Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cruel & Unreasonable

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.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too suffered the same crippling self doubt. In my case it was due to a seriously dysfunctional upbringing. I think it made things more confusing for my supervisor that I, outwardly, appear very confident. But the 3 years of PhD research is a long time to wear the mask. My (what must have seemed sudden and bizarre) episodes of doubt possibly seemed totally unprecidented to him. I'm sure I did nothing to dissuade him that female students are all neurotic, hormonal wrecks.

The only thing that helped me with this was getting a handle on why I was so crippled. That took therapy (still not widely seen as being 'a good thing' here in the UK - hence my anonymity in this instance).

Your student may suffer from debilitating self doubt for one of any number of reasons - I'm not saying every shy or nervous student is the victim of some terrible maltreatment. And even if it is due to some awful trauma, it may well be that now is not the time for your student to address it. Holding things together through the PhD is tough enough.

FWIW, it was the confidence of having obtained my PhD (and the cognitive dissonance that this set up between 'I have a PhD' and 'I'm awfully, unremittingly stupid') that finally helped to pull me towards getting therapy. I see the therapy I did as the best continuing professional development I've done so far!

So in short: there probably isn't a magic bullet for this, but it sounds like you may be holding this student together until she's in a place where she can address this. Or maybe she never will, and will choose to go into another field that is a bit less 'rough and tumble'[1]. In the meantime, your support will be priceless.
It sounds like you're doing all the right things to be supportive. I wish you'd been my supervisor!

[1]That would be the British habit of understatement there...

liketothelark said...

My strong recommendation to such students is Toastmasters.

There's much more to the program than speaking - a major, major part of what you learn is how to give and receive criticism.

In fact, I think that it is the most important part of the program, and the biggest benefit for employers who sponsor a club. At every aspect of the meeting is evaluated.

For the emotionally fragile, becoming comfortable with low-level criticism and feedback may help them get to the first step.

I'm not sure what step dealing with Professor Troll would be. Maybe someone out there could develop a taxonomy?

Am I a woman scientist? said...

Hmmm... it's hard for me to think of a career in which a person like this could function. Actors, artists, sports figures, politicians, CEOs, all have to face criticism on a routine basis (of course, the CEOs paycheck has little relation to the criticism, but anyhoo...). A grad student who can't handle any criticism at all would I guess be best advised to go seek therapy to figure out the "real issues", not coached to simply find a career which does not involve criticism.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that this student would also break down if they were rejected for a fellowship, research proposal, etc? I guess that I can see how a young graduate student would get all choked up and frustrated if they somehow (wrongly) interpreted that they were being attacked, and maybe would be able to handle something like manuscript criticisms just fine. But, this is a pretty brutal field for the extremely insecure. As you are, my advisor has been very supportive & gently critical when dealing with my insecurities (like giving talks), and I have been getting better with every one. We sometimes discuss why I might feel like I do and why I sometimes react to situations in an overly sensitive way or back down too quickly during discussions. He puts things into a context of current & past students and faculty and even societal & gender expectations. I've found these conversations priceless--they make me feel so much better.

TW Andrews said...

I would think that a student with such an extreme lack of confidence should probably seek professional counseling.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the confidence issue is a symptom... If a student is ready to cry at the drop of a hat, the confidence issue may be some manifestation of depression. From my experience in grad school, when I was extremely fragile, it had very little to do with the criticisms of my advisor (or others)-- those were just enough to push me over the tipping point and disturbed the delicate balance I had holding everything together when my family life, my personal life, and my future expectations were crumbling, but I thought my work was going fine.
Your student's issues may not be yours to deal with... There is stigma against getting mental health help, but perhaps you could suggest in some gentle way that you are concerned that he/she doesn't seem as confident in the good work that he/she does as maybe he/she should be and that a therapist (hopefully your campus has good resources here) may be able to help him/her explore that aspect of self more in depth.

jsh said...

Speaking as a painfully underconfident postdoc, I will make two comments. First, what I love about science is that you can *always* argue by facts. Even if it's your own scientific opinion - there are facts to support it. And because we are trained to be as objective as we can, recognizing that there are alternative sets of beliefs arising from the facts is ... de facto. As opposed to my other field - music - where criticism is entirely, wholly personal and subjective.

Second, my adaptation is this: I firmly, morally believe that it is my job to keep my problems to myself, and out of other people's laps. When I am confronted with adversity, I focus on doing what I have to do in the moment, and setting my feelings aside for later. My first responsibility is to be a useful contributor.

