As I walked into the conference and began meeting people I felt a bit like a teenager meeting their favourite celebrities. These were people whose work I had been reading and quoting. They were people I honestly idolized a bit. Talking with them I was awed by how much they knew and had read. At first it was amazing just to be learning all of this new information and talking to these people, but I also began to realise how little I knew and had read. I began feeling unprepared for the conference and concerned about my ability to complete my degree, much less manage to land an academic career. I felt like an impostor.
As my uncertainty increased, so did my notes on different sources, books, and people I should read, as did my self-consciousness about my own ignorance. I was hoping that I could somehow read all of these things before I was found out, but as I looked at my ever growing list, my hope faded. Luckily, that first night a group of them invited me out for dinner and drinks. They were asking me questions about my work and my opinions on a range of topics. They had invited me in and accepted me as a fellow academic, and when that happened I began to see them as people and not mythical intellectual figures who only existed as the names and minds behind books and papers. I also began to see myself in a new light.
That humanizing force helped me realise a few important things. It helped me remember that many of them have had a decade or two head start. They had been lecturers, reading and writing throughout their academic career, so I couldn’t hope to hold a candle to their breadth of knowledge and research. At least not yet. They had all been PhD candidates at one point, standing just where I was. The key was time, a bit of patients, a lot of reading, and remembering that I’m still learning.
With this new perspective I thought back to the papers given earlier that day and specifically the questions section. There were many admittance of ignorance or of their own limitations, such as their field of study or specialisation. Again, they were excellent academics, but also just humans who were still learning as well. I think it was this realisation that really hit home the point of a conference to me. It’s about presenting knowledge, but, at least at this conference, it was much more about collaborating and supporting each other in our work. The questions and suggestions were meant to help improve people’s work, not tear it down because we’re all still learning.
Thinking more about it, I realised that the necessary virtue for learning is humility. Now, I don’t mean a kind of self-defeating or deprecating humility, but the kind of humility that comes from an honest appraisal of yourself; your strengths and limitations; what you know and what you don’t. If you think you know everything or are too afraid to ask questions for fear of revealing your ignorance, you’ll never learn. Well except maybe the hard way.
This perspective gave me the courage to present my paper and the open mind to really listen to the questions and suggestions. Believe me there were times before and after presenting my paper I was thinking about making a run for it. Moving forward, I think and hope this perspective will serve me well when receiving corrections on possible publication, future conference, and my viva someday. I hope I can see the criticism as constructive and not become defensive out of a sense of insecurity. I think that humble acceptance that I won’t, can’t, and don’t have to know all the answers, takes a lot of pressure off and is somehow hopeful; there will always be something new to read and learn. So it’s not that I’m not well read or don’t know enough, I’m just still learning and really just getting started. A PhD is a beginning not an end.
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These realisations and experience rebuilt my confidence and motivation.