Reflections on building self-confidence in the PhD

L sitting at Univ Conf
Photo kindly taken by Prof Hazel Hall.

One of the main goals that I set myself as part of undertaking a PhD was to work on increasing my self-confidence, not only as a researcher, but also presenting my work to others. For me, I hate presenting in front of others and the thought of having to deliver some sort of presentation in front of an academic audience is not something that I welcome. Now you would think this would not be a problem for me considering I have previously worked in places such as the Centre for Life (in Newcastle) and also Beamish Museum (North East England) where every day part of my role was to ‘present ourselves’ and interact with people wanting to use the service – but you would be wrong. I was also part of the Schools Service as a volunteer for ChildLine (part of the NSPCC) and each week or so, I would deliver assemblies and workshops to children explaining different forms of abuse and how to spot it or get help. For a lot of people, talking to children about abuse that they could suffer might be hard, but I loved it knowing that I was helping to make a difference to those children. It did take me a while to build up my confidence in presenting but once I was fully trained and working, I most definitely absolutely loved it.

Speaking in front of people confidently and also presenting my work was one of the things I set myself as a primary goal to improve. During my education and employment I have seen people deliver sessions, presentations and training, wondering how they did it so effectively and it really made me understand how important these skills are in terms of being confident and feeling confident in what you do. So in the last 8 months as a research student, I have participated in many activities aimed to help improve my confidence in presenting so I am going to give a little advice to others based on what I have managed to do so far. Here is my advice to you:

  1. Get to know other students…

Firstly, I think it is really important to get to know others working in the area, both academics in your department and also different departments. For me, our student induction event kind of helped me do this. I got to know other students researching many different areas, some who were new to research and some (like me) who had kind of progressed through. This interaction enabled me to talk about my research ideas as it was only week one so none of us had really worked on our research as such as this point. It helped me gain insight into other research out there and also acknowledge (form the start) that there are a lot of PhD students in the same boat, trying endlessly to learn as much as possible in the PhD process.

  1. Get to know people in your department (and research group)…

Secondly, I think it’s really important to meet others in your research groups and departments. On my first day as a research student (and as part of my induction), my supervisor took me to meet some of the staff who would be able to help me along the way through my PhD journey, but also people who she thought I kind of needed to know. I also

Members of the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI) – image courtesy of photographer Prof Hazel Hall at the University Research Conference.

made efforts to meet people who I had not yet met so it meant that when I needed to talk to them, or ask for help, I know who they were and what they did. It was also beneficial to attend events (such as the Edinburgh Napier University conference) with some of our research group too so that I was able to feel part of the group and not feel too scared when presenting my poster later during the event. It also helps to ensure that isolation does not kick in so participating in academic events like this shows your commitment to the research group, but also helps in getting to know your colleagues a little better in their own academic setting.

  1. Attend lectures and seminars…

For me, my confidence in talking about my research started when I started attending lectures and seminars (both departmental and external). I attended some in the Business School where my research is seen to have a place (partly, yes), but this also helped me to get to know other research students and their research topics too. I was able to work on explaining my research to people not working in my area and building up that confidence in explaining what I was planning to do. Also for me, I did not feel part of the team so much until I started attending departmental seminars. Apart from showing your support to colleagues, I think it helped people to get to know me and me to get to know them so when we have different seminars and meetings people know who I am and what I am trying to do (hopefully) without having to continuously ask.

  1. Start by explaining your research to your supervisors…

The most critical people of your research will be your supervisors (in my opinion). Initially, I had problems as I did not want to receive criticism from anyone, but now I understand that criticism is vital in success (you have to feel the failure to facilitate the learning process). Receiving criticism and feedback on my work has helped me work on telling my supervisors what I am doing and some of the reasons why. It helps me in discussions of what I will be planning to do next and when I have an idea or so, I do not feel so fearful of telling my supervisors what I think. I ran into a problem with this a few weeks ago when

Explaining the whole of human behaviour using a teddy bear and three volunteers (image thanks to Frances Ryan).

I suggested a potential theoretical framework and I was welcomed with silence and the odd work here or there. I knew instantly that neither of my supervisors welcomed my idea and that I would need to go away and provide evidence to prove my point. This is something I will be preparing over the next few weeks and will be able to update you all once my discoveries are fully known. Part of my own problem is that I know my superiors are watching when I present, and I know they are secretly analysing everything you say and do (there are photographs to prove this haha!). This bothers my slightly. I kind of just need to get over those intrusive thoughts as knowing I have support from my supervisors is one thing that keeps me working. I’m not saying that a research student should do everything they do to please their supervisors but supervisors should be there to provide guidance, feedback and support when needed, and students need to have this in mind when presenting. Supervisors have a reputation to keep up so if it is evident that students have not prepared or are lacking the right support, then this could reflect not so well on the supervisor. More importantly, supervisors do not want you to fail (we hope). So taking time to understand supervisors expectations and getting that vital feedback is something I would highly recommend!

  1. Volunteer to organise a conference or two…
Soc certificate
Second place prize for best poster at the School of Computing research student conference.

