The privilege of self-confidence

March 5, 2019

The career of an academic scientist is assisted mightily by self-confidence. This is hardly news. But there exist a plethora of insults to our intelligence, preparation, accomplishments and ideas that plague us. Application to graduate school is itself an attack- it’s a cool career and yet you may not be allowed to do it. If you aren’t good enough. On paper. We’ve argued recently about the GRExit but this ties into a broader argument about the “best” way to select graduate students. Which is basically a way of telling some people they suck. The mere fact that we furiously debate which attributes of the applicant are most important should serve as a warning guide post for the future of academia.

There are no fixed agreements about standards of evaluation. This means that literally EVERYBODY SUCKS. (On at least one metric that is super important to someone else in a position to judge us.) That’s just the beginning. Rotations. Qualification exams. Advancement to candidacy. The dissertation “defense”. Manuscript review is notoriously brutal. Grant review is probably even worse. At every turn, the academic is told that she or he is unworthy. A healthy dose of self-confidence comes in handy in my experience.

My gut reaction to most of the slings and arrows has been, and continues to be: “Fuck you! Who are YOU to judge ME you %&*%&*$%%*^?!????”

Internally anyway. I don’t actually say this out loud or in response to a disappointing review. But I knuckle down and start crafting my response to whatever is attacking me, if I need to do so (manuscripts, grant applications), or let it wash over me if I need to ignore it.

This may possibly be genetic. I was having a conversation with some area ~teens recently in which I was trying to get them to see that boundless self-confidence was something they should see as a privilege of being them. I may possible have observed “Do you notice how each and every person in this family pretty much thinks that they themselves are the best possible and always most-correct in every way person on earth?”. Everyone had to ruefully admit that I was right (and to be honest people, I’m the least self-confident person in my family if that tells you anything) but I am not certain that moved the needle much on understanding the privilege issue.

Anyway. I continue to be concerned with a career path that makes such an advantage for the self-confident, and what this means about the people we are selecting for/against. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with self-confidence and I don’t really mind that life might be a little competitive and silly now and again. I am very grateful that I happen to have these traits and am not hamstrung by self-doubt. But there is no reason we need assume that the best science is going to emerge if we make sure that those that lack self-confidence do not succeed.

Tactically I try to show trainees and some junior faculty that it’s not them, it’s the process. That the business tries to beat up everyone. That grant getting is an issue of overwhelmingly bad statistical chances, not an issue of them being unworthy. I really don’t know what else to do.

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