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Successful Careers: A Matter of Confidence

CREDIT: kevint3141, Wikimedia Commons

Do you ever get a nagging feeling that you’re not quite as good as your colleagues? Do you shy away from voicing your ideas or from applying for positions or promotions? Or, on the contrary, do you apply for fellowships, jobs, and awards well before you have the necessary experience? Do you also find it hard to accept fair criticism when you’re presenting your results? If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, insufficient or disproportionately high self-confidence may be hampering your career.

People with too little confidence in their own abilities can get passed over for promotions and miss chances to disseminate their research findings or gain new work experiences. But too much self-confidence can cause you to miss out, too: It puts you in danger of going into interviews underprepared, alienating colleagues, or finding it difficult to accept constructive feedback that could make you a better scientist.

“It pushes us to try and do things better and to work harder.” —Haley Gomez

Learning to keep your self-confidence within a realistic range—neither too little nor too much—can speed your progress in your research and career.

Opposite ends of the spectrum

In an academic setting, self-confidence equates to “the belief people have that they are doing something well,” says Ghislaine Dell, a careers adviser at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. In Dell’s experience, people hampered by a lack of self-confidence tend to underestimate their achievements. “They may well be doing really good research and getting reproducible results, but they’ll have this niggling voice at the back of their heads saying: ‘It’s just luck and nothing to do with me,’ ” Dell says. A major warning sign for low self-confidence is “if you see or are told about opportunities and automatically think, ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘I’m not ready,’ without looking at it objectively.” This, Dell explains, can lead people to miss opportunities for fellowships and promotions, and keep them from sitting on committees that could help further their careers.

CREDIT: Ghislaine Dell/University of Bath
Ghislaine Dell

Conversely, Dell has seen some overconfident people become embittered because they applied too early for fellowships or promotions and then failed to secure them. This, she says, can delay your career and damage your relationships with advisers and bosses—as when they refuse to provide a reference for a position that they don’t think you are ready for. An academic career is likely to be challenging, so the feeling that you're sailing along could indicate overconfidence, as could a string of rejected applications or submissions to journals, Dell warns.

Grounded in reality

An appropriate level of self-confidence comes from maintaining a sincere relationship with reality. Part of that is knowing what you are expected to deliver. Michael Hughes, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, suggests figuring out what it takes to progress up the career ladder before starting to climb. “As soon as I started as a lecturer, I asked someone senior what I needed to do to become a senior lecturer. They said I needed to write about four or five papers a year, to supervise two or three Ph.D. students, and have a certain amount of research income,” he says. This allowed him to map out what he needed to achieve and keep track of his progress.

For those with low self-confidence, establishing appropriate metrics and measuring your progress against them can be difficult, so make sure to involve people you trust to offer honest feedback and support. Dell advises speaking with your principal investigator or another researcher whose opinion you trust. “The most important thing is to make sure you have a mentor who can recognize that you are doing well, even if you can’t see it,” says Haley Gomez, a lecturer in astrophysics at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

CREDIT: Michael Hughes
Michael Hughes

Conversely, seeking out constructive criticism is important whenever you are feeling supremely confident about your job performance, Dell says. "Overconfidence can often mislead you into thinking you've done a better job than you have," Gomez explains. Feedback can help you keep your confidence levels from zooming too high and help you improve your performance.

(For advice on how to deal with criticism, see "The Joy of Criticism.")

Giving yourself your due

Planning carefully and working toward an overall goal should not be confused with a behavior common to those who have low self-confidence: excessively analyzing every task. Tim Wilkinson, a reader in photonic engineering in the engineering department at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, warns that such fretting can be counterproductive, leading people to worry about their careers instead of focusing on doing good science.

CREDIT: Tim Wilkinson
Tim Wilkinson

Hughes warns against procrastination. He has watched insecure students try to delegate their Ph.D. work to others, and put off the start of a project by conducting an overly long literature review. The key is to understand that success in any career often requires stepping outside your comfort zone, so it's important not to let your fear of failure get in the way. The first year of your Ph.D. is the perfect opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, Hughes says.

People who lack self-confidence can also hesitate to give their own ideas their due. “People with low self-confidence might be less likely to think the ideas they are having are valid ideas,” Dell says. One way of addressing this problem is to remind yourself that, although your supervisor and other experts may know more about the research area, you are looking in more detail at your project and so your ideas are likely to be valid, Dell says.

Checking out the competition

When you lack self-confidence, constantly comparing yourself with colleagues is likely to shake any self-confidence that you do have. It could also make you work too quickly—a particular danger when you're writing your first paper. “Don’t think: ‘My mate’s published a paper, why haven’t I?’ ” Wilkinson advises. “The result is likely to be people rushing their paper so it isn’t ready for publication, because it is ill-prepared or hasn’t got the right results or write-up.” When your premature paper gets rejected, your self-confidence takes another hit.

A lack of self-confidence can nonetheless be turned into a competitive advantage. “I always worry that I’m not performing as well as my colleagues,” Gomez says. But she has come to realize that feeling this way need not get in the way of a very successful academic career. In fact: “It pushes us to try and do things better and to work harder.” The key, Gomez adds, is to not let yourself be crippled by doubts, and to turn the worrying into a positive force.

(For more on feeling like you don’t measure up, see "No, You’re Not an Impostor.")

CREDIT: Haley Gomez
Haley Gomez

Balance and resilience

Succeeding in an academic career does require a certain level of self-confidence. “You have to be persistent and have enough confidence to defend your work in a public arena,” Wilkinson says. But this is completely different than being overconfident and arrogant, which gets you nowhere, he adds.

As with many things in life, learning from past experiences is a major factor in building adequate levels of self-confidence, as is a good dose of modesty and optimism. But it is the ability to move forward no matter what obstacles are in the way that eventually overrides under- and overconfidence, Wilkinson says. As Gomez puts it: “Drive, tenacity, and wanting to solve problems can overcome any confidence issues.”

Overcoming Chronic Under- or Overconfidence

If you’ve taken all the advice you can and still feel consistently under- or overconfident, you might want to seek specialist therapy. This can help you examine deeper issues such as how you feel about your work and yourself as a person.

CREDIT: Leslie Becker-Phelps
Leslie Becker-Phelps

People tend to show too little or too much self-confidence at work when they base their opinion of themselves entirely on how well they are performing—and this is something academics, along with athletes, are particularly susceptible to, says New Jersey–based psychology therapist Leslie Becker-Phelps. “People who are in sports or academia feel great when they achieve or are successful. When they aren’t successful, those who feel valuable as a person—not just as a performer—can take such difficulties in stride because it is only a part of their lives. But those who base their value as a person on their performance are at a really high risk of everything coming apart when they don’t perform well,” she says. “Everything’s only as good as the last thing they did; and the last thing they did has to be better than the one before, so the bar keeps going up.” While some eventually fall apart, others become chronic underachievers because they feel they can’t live up to their own expectations.

Becker-Phelps points out that there's a difference between being valued and being evaluated, and that recognizing this difference can help people step out of this cycle. She advises learning to be gentler with yourself. “If you feel good about yourself, you can acknowledge your weaknesses, limitations, or mistakes, and you can address those well. If you mess up, you can be compassionate to yourself. You then take a positive attitude towards yourself, while also doing whatever it is you need to do to move forward.”

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