On Confidence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about confidence lately. My thoughts have emerged from the process of making applications for my next postdoctoral research position. I have become nail-bitingly aware that in order to compete with the hundreds of others who are applying for these research positions, I have to have confidence. I have to convince the person who’s reading my application that I am better than every other person that they have considered for that position.

Small fish/big pond?

Small fish/big pond?

It’s hard.

Let’s face it, postgraduate humanities students are not renowned for the ability to talk themselves up. For a start, most have experienced the ‘justification conversation’ a million times. Explain to your mother, friend, part-time employer, boyfriend, whatever, why you are spending so much time researching the past, reading poetry, looking at old books. Why are you spending your own money to do this, or even worse, expecting someone else to fund you to do it? Why haven’t you got a proper job? Plus, there is  a culture of self-deprecation amongst postgraduates. “Umm, yeah, I’ve been sitting here all day but I haven’t really written anything”. “Oh, I’ve sent this draft to my supervisor, but it’s a pile of rubbish” or, or course, “I’ve submitted my Ph.D… but I’m probably going to fail my viva”. Postgraduates, at times, appear to compete in how incompetent they can appear to their peers. Whether it’s to comfort a friend by not appearing better than them, or to seek comfort from that friend when feeling unproductive, a Ph.D student will find every way to do it. I think it can make life difficult when you go to a conference or a job interview and have to explain what you do, and/or why you are good, when you are so accustomed to being modest. One of the best pieces of advice someone gave to me was to spend time composing a confident five-minute statement explaining the crux of my research (which did not, incidentally, include the phrase “it’s pretty boring”, which someone has actually said to me at a conference in the process of explaining his research!)


Secondly, steel up. If the job application process has taught me one thing, it’s how to deal with rejection. I’ve had plenty of non-academic jobs, and never have I been so consistently, so frequently, and so inexplicably rejected as I have been in the past year. I’ve also been accepted, but it is sometimes hard to remember your successes when you get the third ‘I’m sorry’ email of the week. I’ve learnt to keep an archive file of all of my rejected statements and application forms, and instead of getting despondent, I think rationally about “why?” If I am lucky enough to get a personalized email of rejection, I email back and ask them how I can improve. If not, I speak to my former Ph.D. supervisor about the possible reasons, because she has a wealth of experience. Through doing this, I reached the informed decision to narrow my field of applications to jobs I really want, and am truly the right candidate for. I also talk to friends and other academics about it. But it is my personal decision never, ever, to post about it on Facebook. For some people, it may well help to heal the disappointment. However, I ask you to consider whether it in fact keeps the wound open, makes you vulnerable, and encourages you to wallow instead of gaining some constructive perspective? Most importantly for me, though, I try to keep two or three applications in the pipeline, so that every time I get a ‘no’, I can hope for an incoming ‘YES!’

Finally, I’ve been trying to constantly revamp myself in order to refresh my self-confidence. Every week I try to set aside some time to update my C.V. or my academic social media content, write a blog post, think about my next article, think about a brand new research perspective, apply for a conference, organise a coffee meeting with a clever friend. Academia, I think, is about staying fresh, and never resting on your laurels. I have started to believe more in my job applications because I truly believe that I am becoming a really valuable researcher.

I’d be interested to hear how others give themselves a confidence boost, because it is a never-ending process…



  1. Scott Leach · · Reply

    Sadly I’ve never found a way to boost my confidence. Well, apart from repeatedly telling myself I’m ok. Sometimes I believe it, eventually….

    1. I’ve got a file of the work that I am most proud of. I read over it when I am tempted to think ‘I can’t do this…’
      The other thing I’m always telling people is that confidence is principally a performance. Finding a confident ‘role’ to play, for instance at conferences, that helps you project confidence to others, means they will respond to that confidence in you. It’s a feed-forward loop. Then all you have to do is ‘fake it till you make it’. Even ‘performed’ confidence feeds true confidence, because ultimately you find it in yourself.
      Hope that doesn’t sound too much like a B-grade new-age self-help guide… Oh well!

      1. Absolutely agreed! When I am told that I appear confident, it gives me a massive boost in inner self esteem, which is then transformed into even more outer confidence!

  2. Brid Phillips · · Reply

    Brilliant post and one that is worth reading every now and then for a confidence boost and also the practical advice you have!

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