How to Build Confidence as a PhD

How do I build confidence, as a PhD student or early career academic, where I lack it? 

Dave says if you are anything like him, you have to build confidence to do many things in your life. Some PhDs have a lot of confidence that comes naturally, but most PhDs go through moments where they doubt their skills, ability, or knowledge in certain areas. Some academics also suffer through what is known as impostor syndrome, where they feel like they are faking their way through their work and that they are not the real expert – others are. It is natural for academics to feel this way at some point in their career. They can lose confidence and doubt themselves. (If you like this blog post, check out this one on dealing with self-doubt in academia).

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. This post provides a few tips about how you can build confidence during your PhD journey and as an early career academic. 

Dave thinks confidence building is especially relevant for people on their PhD journey (Here is a marvelous blog post on what we mean by PhD journey). We all know a PhD student or academic who seems perfectly confident — and PhD students do have to have to be a bit headstrong and overconfident to do something as daunting as getting the most advanced degree you can get — but beneath that confident exterior, most researchers and academics, like all of us, lose confidence in themselves at one time or another.

PhD students and academics tend to compare themselves with others and can assume that those with the best reputations and who are highly regarded in their field, have the most confidence; but it doesn’t always work that way. Even the most accomplished PhDs sometimes struggle with confidence. Genetics, your upbringing, your struggles in life, the level of support you’ve received — basically everything in your life and biology — can influence your sense of confidence and how you exhibit confidence. 

Watch Dave’s vlog on confidence — it might just give you more confidence……. 

To quote Dave,” …All of you are pretty incredible. If you’re watching this and you’re struggling with confidence, just know that you are an incredible human being and you’ve done many different things. You have built many different things, you have accomplished many different things, all over the world. Wherever you are in the world, as long as you have a good heart, you are a decent human being, and you are trying to do things with purpose, and trying to be open and authentic, then this confidence is going to come to you. I can guarantee that if you’re watching this video, or reading my blog on this topic, that you’re a decent human being because you are doubting your confidence and really struggling with this, and I know that you are probably a kind and generous authentic person.”  

Ten ways you can work around your lack of confidence 

Confidence is a feeling or belief that you can rely on yourself. And when you have confidence, others feel they can rely on you and your knowledge. Here are ten ways you can work around your lack of confidence as you continue to build your knowledge and sense of mastery as a PhD student or early career academic:

1. Accept that you lack confidence in certain areas. Even PhDs cannot know everything and do all they are expected to do with perfect ease and confidence. We’re good, but not that good. Don’t bury this self doubt. Recognize it, and don’t fight it. We all get defensive at one time or another when we feel that doubt creeping in. We might even attack others for making small mistakes or demonstrating their own lack of confidence. Rather than being defensive or attacking others, be open with others about your shortfalls. We don’t mean blurt out, “I am an impostor!” Rather ease into admitting that you lack confidence in certain areas. Chances are others will admit they have their own insecurities and lack confidence in certain areas as well. 

2. Some people have built-in charisma, use that. You may not feel confident all the time, but with charm and charisma you can fake it until you make it. The more you put yourself out there, the more it will build confidence. This does not mean you are pretending to be someone you aren’t, rather you are exuding charm and wit, being kind and empathetic, and being open-minded and more of a listener than a doer/explainer, until you get to a place where you feel a core confidence about that skill or area you need to learn more about. 

For example, you are not going to know everything and you should not pretend as such with your students or colleagues. Sometimes it’s better to listen in class, especially when you are discussing something you do not have direct lived experience in. Don’t hide your lack of confidence or familiarity with a certain lived experience or point of view; be humble and encourage discussion and learning (including your own learning) from others who may know more about a particular topic than you. Then in the future, you will be able to exhibit more confidence about this topic as well.

3. Ask for help. You’re not alone, and having a support system or colleagues who you can rely on or go to when your confidence is low in a particular area is important. Take a class or workshop, join a club, find resources related to where you lack confidence. Ask a thoughtful colleague for help or mentoring in a particular area. Some fields are more cutthroat than others and in some fields people will be less willing to help; in these fields find a coach who can help in the short-term until you gain confidence in a particular area. There are a number of avenues to try and resources to take advantage of. If public speaking is an issue, contact Toastmasters and get help to become a more confident speaker. 

4. Take stock of your abilities. You may have less confidence in one area such as teaching, but in another, like using a particular research method, you’re supremely confident. By looking at your accomplishments and where you stand, you’ll see that your lack of confidence correlates to your lack of knowledge or experience in that area. Focus on building knowledge in an area where you lack confidence or in increasing your skills doing a required part of your role as an academic that you are not quite confident about yet. Time and effort increase confidence. Give yourself time and make the effort.