You can't control how you feel, but you can control what you do about it.

Mad Hatter said...

This is a very interesting topic, and similar to one I've been contemplating with regard to a student who has been working with me. I think perhaps some people simply don't have the right kind of personality for a particular career. But this particular case sounds rather extreme. I can't think of any job in which one would not occassionally face some disagreement or criticism. Perhaps this student is in need of professional help?

Janus Professor said...

Yes, it is called Lexapro.

cookingwithsolvents said...

I feel like categorizing such things under the generic heading of "professional development". Many advisors, while fantastic and providing an education in the acquisition of results and their interpretation, are not nearly aggressive enough with their input in other areas. Stuff like confidence, presentation of results, writing skills and strategy, and (especially with postdocs destined for faculty positions) lab management nuts-and-bolts (budgets, how to motivate students, multiple project management, etc.).

I do place the burden on the advisor to reach out. It is terrifying at times to be a graduate student, even one with confidence. I wonder if this student the FSP up on such a pedestal that it is just criticism by her or if it is any criticism that drives this person over the edge. ..

Perhaps there is no hope for this particular graduate student, but if you can institute some lab culture of professional development perhaps you can get this person to a counselor of some sort.

Personally, my own confidence in the scientific realm grew by leaps and bounds after my first paper was accepted.

Count Iblis said...

I think that this problem is caused by the wrongly structured educational system in the US. Here in Europe we are now seeing more and more similar problems because we are moving in your direction, but the problem always existed here.

Children in primary and secondary school are not challenged at all and they are not taught to study independendly. When they are given simple math problems they are given very precise information on how to solve it. Basically children are being treated like babies until they go to university.

Now, when I went to university to study, it felt like paradise to me. Unlike in the US system we didn't have homework, compulsory attendence etc. So, what I did was to study from books, go to the exam and (usually) score a straight A. I did sometimes attend problem sessions. I liked discussing physics and math with my friends. But usually I just did the problems handed out at the problem sessions alone at home.

A few years later I became a TA some changes were made in the way we teach at university. The system now looks much more like the US system. We give the students compulsary homework. Students have to submit problems we select for them and it counts as part of the exam.

When I have to supervise the problem sessions, it feels much more like being in high school than in a university. The students are not so independent, they are used to doing things exactly as told. If I give them an exercise that requires them to do some independent thinking, then that's usually too difficult for them.

I.m.o. the best way to correct the problem is to give the students more responsibility. You abolish compulsary homework. Note that when you give homework that is to be graded, the problems necessarily have to be easy enough so that a good student can get a maximal score. However, the students should practice more difficult problems, problems that are so hard that you cannot reasonably expect even the brightest students to do well in.

This then makes the students very confident that they have completely mastered the subject after passing the course. They become very independent and confident of their abilities. You can give them some subject to study and write some report on or give a talk, and they can do it all by themselves with minimal supervision.

bsci said...

This made be think of one of my more interesting grad school interviews. After saying my background, the faculty member interviewing me started asking questions about what I knew in the field. I commented to him that it was the first time at any grad school interview anyone bothered to check that I actually knew what I claimed.

He responded that his goal was just to push to the limits of my knowledge. Grad school (and research in general) is often about being at the limit of knowledge and the type of criticisms/discussions you mentioned. If a student negatively responds to being questioned or won't admit lack of knowledge, he considers that a warning sign.

Susan B. Anthony said...

It sounds like the person in question may be depressed or have other mental health issues. I might suggest (kindly) that he or she visit the campus health center and talk to a counselor. In fact I think nearly everyone trying to get through grad school could probably benefit from the occasional counseling session -- it's a very hard thing we ask people to do, and they shouldn't have to do it all on their own.

Buffalo Sally said...

I always cry when I am extremely angry (which is often the case in science). As I age, I cry less and fume more. People think I am not confident, but inside I am more confident than my bad posture indicates.

Anyway, I agree that this person needs counseling. Maybe she should try a group activity like training for a marathon. Once she has something else in her life, she might not take criticsim so seriously.

Anonymous said...

Counseling seems a good option. It was a pretty huge revelation when I learned not to take things personally, and that we were talking about science and my ability to communicate and not how dumb I am.

Hopefully your student will get past that second step, the one that causes trauma in our lab, where the student spends hours talking about themselves and how great their research is and sucking up other peoples' time looking for compliments and checking to see if they are still liked - you can't tell them to go away, because they are deeply offended (how could you be bored with THIS topic?) and or cry.

