In graduate school, I honestly always thought that once I defended my thesis and was awarded my PhD, that some light bulb of knowledge would switch on in my brain and I would feel as smart as everyone else around me. In hindsight, I suspect I was able to use that justification as a means to shield myself from facing the fact that I ultimately lacked confidence in myself. As a result of this lack of self-confidence I also lacked assertiveness personally and professionally. A lack of assertiveness is not often associated with men, but we do experience it. I still struggle with a lack of self-confidence but having finally acknowledged it I am now actively working to fix it.
My search for confidence
The earliest recollection I have of experiencing a lack of confidence professionally is when I think back to one of the fundamental aspects of earning a graduate degree: giving presentations. While presenting slideshows significantly helped my speaking and communication skills, I always feared the audience’s questions afterwards, primarily because I thought I only had a finite number of “I don’t know” answers that I could give before I would be shamed for not knowing the answer. Even if I thought I knew the answer, I would tread lightly in my response because I never considered myself an expert in the room on a subject. Even if it was directly my own field of research or something I studied for days or even weeks, I always felt insecure about my own knowledge. While I struggled with this fear for the majority of my PhD, I understood that confidence was not a replacement for knowledge. Yet I often felt the need to over-prepare for most tasks, from writing an email to organising a presentation, in an attempt to make up for my lack of confidence. This wasted a lot of time and ultimately was not the ‘quick fix’ I thought it would be.
Thankfully, I was thrown into the deep end of teaching with little more than a half-day seminar on teaching pedagogies during my PhD. I say thankfully because, although I did not know this at the time, this endeavour would ultimately shape my future career ambitions and provided the strongest feeling of self-confidence I have had professionally. In this teaching role I was required to teach one-hour undergraduate discussion sections for thirty students, six times a week. Every lecture was not easy, and some days things just did not flow as I anticipated, but I learned ways to minimise these hiccups. I developed my own teaching materials, which helped boost my confidence in delivering it to students, and while I refined them when needed, they served me well over three and a half years of teaching. I never got to storm into a classroom like Professor Snape from Harry Potter and tell the students to turn to page 394, and although I may have dressed from flannel shirts and boots some days to button down shirts and penny loafers on others, I always felt confident to get up in front of the students to deliver a discussion lecture. This had a lasting impact on my career aspirations and is something I am chasing to this day.
Luckily, I did not let my overall lack of confidence overcome me during my PhD. I came to realise that there was no magic switch that turns on after you get a PhD. You just have more experience in failure/success and can speak from that to guide your future decisions. Taking care of yourself is first and foremost the most important thing you can do.
Despite being aware of this, some of these same issues came back to haunt me in my postdoc.
My postdoc experience
I began my postdoc in early 2018 directly after my PhD. I moved to the UK from the USA and was very excited to see what personal and professional adventures my postdoc would bring. The lab I joined was significantly larger than my previous research group, and there were already two more senior postdocs familiar with the group. Nonetheless, I began a new line of research, found comfort in my busy lab work and began to undertake a supervisory role in the group. This all certainly helped boost my confidence, but those feelings of insecurity and lack of self-confidence crept back.
As the year progressed even more postdocs started to appear, in the larger group, and often with their own external funding. No matter how hard I tried not to, I began to compare myself to the others. At this point, I decided to apply for external funding as well because I knew that I wanted to stay in academia; in reality, however, I never thought I had a good enough original idea separate from my PhD and postdoc research that would actually cut it in a top-tier university.
As life often goes, I put over two solid months of dedicated time into developing a fellowship proposal, only to receive a generic, few sentence email response six months later saying that my efforts were unsuccessful. This email came at a time when I was a year into my postdoc and had no output to show, which sadly I would not get until yet another year. This particular year proved to be even harder as I dealt with job insecurity, staring down the barrel of my fixed-term contract, negotiated my costly UK Visa renewal to secure 11 more months of employment, and tried as I might to generate an output to help secure a future job. During this time, I frequently asked myself, “How and why was I chosen for this job? Am I qualified or even good enough to be here?” There were many times when I honestly felt like giving up, switching professions or even moving back to my home country.
The importance of self-care
During graduate school I never really “switched off” from work. I got push notifications from my email account to my phone, and I often worked weekends and even on holiday I was generally near my email. I always felt like I should be working to get ahead. Inevitably this led to several mini burnouts. The biggest wake-up call came in early 2017, during my peak productivity and output, when my body broke out in severe hives as a result of stress. I was going business-as-usual, but my body had clearly had enough and found a way to get my attention. After this happened, I started to think about the importance self-care and wellbeing.
During my postdoc, I learned the importance of getting help. I reached out to my peers and support groups. I received some honest advice that I may be too passive for my own good, and hence I became aware of passive-Anthony; someone I have been trying to avoid since I met him. By passive-Anthony, I mean that my lack of confidence would often manifest itself as a non-confrontational yes-man who would rarely be direct with his feelings and intentions. In time I have come to realise that passive-Anthony is approachable and kind-hearted; attributes that are great for working with students and in pedagogy. In this third person exercise I recognised that I need to manage passive-Anthony to be assertive when needed, but maintain my compassion, finding the best of both worlds.
I learned what impostor syndrome was and realised that was also playing a huge role in my lack of self-confidence. In the absence of a larger support group, I helped develop one alongside other like-minded postdocs within the department. I even started a self-help diary and discovered the power of simply writing down thoughts about my lack of confidence and ways I can try to address it. Thankfully, the UK offers plenty of opportunities for me to help build self-confidence in my personal life through my hobbies of hillwalking, running and traveling. Even the current global pandemic has helped me re-evaluate the importance of wellbeing in my daily routine. I have been doing routine 5k walks and this has helped my mental health prosper. I wish it did not take lockdown orders for me to get to this realisation, but it is incredible that this has had such a transformative impact on me in such a short period of time.
Even though I honestly cannot remember a time when I was not struggling with a lack of confidence in myself, I am at least keenly aware of my confidence levels and I am actively trying to address them. Collectively my experiences have helped me to recognise what I want and value most in my personal and professional lives. I want to use my newly developing self-confidence to help pursue a career that is more aligned with my values and where I feel valued as a part of a team. While I aspire to an academic career in the UK, I know my limits and I cannot submit to a career where impact factors, citations, h-indices, and publications rule overall. To be quite honest – my worth is more than that.
Anthony Lucio is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick working on developing diamond-based electrochemical sensors for chlorine. He obtained his PhD in 2018 from the University of Iowa where he studied the electrochemical double layer in ionic liquid solvents. Having moved from the USA to the UK, Anthony has fallen in love with the UK from the beautiful countryside to the 50 shades of grey weather. He can be found hillwalking or thinking about planning a hill walk.