’, but rather, ‘when I do x, then I’ll feel confident’. It’s for that reason that focusing on ‘what to do about the feeling’ – how to usurp it, manage it, avoid it etc – is a waste of time. Figure out precisely what action you’re not taking but would take if you were confident; break that action into very small steps (and ask people who do it well, if need be), then execute those steps, however small they need to be to keep them within the realm of ‘possible’ for you.


Now – over to you to share. What have you found helpful in dealing with a lack of confidence? What tips and tricks have you picked up? Have you tried an ‘action first, feelings later’ approach? Comment below to share your story. If you’re interested in getting support and strategies for issues like this and more – while planning strategically for your research career future – head to PhD2Postdoc and let us know.


  1. Carolyn Daniels on May 1, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Confidence has always been a major issue for me – particularly in the personal realm. I am achievement oriented – I have no worries working hard (maybe to keep ‘proving’ myself??) – however, when it comes to personal interactions, I feel slightly awkward and never quite good enough, or knowledgeable enough. It’s interesting, particularly at conferences and similar gatherings, someone asks about your research, and in some way, it comes across that you don’t have enough participants, or that you haven’t done enough, or there is nothing new in your developmental space. Am I too sensitive? I hang back to see what happens over time, and it appears that these critical ‘others’ are overconfident in their opinions, happy to ‘put you in your place’. Logically I know this is a personality issue and nothing necessarily to do with me – however, it serves to shake my foundations and release insecurities. We often hear the statement of ‘feeling like a fraud’ in the academic space – I know that this, too, is a common occurrence for many academics. Knowing these experiences can happen does make it easier to stare them down, so to speak. However, confidence building is tied in with self-efficacy. Increased self-efficacy is what I need a large dose of!!!!

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