As for challenging students - I wholeheartedly agree. The field is to be an INDEPENDENT scientist. How can we expect independent thought in graduate school only? What kind of sheep are we making? A little failure never hurt anyone. A lot, sure, but kids need to be challenged or they challenge themselves in less productive ways.

Amanda said...

Thank you for this post. I've been wrestling with the very topic of confidence and how it determines the success/failure of a career in academia. In fact, it was your post about your colleague that prompted my interest in the topic.

Thanks again!

Aroza said...

Maybe this emotional outburst is not going to happen again.. or at least not more frequently then once a season? Is that too much to cope with?

So, some people are a bit on the sensitive side, so what? FSP is doing her best to train her students and objective criticism is part of it, and this student shall (eventually) understand that.

One might make the extra effort to point out to this student that it IS the advisers' job to give critics as well, and that it is OK not to enjoy the process of being criticized. (Crying is a bit too much, but not liking it is cool)And if you did not give feedback, you would only be doing him/her a bad favor.

Anonymous said...

Confidence is over-rated. I knew a guy that exaggerated his research results. He was confident, some might say a pathological liar. I would be more worried about overly confident students than the ones who are not confident.

Global Girl said...

"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."

"We sometimes discuss why I might feel like I do and why I sometimes react to situations in an overly sensitive way or back down too quickly during discussions. He puts things into a context of current & past students and faculty and even societal & gender expectations."

I'm not sure about this particular situation because of the subtleties I'm about to talk about, but I think far from most advisors actually realize there are such tools. let alone use them as much as Anonymous's advisor. I think subtle messages of discouragement can be sent over and over and over by not only advisors, but also other people you encounter in academia, especially to women of all colors and domestic men of color. Without knowing the race, gender and sexual orientation of the student, it's a little hard to comment.

It has been communicated to me (note: not *said* - you have to accept responsibility for ALL your communication, not only your verbal communication) repeatedly that the only thing that prevented me from being thrown out with a master's was Title IX, more or less. That's not exactly a confidence builder, and I'm sure if I had been a woman of color, I might have had just such a massive lack of confidence after a lifetime of being told I'm not doing what I'm supposed to. I have found that at least around me, professors are almost scared to acknowledge the role that society (and - quelle horreur - *subjectivity*!) plays in their everyday lives on almost every level. (No need to say hello when you meet acquaintances, collagues or friends, apparently. Racism, sexism and heterosexism don't exist. Anyone who claims otherwise is obviously just externalizing their imminent failure.) The lack of knowledge and self-awareness on the part of the professors around me is astoninshing, and the critical process can be used as a tool to weed people out. And by people, I mean non-White and/or female and/or gay people.

I really don't think you can answer your question without digging very deep into why they feel that way, and not just on a personal level as has already been suggested. Are they systematically oppressed in ways that has decreased their confidence to an almost absurd point? Are they at a double locus of oppression? Are they breaking strongly held stereotypes and paying a very high price for it? Do other professors and university staff communicate that theyre worthless to them, even though you (hopefully :x) aren't? Are they treated as Other by collagues?

I think asking these kinds of critical questions is very, very important, not only in order to help a particular student, but also from an ethical point of view. If the self-confidence issue is even in part due to systematic oppression, there is a moral and ethical duty to do something about that.

chall said...

Hm, it is one of those hard things since it depends so much on "how deep it really goes and how does it manifest"?

That said, my initial answer was no. Then I thought about myself and realised that I haven't the best self esteem and I managed through some pretty rought times but still, it comes down to "How to you handle critism? and what do you do with it?"

If you don't know it before grad school = maybe you can learn? I've learned a bit to understand that I am not a complete failure - just in some aspects ;)

And I still struggle the most with critism from the ones in the same department/group since I feel like a 15yr old disapponting my parents when they bring up things I haven't thought about or didn't know. When I am around "other" people, I don't care at all as much*.

I think you might need to talk to her about the harsh reality - she is going to get critism all through the education and the rest of her carreer but to be frank, it seems like she need to think about it in general since today it is hard to get a job without any critism so it's just to learn how to recieve it and who to listen to and take in.

*with care I mean, get sad feel like a failure and feel like the critism is just on me!

Vodalus said...

You can't cry in science because people look down on you. I know: I'm a depressive and have started to cry in public on more than one occasion. It's mortifying and has always resulted in several weeks of people questioning my judgment on other issues. I have a disease; I'm not stupid! But the cultural taboo about mental illness causes the two to be equated, especially for women.

