Faking It

I seem to have given a lot of talks recently in which the phrase ‘faking it’ sat at their heart. You will realise I am not referring to talks about protein aggregation, microscopy or other scientific subjects when the use of such words might imply some decidedly dodgy and unethical practice. Rather, my talks have been about career progression, confidence building and moments of transition to independence. In such talks, what I am talking about is not so much dodginess, more expediency when trying to cope with areas in which discomfort is liable to be the primary emotion.

So what do I mean? I mean exuding a confidence you don’t feel until (eventually) it becomes deep-seated. All of us, throughout our lives, find ourselves being asked to do something for the first time. Perhaps it is your first conference presentation, your first committee meeting or your first visit to talk to school children; what then? It is bound to feel a bit unnerving to do anything for the first time and, as a result, there is the danger that you will ‘freeze’ or, at the very least, perform less well than you feel you’re capable of. How to beat that? In my view, the only way to do it is to ‘pretend’ that you know what you’re doing and slowly you’ll find that perhaps you really do. Of course, there are some things you may never be very good at; that is also true for everyone and in time you can work out what your own weaknesses are and avoid the wrong kind of situations and tasks. But, if you avoid everything just in case….you’ll never find out your strengths.

There are additional tricks of the trade to help beyond merely refusing to give in to your doubts which can help you on your way. I’m a great believer in grasping the wrist holding the laser pointer with your other hand to stop those irritating nerves causing the highly magnified image of the laser beam to bob up and down embarrassingly as you quietly shake while delivering that conference talk. I’m sure every experienced speaker could pass on similar tips to help get you through and one should always be willing to seek out advice from more experienced colleagues and friends. But, whatever useful tips are passed on, some of the ‘oomph’ you need to perform has to come from within, a fact that I believe remains true throughout life.

The recent talks I gave included ones to postdocs aiming to make the move to their first independent position (e.g. fellowships or lectureships) and to some of Cambridge’s stunningly smart and dedicated international research students. Both cohorts knew full well they were at a critical point where they were moving from ground they already saw as familiar to arenas they were much less well acquainted with. I think it is important to remind such folk that no one finds things easy the first time around but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you allow yourself to feel unconfident so that you mutter as you sit around a committee meeting table or when attempting to answer questions after a conference presentation, then you are likely to continue to feel unconfident. On the other hand, if you answer in a strong voice the facts you want to convey will be no more or less true but they will come across with conviction. Saying something along the lines of ‘that’s a very interesting question but I don’t know the answer/my data can’t address it’ in a firm voice is infinitely preferable to muttering something which makes you look merely as if you’re not on top of the game. Facts may be the same, outcome likely to be very different.

For those who’ve just made the transition to PI – and I had a conversation with 4 people about their recent experiences doing just this as part of this ‘transitioning’ workshop – it was interesting to hear what they thought were the most challenging things they’d had to face. None of them mentioned explicitly what I recall with alarm, the student who turns up with results they (and you) can’t explain and they look to you to tell them why they’ve got them and/or what the next experiment they should do is. It’s tough. You may have no idea but you can’t sit there and witter. You are responsible for them.

I remember the first time this happened to me and my internal voice said ‘help, what do I do?’ With hindsight I think I used the method exemplified by Elle in Legally Blonde. If you haven’t see the film it goes something like this (she was cross-examining a witness at the time). You ask a question and get an unhelpful answer; you have no idea what to do next so you ask it in a slightly different way; you ask again embroidering the question and seeking more information about the context. The witness (for which read student) may start to get annoyed by what seems a fruitless line of enquiry but as a result they too start embroidering their answer. Hey presto, they let slip something that they hadn’t realised was important. And suddenly there is some light at the end of the tunnel; a new angle presents itself suggesting what to do next, be it another experiment or a reanalysis of the data or whatever. (Of course in the film this very quickly led to a confession of murder, an outcome not likely to be relevant to a research student’s apparent ‘dead end’.)

The thing to realise is you don’t need to be omniscient to be helpful, you merely need to use your experience to look at things multidimensionally and then you and the student together can create a better understanding to allow progress to be made. Faking it, in acting like more senior colleagues who have had to sort out students like this previously, is no reason why you can’t facilitate your student’s research. Indeed such action is not only useful but in a situation like this absolutely vital. There will come that moment as a supervisor when you think ‘[insert suitable expletive], I don’t know what to do’ but you’ve still got to do something. Even if all it amounts to is, let me think about this and I’ll meet you at the coffee machine tomorrow with some suggestions. Buying time is not a bad tactic and can convey a sense of calm and knowledge of where to look next which in itself can be reassuring to the student facing their brick wall. Of course, this tactic only works if you can, in the next 24 hours, find a suitable reference/colleague or idea to move things along, but given that time you can at least probably find some further questions to ask. And then go back to the Elle tactic described above. The one thing a supervisor should never do is say ‘No idea, go away and work it out for yourself’ – unless you are quite deliberately trying to develop the student’s own confidence and problem-solving skills.

So, faking experience and faking confidence are all good ways of coping with uncertainty and lack of knowledge. You will know you’re doing it, but by practicing sounding calm and certain, over time when you find – with luck – that the world has not crashed around your shoulders and that you are indeed moving forward rather than back each time you do it, the fake will become the real thing. And then you are ready for the next challenge, and the next.



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3 Responses to Faking It

  1. Sally McArthur says:

    love this idea…it took me ages to realise that I needed to keep asking questions when students were presenting me with data whether I thought I understood it or not – it is a big step to move from data you know because you collected it yourself to data you only see presented as a table or figure. I made loads of mistakes by assuming that what the student was showing me was all the data.

  2. PhysicsBear says:

    Excellent advice, which I wish someone has given me some years ago. It’s never too late to learn however, so there’s hope for me yet! I can try to apply this to some of the students I’m now and then called upon to train, and indeed my junior colleagues. Thank you!

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