Here is Dave talking about what to do when you encounter difficulties during your PhD program:

5. Choose your battles. If you are being criticized by a colleague and you’re feeling defensive about your expertise or knowledge about a particular subject or situation, pick your battles well about when you’re going to fight. Recognize that this conversation or topic may be too minor to get worked up over. Don’t go overboard with every little critique or comment from  a colleague and try to prove your point or know better. Picking and choosing your battles wisely can take a lot of stress away from the situation. 

Dave suggests, “Not all times require confidence. In many situations, I still try to avoid conversations and sticking out in academia. I know that this is not the most politically savvy approach, but I like it that way.” You don’t always have to be the center of attention or the most knowledgeable in the room. Confidence doesn’t always come with bravado. Oftentimes those with confidence are the ones who are the quietest in the room, but when they do say something people listen. 

6. Take one step at a time. It’s easier to build your confidence step by step. So when you look at what you’re facing and what you need to do, break it down into smaller parts and take one step at a time. Build your confidence through trial and error until you reach success, then take the next step. Gradually you will increase your confidence in whatever you are trying to build your confidence in.

7. Recognize your strengths. Recognize that you are pretty awesome with what you do. It might not feel that way, but you really are. You’re in a place where your expertise and perseverance has paid off. Look at yourself with a clear lens. And when you can’t, when your confidence has reached a low, and you don’t know how to fix it, ask your colleagues, talk to your friends, and view yourself through their lens. We can’t always see ourselves clearly when anxiety and depression attach in a way that confidence is impossible. Outside sources can help. And if you do have anxiety and depression, seek help. The first step to building yourself up mentally is asking for help. 

8. Practice makes confidence grow. Practice some situations where you might feel uncomfortable, such as presentations. The more you can rehearse, the better off you will be. Do what you have to do and don’t over analyze. We often get into the mindset where we over think what we are doing and have to do. Instead of taking time to practice, we take time to worry about messing up. We worry about what can go wrong and rehashing every incident where things didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped. This kind of thinking creates an impossible situation. 

Don’t do that. Instead, practice, go over the material, enlist colleagues to review your work, record yourself in a practice presentation, and review it. Take the worry out of the equation because the more you do, the less time you have to worry and the less you will actually have to worry about; because over time and with effort, you become comfortable and confident with the material and speaking about the topic. 

9. Forgive yourself. If you make mistakes, you can cut yourself some slack. It really does not matter. In the long run the presentation you gave, or the test you took, or the paper you wrote will not be the complete story of your PhD. If you make a mistake, redo the work. If you do poorly on a test, make sure to revisit the topic and take time to understand where you went wrong. If you stumble, it’s natural. We all have done that. Forgive yourself for mistakes made and mishaps you can’t control. Work harder next time, rehearse the presentation, redo the experiment, and look at your work from different angles. 

Sometimes when we take a high level view of a mistake we learn that it is a piece of sand in the entire beach. Confidence comes from addressing your mistakes and taking steps to improve where you went wrong. It’s turning a mistake that you stress over into a learning tool. They say mistakes make the man. What they’re saying is that you build character and confidence by learning from your mistakes. Forgiving yourself is the first step. 

10. Don’t worry what others think. Confidence tanks when we put the importance on the opinions of others. When we worry about what they will think, what their opinion will be, how we will look if we make mistakes, confidence takes a hit in the moment. When we have a task sometimes beforehand, we start to think about everything that can go wrong. We can be writing an email, getting ready to present, handing in a paper or project, and we go to that place immediately that puts stress in our chests and worry in our brows. 

Breathe and go over the material, read it out loud, check for typos and inaccuracies, take a moment to center yourself by checking yourself. You’ll see that you dotted every i and crossed every t. And if you didn’t before, this gave you the time to verify. Know that every person who is in your shoes gets moments of anxiety–some just fake it and look like they are confident. 

Your comfort zone vs. your confidence

It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone. Like your home, your comfort zone is where you know who you are, and what you’re capable of without question. You can go through the motions without thought and get it right every time. Like clockwork. You have confidence in your zone. Outside your comfort zone is the rest of the world. It’s new things, new projects, new groups of people with whom you now have to communicate to get the job done. Outside your comfort zone is the unknown, a road you have not yet traveled. One of the things you can remember outside your zone is that you’ve already mastered your comfort zone. You have spent a very long time getting to know your surroundings and becoming an expert on who exactly you are up to this point. The comfort zone is today and everything you already know. 

Remember that you didn’t always know what you know right now. Everything you learned, experienced, and had to do to get to this point was not something you were born with. Take a moment and realize that you already have confidence and have gained confidence with every step along the way. You are capable of expertise and you are capable of building comfort and confidence where before there was nothing. You didn’t know, and now you do, and you are confident in that knowledge and experience. Confidence comes with every day of life, in every moment you take, and every experience outside your comfort zone. Don’t fear what you don’t know, embrace the opportunity to become a better, more experienced and more knowledgeable you. 

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