I have found (oddly) that volunteering to be on a conference committee has helped increase my confidence considerably. Firstly, I was on the School of Computing research student conference committee and part of my role was to chair a set of presentations followed by a Q&A session after each. I often find that I get nervous in front of a larger audience so this was not my cup of tea at all when I first volunteered, but I do hold the strong belief that you learn by facing your fears. So I did. The day ran quite smoothly and I was even congratulated by people on how I chaired the session (including our director of research who came to me personally to tell me this). Something like this did not require me to prepare a presentation as such, but I needed to be aware of things like timing, people’s names and running order so that my delivery could go without a hitch. I also had to work with the rest of the team to help with planning and the second year PhD students to make sure presentations were on time and designed correctly. I obviously would not admit this (haha!) but I quite enjoyed the day overall and chairing the session I was assigned. It showed

Joint first place winners for best oral presentations at Firbush (image thanks to Frances Ryan).

me that my ‘stage fright’ only occurs in certain situations and that I don’t always make mistakes (like then I forgot my funders name in the research day presentation earlier in the year!). So next week, I’ll also be doing a similar at iDocQ where I am the Edinburgh Napier student rep and have been working with other staff and students at Strathclyde to organise the conference. I’ll leave that one there though as I have blogged about this before and I am sure I will be writing a blog post about the event itself. I don’t want to spoil all of the fun.

  1. Start by explaining your research in one minute…

During the research day in January, my ‘one minute madness presentation’ was not good. I forgot my funder’s name which threw my whole minute off course and I felt like a complete failure. However, a few months later at our School Conference, I did the exact opposite. I did not stress over this beforehand and prepared my one minute presentation structurally and practised it every now and then to keep the timing. The one thing that I thought would bother my (my supervisor looking straight ahead at me) did not bother me at all for that minute and I was quite surprised by my own reaction. I don’t believe that it was a great one minute presentation but I was able to continue to and introduce my research area more confidently and this time I did not feel like a compete failure. The one minute madness was actually an introduction to a poster that I was delivering later in the day and I coincidently won second prize for this at the conference which I was pleased with. I have also delivered one minute madness presentations and you can see tweets form my colleagues here who photographed me during my time ‘on stage’. The one minute madness presentation are good in the short run but…

  1. What about presenting a poster?
Univ_LJ from HH
Lyndsey presenting her poster at Edinburgh Napier University Conference (image thanks to Prof Hazel Hall).

I know quite a lot of academics who believe that posters are a waste of time. However, I feel the exact opposite. Designing a poster about your research, and then presenting this at a conference not only helps with research justification, but the presentation itself enables you to be questioned and criticised in a less formal format. I have presented two posters already, one at the School of Computing research student conference and one at the university conference, both with the overview of my research. I found that not many people asked about my research at the school conference but I think that was due to location and timing rather than other factors involved. I was able to chat about my research at the university conference a lot which gave me the opportunity to discuss reasons behind my research, the theoretical framework (which was welcomed by my audience), the methods and also the applications of my research. I was questioned frequently by people in the Business School and Employment Research Institute as my research ties in well with their research themes, but they were quite shocked to find I was not based there and where my research came from. It was good for me to receive unplanned questions, such as the effect the recession might have on the training aspects of my research and explore how my research relates to research currently being one within the workplace learning and educational context which I enjoyed talking about quite a lot. I also (wonderfully) got to meet the person behind the ERI twitter page, where he made the point of telling me that he knew I retweeted a lot of the ERI research tweeted.  I am hoping that this confidence will stick and I will be able to carry it out at the international conference I am attending in September so that I can talk about my research to leading academics. I hoping that my stage fright as it’s called does not get the better of me and that I can discus my research with both students and academics who wish to question me on it.

  1. Then the dreaded oral presentation…

As you may be aware, I hate presenting in front of other people, particularly if it is about my research and especially if it is unscripted. I think my trip to Firbush with some of the other PhD students might have proved myself wrong in one of our activities that we did. We were given the task of delivering a 5 minute unscripted oral presentation on our research. We HAD to use props from a pre-prepared box and it HAD to be delivered to the general audience. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to that! Anyway, I really surprised myself with what I was able to provide and how much I enjoyed it. I was able to explain my research quite confidently, and use all props necessary. I am not a naturally confident person but because I knew that the audience were not here to criticise me then I just

Firbush prize
First place prize at Firbush for best oral presentation – awarded to Lyndsey Jenkins.

carried on as normal. Half way through I forgot my words, but instead of stopping, I just talked about something new I had found out and asked a question to the audience. This gave me a few seconds to prepare my next part and meant I was able to continue talking about my research without people knowing I had missed a massive portion out. I am really pleased I took part in this as it helped me see that presentations don’t have to be scary and don’t have to be hard. The audience even felt that my presentation was quite good and nominated me for joint first place winner of the prize, something that I thought was quite impossible.

Later this week comes the times that I dread, doing an oral presentation in front of my own research group and then other staff and PhD students at iDocQ. I am hoping that it okay and that all of my preparation time pays off, but our research group so have a good way to enable students to practice conference presentations before actual delivery which I quite like. This then allows us to get feedback to hopefully improve our game with the aim of ensuring that we are on top form at conference presentations. I am hoping that the dry-run of my presentation will help me work on building up my confidence even further and that I can put into practice everything I have read and understood of what makes a presentation understandable and appropriate.

More details on my 20×20 will follow in my blog post on the product of iDocQ! 🙂

One thought on “Reflections on building self-confidence in the PhD

  1. Pingback: Preparations for ISIC 2016 – Lyndsey Jenkins

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