Up until senior year of college, my fragile state was handled by people treating me gingerly. Life doesn't do that, so it was a terrible disservice. Senior year, I was informed by my instructor (and department head) that I was totally unsuited to the field and that I was going to be forced out of grad school. I'm still not sure if I'm angrier that he told me this in the middle of class or that when he did so, I had to leave to go cry in the bathroom.

The only thing so far that has really helped with my "confidence issue" (which is a cocktail of imposter syndrome, childhood verbal abuse and depression) has been therapy. If it's acceptable within your academic environment, then I'd suggest that you insist on counseling for any student that routinely cries in response to criticism.

You can't cry in science, especially if you're a woman.

Anonymous said...

When I looked at the comments, I was happy to see that the suggestion of counseling was coming up regularly.

I had a similar situation myself--during my second year of grad school, I became overwhelmed by anxiety and depression. I was basically on the verge of breaking down at all times, so anything negative pushed me over the edge.

I had to hit a point where I really wasn't functioning anymore--like I couldn't eat breakfast or lunch because the anxiety made me too nauseous to eat anything--before I finally accepted that I needed help if I was going to go on in grad school, or, you know, in anything other than moving back in with my parents and never leaving their house again. There's still a lot of stigma associated with getting help for depression/anxiety, unfortunately, and that held me back for a long time.

The decision to go on anti-anxiety medication and get counseling is pretty much the best decision I ever made in my life. It helped with the problems I knew I was having from anxiety, but it also made other things better, too--I'd been shy my entire life, and now I'm much less so, because I no longer have to face down this massive anxiety about every interaction with other people. Every aspect of my life is easier now. I still get anxious sometimes, like before giving an important talk, but it's at a reasonable level, and I can get past it.

As for the crying: I have always cried easily. I would tell anyone who doesn't to keep in mind that the threshhold for what makes you cry isn't the same for everyone else. So, if something makes someone else tear up, that doesn't mean that they're as upset about it as you would have to be in order to cry. And they're probably horribly embarrassed about how easily they cry, because it, again, is stigmatized. The best thing to do is to understand it means the person is some level of upset, and then just treat them however you would someone who you know was a little upset but not crying. If they're able to keep interacting with you through the tears, then keep talking. If they're so upset that they can't anymore, well, that is a different beast. But then, the problem isn't that they're crying, it's that they're very, very upset.

I can remember one time (before the meds) when I'd taught a class while being observed that had gone really badly for various reasons. I was feeling really bad and angry at myself for that already, and I needed a chance to work through those feelings, which in my case pretty much requires tears. But I had to talk to my observer about the class first, and even though he was very nice about it, I was still tearing up. It wasn't because of him, so much as it was because of myself. I was able to hold back the tears and not cry while I was teaching, which I think is important. And my observer was someone I had a good relationship with, who I didn't think would hold it against me if I did end up in tears. It is true that in one's career, there will be times when tearing up will be judged very negatively, and that one needs to learn to take criticism without getting very upset. I guess I just want to point out that some of the problem (maybe not in your case, but in general) comes more from people misinterpreting tears than anything else.

I'm much less self-conscious about my crying now than I used to be, and a large part of it is that now that I'm on meds, I cry much less easily. Like, a level of upsetness that would have made me cry in the past might not anymore. Everyone shows their emotions in different ways; crying is just one of those expressions. There's no objective standard for all people, saying someone who's crying must be X amount upset.

So, bottom line: if there is any way you can encourage this student to get checked for anxiety or depression, do so. I mean, this student must at least as unhappy with their lack of confidence as you are. If you can find a way to talk about how much they're going to be facing criticism throughout their career, and they need to find better ways of dealing with that, my guess is that they're going to agree with you on that. Even if they burst into tears at that point--that's not because you're criticising them, it's because you're talking about a situation that makes them miserable. And if they're really convinced it's not anxiety/depression so much as just a lack of self-confidence, then something designed to increase that confidence, like Toastmasters suggested above, would also be good. Or, you know, you can still send them to the university counseling center. Trust me, they've seen this before. They'll have suggestions for dealing with it.

Intuitive Investigator: The Heretical Recusant said...

Knowing that "all" people are prone to make mistakes helps. Knowing that even great scientists make mistakes helps better.

Biographies of great scientists very often have good accounts of all the hardship they had gone through. Quite rarely have I seen them mention about the grave mistakes they have mad in academia, like Einstein's Cosmological Constant, which he later called as his biggest mistake.

