Confessions of a Postdoc (18): Confidence is Key

(April 23rd, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

Recently, I had a revelation. I realised that confidence is the key to everything. I thought I knew that all along, but I guess I didn’t really. As I looked around myself, I saw several examples affirming my newly discovered aphorism.

It started when I landed a couple of industry R&D job interviews, an experience completely new to me, since I have never before delved into this territory. Needless to say, I did my fair share of research into what to expect and prepared accordingly to the best of my abilities. In the process, I discovered a whole lot about myself and what I wanted from life. I analysed my strengths and weaknesses from a whole new perspective and, I am slightly ashamed to admit, but I know a lot more about my area of expertise now than I did before. When I didn’t get those jobs, mixed with my disappointment at having been rejected, I found myself, surprisingly, more confident. I found myself thinking I know now how to do this, I know what to expect, I know how and what to prepare, and that next time, I am going to kill it. Not that the first time was bad, but the almost overnight gain of renewed self-confidence really surprised me. A certain level of anxiety before any major venture is good, maybe even necessary, but what had consumed me in entirety before the interviews, has now turned into optimism and courage. And suddenly I find myself realising that having this kind of self-assurance is like winning half the battle. Not only is it going to improve my performance and how I come across at future interviews, it’s also going to make me a lot calmer and more composed.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety issues throughout her life, I can tell you this. Nothing works better at quelling nervousness than an unwavering faith in yourself and your abilities. Let me give you some examples. Although I don’t have real stage fright, the feeling of intense anxiety in the days leading to a big talk or presentation is unavoidable and in some cases, may even be debilitating. I learnt a long time back that there is no other way to resolve this issue except to practice what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Figure out a way to predict what questions to expect, and know how you are going to answer them. I find the more prepared I am, the more confident I get, the less wavering my voice gets, and the more convincing I become.

During my first year of college, I was a mess. I had just come out of high school and an intense couple of months taking countless exams to try and get into preferred colleges and courses. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I dressed badly, I put on lots of weight, and I looked (according to some honest ‘batchmates’), at least 10 years older than I was. No one, outside of my class, spoke to me. I had one friend in the entire college. I was miserable. After the second semester though, I took matters into my own hands (I mean who else was going to change my life except myself!). I lost weight, changed my wardrobe, started wearing makeup, and all of a sudden I was feeling really good about myself. That fact reflected in the vibe I exuded. And just like that, people started talking to me, acknowledging my existence. I wasn’t any smarter or prettier than a year ago, but I did appear a lot more confident, a lot more self-assured. This experience taught me two things: One, appearance matters, a lot! And two, if you don’t hold yourself in high regard, no one else will.

Confidence is key in both personal and professional endeavours. Like when you are looking for a job and you need to be able to market yourself effectively. As I recently realised, the skill of unabashedly blowing your own trumpet loud and clear without appearing complacent, can only be cultivated when you have true faith in who you are and what you are capable of. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of self-belief, when it comes to presenting yourself in front of the world. It’s incredible how quickly people can see through someone who lacks such personality. Changing gears, similar rules apply when you, say, go out on a first date with someone you don’t know. I am no expert on dating or relationships, but I have had far too much experience to know that lack of self-confidence is a big turn off. And I certainly don’t want to be around someone who is unsure of himself.

If gaining confidence wasn’t hard enough, maintaining that confidence can be even more challenging. It’s a constant struggle, like running a steeplechase. Every time a hurdle is encountered, you may need to revisit the issue. Because even the most brilliant minds and talents, when faced with the toughest of circumstances, can succumb to self-doubt. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, if you could look adversity in the face and hold your own, not only are you likely to emerge victorious, you are likely to emerge stronger, braver and more self-assured. While I am talking about this, it hasn’t escaped me that there is a fine line between being confident and being an arrogant prick - A very fine line indeed. Complacency can sneak into one’s character as easily as uncertainty.

So, I decided to take the rejections in my stride and consolidate everything I gained from these experiences: Firstly, and what a reassurance this is, that I had landed a phone interview without actually having any contacts in the company, and without having a stellar publication record. Purely on the merits of my CV and my skill set. Secondly, they say knowledge is power; even more powerful is experience. While I am fully aware that every interview and interviewer is going to be different, just to have done this sort of thing a couple of times, goes a long way in building my third and final gain, confidence. Mark Twain said, “To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” I concur!

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