This is going to be long.
As a third year PhD candidate who is plagued by the impostor syndrome, I find myself the most under-qualified, out-of-place, socially awkward person in most academic rooms. You know, when everyone seems to know everyone and you’re just standing there like, hi…
Sometimes, there are fellow postgrads with whom I can commiserate. We seem to share a collective postgrad telepathy considering the countless times I see postgrads immediately drawing to each other at the first tea break of the day. We congregate, swap A/S/Ls (do people still use A/S/L these days?), and stay huddled like penguins fighting off the cold. Occasionally the brave ones venture out to engage in some sort of social intercourse with the others – the academics, the real ones, you know, post-PhD.
Other times, these postgrad comrades are not immediately available, and I panic a little inside my head. Do you?
Academia is so much about performance: verbalising serial 1-minute research+biography pitches while concentrating on your glass of wine and floppy paper plate of fingerfood; attempting to sound intelligent while commenting on that last presentation (while in the queue for the ladies and bursting with pee); attempting any other type of non-academic social intercourse (Oh the weather! I love your sweater! Great slides! Interesting accent!) in the pockets of lull at these events. It feels like the academy’s assessment of your intelligence and communal worth is at stake all the time.
Have you ever had someone sit next to you at lunch, learn that you just a PhD student, then get up to sit with someone else? I have. It was awful. She was a fellow PhD student (cries inside). Thankfully that was the only time something like this happened in my last 28 months as a postgrad.
Then there are the days when I want to retreat into the nearest corner and curl into a ball on the floor with a sign that reads ‘Go Away, Dying From Embarrassment.’ Like the time I went up to my academic-superhero-supreme-goddess and enthusiastically announced that I own all her books and am so excited to see her in person. Then an awkward silence. My brain filter wasn’t turned on that afternoon.
But there are also the days when the others are brimming with patience and generosity and understanding and a really beautiful heart. I get that these ‘networking’ type things, learning to hold an intellectual conversation and command your own are part and parcel of academe. Even a ritual of sorts, I reckon. And I’m not expecting to be cradled and to have my hand held all the time either. But no one really teaches you how to do these things.
No one taught me how to Keep Calm and Smile when faced with my favourite academics whose books are permanently on my office desk (because in my head I am screaming I LOVE YOU AND YOUR BRAIN! please sign my forehead) But here are four accounts of when I’ve been so blessed to have met nurturing and mentoring academics who retrieve me from the corner of the room and teach me to be comfortable and confident.
There was the time I must have looked reasonably lost on a campus interstate. She called out and asked if I was alright, hunny, and proceeded to pore over a map with me (nevermind that she, too, was clearly late for the next event!) I later saw this professor again at different talks and various conference drinks. She would come to sit with me if I was alone, and asked if I wanted her to introduce me to someone else in the room when she was about to leave, just so I would have company. Then came her personal stories of having been a postgrad some years back and recalling how difficult it was to maneuver such academic spaces. It was nice for someone who has crossed to the other side to remember that it can be overwhelming for noobs like me to integrate into these crossings.
You know how sometimes there are two people having an intense conversation while the rest are standing around as audience (or sometimes just waiting for a pause to interject)? I am also thankful for the academics who are sensitive to their surroundings and inclusive in their conversations, by introducing their friends in the vicinity to each other and letting us in on the context/background/plot so we are not completely lost in what is exchanged and can participate too.
Sometimes it’s as subtle as opening up the circle one is standing in, or facing the new entrant, or engaging in eye contact with them. This man I was talking to after a lecture kept getting interrupted by old friends and random people coming up to congratulate him (at that point, I had no idea who he was or that he was going to be the star of the night for winning an award). I remember how he would interject and introduce me (and my research) to these drop-ins to acknowledge my presence so I didn’t feel like just some fly on the wall. These little gestures can mean a lot to a wide-eyed newbie postgrad.
Giving a presentation to a room of senior academics can be very daunting. Especially when you’re probably citing half of them in your paper *gasp*. I felt very encouraged when one of these ladies came up to me at the end of the day to offer her time to me via email, or for a coffee if I ever want to talk more about my work. It was very unexpected because she is literally the top academic in this specific field who has a tight schedule, but she was spending time at the post-conference drinks chatting with postgrads to learn about their work.
And it wasn’t just self-interest topics like if we were using the prof’s research, or courtesies like our genealogy of schools. She was listening intently to our postgrad gripes and aspirations (my dream postdoc placement!), and offering long-term career trajectory advice (managing babies and a postdoc?!). I felt like the prof was really interested in our wellbeing and wanted the younger generation to inherit good academic practices.
And then there were the two amazing postdocs who spent the night talking about my postgrad journey after learning that I was in a tricky administrative situation. It ended with tears and commiseration (one of them experienced a similar crisis) and drinks and many hugs. And despite having known me for just two hours beforehand, they availed themselves to me the whole night, shared their stories, and gave me courage to do what I needed to.
The best part was the follow-up emails I received from them the week after the conference, checking in on me, sending virtual courage, and even suggesting action plans. I felt very blessed that they were invested in me as a person and longterm friend/mentee, not just a conference passerby.
In an industry where the ability to defend your intellect is key, I am ever so grateful for these academic angels.