If I remember correctly, I once read a book which had the works of one of the greatest physicists (think it's Heisenberg, not sure though). It was published after the demise of the physicist. The preface said something like this, "...he made several conjectures, most of them wrong." The only correct conjecture he made went on to change the way we look at Nature!

Richard Feynman always laughed at people who thought that he would never make a mistake and openly admitted to the failure of many of his lectures, although others might have thought otherwise!

I believe that people in academia should shed the fear of making mistakes and criticism at the very outset. People should understand that grads, post-docs, professors and even Nobel Laureates are only "human." They are not, and need not be, omniscient entities.

Emily said...

Though therapy may be warranted, I have found that few take the suggestion without a long phase of defensiveness and blame toward the one who suggests it. A conversation where you (or her adviser or another friend) say, "I have noticed that you take professional criticism personally. It is not a personal attack or critique on you as a person. Our community exists because we are open to evaluate each other. Everyone gets defensive at times and some comments can be unnecessarily cruel, but please remember that this is constructive critique of your work. You have to learn to handle that if you're going to succeed here."
I find that an "I understand how you feel" conversation is often very helpful, especially if it's from an authority. And she will know that her emotions have been noted and she can choose to come off as the cryer or as a tougher version of herself.

Laura said...

I strongly agree with the general sentiment 'to overcome severe insecurity, seek outside counseling'. The advisor's role only goes so far, and being too easy on a student may spoil that individual, leaving him/her less well prepared for future professional situations.

Also, I know many lab groups already do this, but I have one other suggestion: holding a *casual* reading group. Our research group meets once a month for potluck/paper discussion at a professor/postdoc/senior grad student's house. Basic scenario includes friendly meal followed by discussion of paper/research topic. I was present before and after this became a regular event and am not the only shy student whose confidence has benefited from the exposure to friendly scientific banter. A caveat may be that I think our lab group is more laid-back than average; a friendly atmosphere is key to this learning experience.

researcher said...

Your student could be suffering from depression, or possibly from a surplus of jerks in her life.

After many years in academia and research, I have come to the conclusion that there are a lot of jerky people in the field who have few social skills and a lot of selfish needs to prop up their own egos. This wears a person down. Who knows what else is going on in her life?

A little kindness goes a long, long way for most students. Personally, I'm soooo tired of working with egotistical jerks who think that scientific discussion means attempting to club the other person over the head with their opinion. Even simple things, like being allowed to complete a sentence uninterrupted, are impossible with some of my colleagues. You personally may not behave this way to her, but continued exposure to this sort of behavior from others can make a person allergic to criticism or conflict of any sort.

This is one of the worst aspects of science and one of the ways that women are systematically driven out of it. When the only mode of debate is the intellectual version of a fist fight, many women are reluctant (at best) to participate. Hopefully, as more women enter the field, scientific discussion can be more of a conversation and less of an argument, or a giant you-know-what measuring contest.

Go easy on her. You're probably one of the only people who will even think about this issue at all. Many (but not all) other scientists are too busy trying to prove their intellectual superiority (not to be confused with actual science, of course).

Jackie M. said...

This question intrigues/worries me because it does seem that a disproportionate number of the Colossally Low-Confidence Students are women.

(Also, I would like to note that Janus's solution, while far from ideal for everyone, helped me a great deal.)

Lou said...

I'm thinking that all this getting help and counseling is good. And I am certain that you (FSP) are doing a good job mentoring and advising the student(s).

But all the advice is going to fall on deaf ears if the student doesn't recognize that his/her attitude is causing or going to cause problems.
You can suggest all you want, but the need to change has to come from the student him/herself.

(I have commented on this in my own blog, here - it was posted before any of the comments went up. I didn't post it here because it was long, and I think I'm harsh in what I say...)

usagibrian said...

The previous comments have broken it into the two primary possibilities: the student needs to grow a thicker skin or get into therapy. Based or your description, I'd suggest the latter.

To answer your question, can it be overcome during graduate school? Yes. If the person is willing to take the steps necessary to overcome it. In an extreme case, that may include leaving school to deal with it. Changing a cycle like this is not simple, cannot be done easily, and despite empirical evidence to the contrary is still generally seen as some sort of personal failing (note a few comments above that have that tone, if not the explicit statement).

You're in a bad bind though as suggesting seeking help may be taken as a horrid criticism that ultimately makes the student minimize contact with you since you've told them you think they're crazy.

Does the student have any healthy relationships you're aware of? If the answer is no, you're probably SOL trying to do anything to help. "Hitting bottom," to borrow a not totally inappropriate term, may be the only thing that will cause the student to seek the required help (be it therapy, medication, or a significant career change).

