I think self-confidence is an essential ingredient of doing well in science, but it’s not discussed enough. I have thought about confidence a lot because I don’t always have it. I’m over 50 years old and have published plenty of papers, but often enough I doubt myself. I have this intermittent, but deep-seated worry that maybe my science isn’t so great. Sometimes I get pretty nervous before giving a talk (which I do my best to hide) even though I enjoy lecturing. This long-lived impostor syndrome is frustrating, but it’s part of who I am.
I am confessing my anxieties here because when I see successful academics give lectures, they typically seem extremely confident. I imagine that, seeing these science paragons, younger scientists might think they will never have that kind of confidence, or have that great science to boast about.
Sometimes I worry that science has always been a lot like Instagram, where we put forward only our perfect selves. The concerns stay private. I suggest you assume this “Instagram bias” about science and scientists. It will help you stay saner.
Confidence is a tricky subject because multiple factors play into it, both objective and subjective. I may not be fully qualified to write about it, but anyway I will try to provide advice based on 20+ years doing science. I would also point to a good article in Science on the subject.
On a day-to-day level, an important facet of confidence is optimism regarding future research outcomes. I’ll bet you have worried: “Will my current project yield strong and publishable results in the end?” We all think about this, and the question can seem more threatening earlier in your career.
How can you have confidence in a project? The main way is to do your homework. Know the literature – what’s been done and what hasn’t. Ask your mentor for help with this. Study the competition and read their papers sympathetically, assuming they’ve done something valuable. After doing this homework, you should be ready to write that paragraph in the introduction to your paper that starts, “While significant progress has been made on topic X, including A, B, and C, there is a clear need to do/answer D, E, and F.”
But “doing your homework” is rarely enough. What about the days (or weeks or months) when things don’t go well? Research is filled with small, medium, and large-scale failures that each of us has to face, and it isn’t always easy. In fact, many of us are so deeply involved with our science that our self-esteem rises and falls with perceived successes and failures. When an idea doesn’t work out that required a big investment of time and resources, it’s hard not to feel it emotionally. It hurts.
How can we cope with failures, which are inevitable? I think the answer here depends a lot on the individual, and on your level of experience. If you are still a trainee working under a mentor and you experience what seems like an existential failure, I would strongly counsel discussing this explicitly with your mentor. They will understand the specific issues involved and they probably have plenty of confidence in you. After all, they’re using scarce resources to fund your salary. But you might also seek advice from peers or an experienced scientist outside of your group. An outside opinion can be very valuable, and hopefully fortifying in a difficult situation.
And while we’re talking about “failure,” this is not a clear-cut thing. Some of us may tend to exaggerate the degree of failure. It’s worth emphasizing that a true, reproducible “negative result” may not be glamorous, but it can represent good science. Personally, I think all negative results should be published. If there was an idea that seemed worth testing to you, likely that’s true for others. This is one of the reasons I pushed hard for a Lessons Learned section in the journal I help to manage. So if you’ve done good science but got unlucky, I think you should still feel confident about yourself. And moreso if you can figure out whether there are lessons you can learn to improve your future outcomes.
I remind my own trainees that research is challenging, almost by definition: we are trying to do things that haven’t been done before. The easy stuff has already been done.
What about ‘important science,’ the kind done by leading scientists who lecture with such confidence? When we’re assessing the value of our own work, it’s important to consider what “importance” and “success” really mean in science. It’s helpful to consider two paradigms – the heroic and incremental models of science. Revolution vs. evolution.
Personally I don’t believe there are too many heroic scientists, folks who have done things no one else could do or conceived paradigms a decade before others would have thought of the same idea. I believe in incremental science, as I’ve written before. The more you know about a field, the more you will recognize that most advances are incremental.
So let’s go back to those super-confident scientists wowing audiences with their brilliance. I think your default assumption about any scientist should be that their work has been steadily – hopefully, smartly – incremental over many years. Achievements that seem amazing may well be an up-sell or the result of much more effort than you have ever put into a project. (Try talking to a heroic scientist’s rivals for a different perspective!) And if you are a trainee, definitely don’t compare yourself to an established person in any way.
If you want to make a comparison, look at yourself a couple of years ago. Think of what you have accomplished and understood since that time. Or how about five years ago? Would you even have imagined where you are today?
Down the road, you may be that person making the big impression on audiences. It’s impossible to extrapolate from your current level of confidence where you might be in the future. I firmly believe you can become ‘smarter’ by working at it, and in fact the value of this ‘growth mindset’ has been demonstrated. So study, work hard, be organized, and plan for the long term. Don’t compare yourself to peers, or senior scientists, with a lot of bluster. Be confident in yourself based on your own growth.