Archive for the 'faking it' category

Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.

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Advice to young women: don’t laugh

“Girls, if boys say something that’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.”

-Amy Poehler

This is some great advice from one of my favorite feminists. I’d like to extend this advice to young women in an academic or professional context and advise them not to laugh while giving a presentation (unless there’s something truly funny).

To avoid sounding like a total killjoy, let me first say that I am a very happy person who smiles and laughs quickly and easily, and I love hearing or making other people laugh as well. But what I’m talking about here is the laughter that is not in response to something funny – it’s the nervous giggle that is generated from anxiety. Most importantly, this is a laugh that is almost exclusive to girls and women.

As an instructor at a women’s college, I saw many young women give presentations in everything from a casual setting in class to a formal honors thesis presentation. No matter the level, quality, or competence of the person speaking, I noticed the nervous giggle was nearly ubiquitous, and it came to be my pet peeve.

She giggles when she can’t remember what she wants to say next. She giggles when she misspeaks, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. She giggles when she accidentally skips ahead a slide in the presentation. In short, she’s usually laughing at herself for making mistakes.

This response is not all bad. It’s certainly better than getting angry, beating herself up for a little mistake. But it has a number of detrimental effects for the presenter:

1) Laughing at a mistake draws attention to the error. Usually this is something so minor or so understandable like skipping a slide and having to go back that the audience would not even be aware of it, and there’s no need to apologize or laugh in response.

2) Laughing appears unprofessional, like you’re not taking your work seriously.

3) The nervous giggle makes the presenter seem less confident and competent.

This final point is really the most important. On an individual level, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. You don’t want to do anything that will make you appear less confident in yourself or your research, or competent and understanding of your work, than you actually are. On a larger level, it is important to consider that this nervous laughter is a uniquely female trait. It is possible that the perception of a giggling young woman as less confident or competent compared to a male presenter could add to the stereotypes we are battling.

One important note is that I have rarely, if ever, noticed the nervous giggle in a presentation given by a female above an undergraduate level (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, other professionals). It is hard to say if there is a transition that occurs, where a woman matures or confidence is gained after college, or if the women I’ve met who go on to graduate school in science happen to be the women who never set out giggling or never got nervous. I do not believe the latter possibility to be true. I recently watched an amazing senior student give her honors thesis presentation. She is one of the most competent and confident students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and clearly knows her field and her project very well; she is going on to an excellent graduate program and I am confident that she will be very successful as a scientific researcher. And yet, she giggled throughout her entire seminar.

If the possibility that there is a transition in young women from nervous giggling to confident presentations is true, what can instructors and mentors do to facilitate the transition (if only so I spend less time grinding my teeth down while listening to the presentations)?

1) Give direct feedback: “You clearly know your stuff, but your giggling makes you appear less confident. Try to be mindful of that in the future and cut back. Take a deep breath when you feel the urge to laugh.”

2) Give more opportunities for practice (and more feedback): anxiety contributes a large part to the nervous giggles, and more practice could make the talk smoother overall.

For more advice on minding your mannerisms:

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