Anonymous said...

I am very glad that you brought up this topic. To some extent, this applies to me as well though in a different fashion.

I feel very self-conscious about having a foreign accent whenever I speak; so I try to speak as little as possible, which creates a vicious cycle -- not speaking out can be seen as being passive. On the other hand, in written communication I tend to be much more assertive and this counteracts to some extent my feeling of insecurity.

As a grad student, what can I do to "break out"? I'm not sure that I can afford "speech therapy" on a graduate stipend; I'm far above the level of ESL classes. I just can't find anything to fit my needs.

Rachel said...

To the last anonymous - try Toastmasters. Clubs often have members who have English as a second language or who have strong accents. It's a great place to practice speaking.

Www.toastmasters.org is the home website - visit 2 or 3 clubs near you. Dues usually aren't expensive - ours are about the price of a cup of coffee per meeting.

Anonymous said...

Remember that some people just tear up really easily, whether or not they're actually upset. I tear up if I'm sad, or if I'm laughing, when I'm watching a movie, or even when I'm watching a happy story on the news. I tear up especially easily when I'm surprised or shocked by something. If I see anyone crying/teared up, I immediately tear up.

The problem is more that people assume that I'm feeling really deeply upset when I'm all teared up, when actually I'm not upset at all - people project their own feelings onto me, and they're just not true.

Actually I think this is something that makes it harder for women in science. I think women tend to react to a 'confrontation' by tearing up, while men tend to get angry. Because so many of our advisors are men, the woman's reaction is seen as weakness. Maybe if most of our advisors were women, the male response to get angry and defensive would be seen as more inappropriate (rather than being a good thing in sticking up for yourself) and we'd get posts about how to help male students who just hadn't learnt to control their anger and defensiveness.

No solution though. I just need to become a flinty-hearted person. I can't randomly tear up and still be taken seriously.

Kea said...

Of course the student recognises that there is a problem! Geez. As a female theoretical physicist who finished grad school at 40, I can assure you that a handful of assholes can make a life of poverty a living hell - literally, if you end up in hospital like I did. The problem is that so much criticism is condescension, not criticism. I get told all sorts of dreadful things about my papers by people who don't anything about the subject at all. But then, theoretical physics is probably the last bastion....

I would love to get some serious, constructive criticism. My defence examiner was WONDERFUL! I rewrote my thesis so that he (and others) could actually read it (although I admit it's still dreadful). The communication is difficult, because I have lived an entirely different life to these people. It's like trying to talk to aliens.

Anonymous said...

I am a female Engineering prof. I am the most unconfident person I know. I don't break down when someone criticizes me, but I am not as effective at arguing my case and I sometimes feel autistic because I just seem not to connect with people. In fact, all I did in graduate school was learn to ignore people (which can be bad when you really do need someone's genuine feedback). At first, I would get irate when people would say terrible things like "You'll never pass the Qualifier", "You shouldn't submit that paper it's awful". But I studied hard to show them wrong and published the paper in a high-profile conference). Counseling helped me a little bit in college to cope, but I can't seem to repair my underlying disbelief in myself.

In fact, my grad school experience was "amazing" -- few profs or students I knew ever respected me or my work, but whenever I sent my papers out for peer-review, I got great reviews, I won student paper awards, etc. But because of my lack of confidence, I would never win much locally except maybe a teaching award because I tried so-hard.

Now as a tenure-track professor, it's extremely difficult (as you may imagine) because it's important to be confident and impress people to have collaborators and good students. I have had luck in getting a good student or two... and one of my students communicates our work better than me and supposedly impresses the other professors for me!
My relationship with my students is much better because they have to exhibit some respect otherwise I kick them out and leave them without funding. ;)

I also have had luck in finding a two male colleagues who are just able to see me for who I am and that I do have ideas that are valuable. But really, it feels like only 10% or less of the population is able to see-through lack of self-confidence.

So, the moral of the story is that STUBBORNNESS (really persistence and perserverance as my counselor would always correct me on) is the key to trumping lack of self-confidence but not really effective in solving it.

I am just forging ahead and "trying" to have fun while it lasts. But, I always feel like I'm fighting the odds and nature's force and that if that didn't exist, I could get ALOT more done..

Those are my two centers -- I love this blog.. THANK YOU! Keep up the great work!

Female Science Professor said...

Your academic life story is amazing -- thanks for writing the comment and making the excellent point that being stubborn can get you far.