In previous posts, I have discussed issues related to working with the extremely non-confident, but today the central question is:
Can a lifetime of lack of confidence be overcome during graduate school?
I'm not talking about routine lack of confidence, as in not being sure you're going to do a good job at something challenging or feeling not as brilliant as the people around you. I am talking about a colossal lack of confidence, as in the kind that leads someone to cry at the slightest perception of criticism, even if no criticism was intended. I am talking about a recent incident that made me realize that, however good my intentions are regarding being a supportive and (mostly) kind professor/advisor, some students are so fragile that the best of intentions are no match for the reality of a colossal lack of confidence.
I suppose a smart but non-confident person can get through college just fine by doing well on exams etc., perhaps with a lot of stress, but without experiencing anything as distressing as what you encounter in grad school, where the level of scrutiny of your abilities is more intense. In grad school, in addition to being judged in exam situations (written & oral), you are also judged on what you say in research group meetings and on how creative you are. And once you've produced some results, you have to justify them -- why you got them, how you got them, and what you think about them.
In addition, scientists discuss things, and discussions involve examining issues from different angles. This can seem like criticism if you've placed your fragile confidence in an opinion that is then discussed by a group of people, each of whom has their own opinions and questions.
In academic life, we are all constantly judged. Grad students, postdocs, faculty - we are all evaluated, and we are evaluated often. I am a tenured full professor, but my manuscripts and grant proposals are of course evaluated, and not always kindly. My teaching is evaluated by students, and not always kindly. My overall job performance in terms of research-teaching-service is evaluated by administrators and a committee every year. I give presentations at meetings and people ask critical questions. I participate in committees and others disagree with my opinions even though I am right.
Being constantly evaluated can be exhausting and at times painful, but overall I appreciate the critical input. Of course there are examples of cruel and unreasonable comments in these reviews and evaluations, but in general the system works, and I feel that it makes me a better researcher and teacher. As long as the negative comments are balanced by positive comments, my self-esteem is not destroyed by the occasional bludgeoning.
Considering the magnitude and intensity of all this evaluating, it's amazing that anyone without an impermeable and titanic ego survives the process, but most people do. If someone is so lacking in confidence, however, that they fall apart during an informal, friendly discussion with faculty and other students, they are doomed in this field unless they can develop more confidence, or at least a coping mechanism for not being devastated by minor incidents.
I am not sure that the methods available to advisors for being supportive and kind are sufficient to help a student overcome a severe confidence deficit. The only way I know how to help a student is to give a balanced mix of praise and so-called constructive criticism, but in some cases this is not effective or sufficient.
It is certainly possible to progress from being unsure of your abilities to being more sure -- this has happened to me over the course of my career, including during grad school. But how much improvement is possible in the time frame of a few years? If you start at a very low level of confidence - as in, unable to be criticized without breaking down - can you improve to a degree such that you can function in an academic environment without feeling continually devastated? Can the improvement come by hanging in there and seeing that the world doesn't end if you make a mistake or if someone disagrees with you? Or it is too difficult to develop more confidence at this point in time and/or in this environment? I wish I knew, but I do not.
10 months ago