This is part 2 of a series about confidence. In Part 1 of this series, I talked about meaningfulness. Part 3 is about support. The introductory section is repeated so you don’t have to read them in any particular order.
External validation is not a reliable antidote to self-doubt. It can help, but only if it validates something you are already pretty confident is true. If your confidence is low, you extend your self-doubt to the judgements others make. Your gremlins are perfectly capable of telling you that the journal made a mistake in accepting your article (and that scathing criticism is now going to rain down on you), or that all the students that gave your course a high rating were just being nice (amplifying the voice of that one student who absolutely hated it and let it rip in the evaluation forms), or that someone made a mistake hiring you and there is no way you’re ever going to get tenure, or … or … or … I’m sure you can add your own examples.
So where does the confidence come from that can then be validated externally? It seems to me that there are three things that contribute to confidence:
There is a deeply personal element to what makes things feel meaningful, secure, and supportive. External validation can either strengthen or weaken your confidence depending on how it interacts with those internal elements. External validation can feel like support if it is meaningful to you, for example.
What makes you feel secure?
All academic projects are long term projects, even the ones that academics consider small. All academic projects require resources of time, access to a library, and probably some computing resources. Some require other resources like a laboratory, specialized equipment, and so on. The security that comes from knowing you have at least the minimum resources necessary to do your research matters.
Time is a particularly important resource. You may have collected and analysed data and done your literature review but the process of drafting and revising an article or book for publication takes a considerable amount of time. The peer review process is an editorial process that takes time for reviewers to read and comment on your manuscript, time for you to address their concerns and revise your manuscript, time for the revised manuscript to be reviewed, the possibility that there will be several rounds of review and revision, and then time for the final production of the publication. The length of time required for the writing and publication is difficult to predict and often out of your control.
Over the years I have noticed several people remark on the fact that they have more ideas and motivation for their research once they secure an academic position with the possibility of permanence. Although the road to having that position confirmed (which may or may not be called “getting tenure”) usually takes many years and may feel daunting, just knowing that the work you are doing could really be the beginning of a long career seems to make it easier to imagine possibilities that may take a while to establish. An academic job gives you an office, access to a library, the institutional support necessary to apply for grant funding and other resources, infrastructure like computers and a laboratory, and so on. A permanent academic job gives you the additional security that those resources will still be available as a new project develops or if things don’t quite go as planned.
In order to confirm the security of your academic position, you probably need to have published several articles and possibly a book. However, it is not merely the external validation of having been published that builds your confidence to submit things for publication. Nor is it having more experience of the process and a sense of how normal the various difficult parts are. Both of those things do contribute to your confidence. However, the security of the job itself makes an important difference.
When the permanence of your academic job is still merely a possibility, the lack of control over how long it will take for your manuscript to be accepted and the publication to appear matters more. Having an article rejected is not only a comment on the quality of your work, it is also a risk to the security that enables you to do this work. Because the stakes are higher, you are less likely to be confident. That also makes it more difficult to deal with the criticism that is an inevitable part of the scholarly writing process. You may even begin to doubt the external validation you’ve had in the past. You wonder if someone made a mistake. Maybe you really aren’t up to the job.
As you can see, even if you are in the privileged position of having an academic job with the possibility of permanence, lack of security can have a huge impact on your confidence. The current state of the academic labour market means that a lot of people are in even worse circumstances.
What makes you (feel) more secure?
Like other forms of external validation, job security contributes to your confidence but it does not guarantee it. Your lack of confidence may manifest as a concern about the security of your position, when really the more important issues for you may be meaningfulness or support.
If you are currently in a very insecure job position, you may be thinking that getting an open contract will magically make things better. Most of my clients have reasonably secure academic jobs, and they still struggle with the confidence to do the work they really want to do, to deal with criticism, to submit work, and so on. Furthermore, some people are able to find both the security they need and the time and resources to pursue their intellectual interests (including writing) in other types of work. And for some people, the security of an academic job comes at the expense of the work they find most meaningful.
When your basic living needs are insecure you use a considerable amount of your cognitive capacity worrying about potential threats to your ability to meet those needs, and those threats are more numerous. Those who have additional sources of this basic security, for example from family, are thus more likely to have the confidence to pursue the tasks required to secure an academic career. You might not like relying on a spouse or parents but if you have that option, it will make a difference. You may need to find a job that meets your basic living needs in order to create enough security to even begin to think about the other stuff. If you can, find one that leaves you with time and intellectual capacity to work on more meaningful things on your own time.
Being clear with yourself about what is meaningful to you about academic work and identify the sources of your insecurity will allow you to identify things that are within your control that might ameliorate your sense of security. That may be as simple as doing a bit of research about the actual requirements of the process for confirming your appointment (aka tenure). It might mean researching other career options so you feel more secure that you skills and knowledge will be useful in other ways. (Diversification isn’t just for investment portfolios.) It might mean developing your support networks and/or getting more politically active.
I wrote a series on sessional (aka adjunct) teaching which starts with the financial considerations.
Confidence Tricks, strategies for when you aren’t feeling confident
This article is a revised version of a newsletter sent on 19 October 2018 to those interested in hearing about my individual coaching services. The coaching newsletter also contains prompts for written reflections. You can sign up for the newsletter at JoVanEvery.ca/newsletters.