Confidence in Transition

Tuesday, 08 November 2011 19:48

One of the greatest challenges that I face in my professional career today is finding and maintaining self-confidence. After years of struggling to meet the increasingly impossible standards of excellence in an institutionalized system of learning and work (also known as academia), my confidence is still, at times, shaky. Finishing my PhD while poor and chronically ill was an exercise in endurance (both mentally and physically). I emerged from academia feeling deeply disenfranchised with the university and doubting my ability to make the right decisions for myself. The years of failed grant applications, combined with my feelings of academic isolation, resulted in a level of self-confidence that wobbled at even a hint of perceived failure or unexpected difficulty. While I am secure in my abilities most days, there are still stretches of time where my confidence is merely a thin veneer on a sea of uncertainty and self-doubt.

I haven’t really been aware at how deeply my self-confidence had been shaken and misshaped by my time in academia. My self-doubt and uncertainty quietly crept into all aspects of my life. Last week, I was in the process of buying a membership to the SFRA and I had stopped myself, thinking “I should ask Andrew (my partner) first.” It suddenly struck me how ridiculous and unnecessary that was – I had been asking for permission for so many small things. I finally appreciated Andrew’s numerous pleas to stop asking him if I could put cereal/cookies/fruit/etc. in our cart at the grocery store. I had been embarrassing the man for months on end – it really doesn’t look good when an adult woman asks the man she’s with if she can get a loaf of bread.

I realized that I had unconsciously transferred the authority of the university system to my partner (and yes, the feminist-me is completely weirded out by that!). Without the comforting rules and procedures of higher education, I was searching for someone/something else to fill that role for me. Part of the reason why I am so happy now as an independent academic is because I don’t have to check with anybody else about what I’m doing – there are no proposals or meetings about my research and what I want to do with it. I like that freedom, but it is still sometimes scary to actually carry out. While I no longer have to organize committee meetings, I also don’t have a set group of mentors either.

Working for myself, then, has been a completely new challenge that has required me to reflect on not only how I work, but, more importantly, how I see myself as a worker. I always have thought of myself as strongly independent, but now that I am outside of an organized work community, I can see how much I have relied on other people to direct me (from simply meeting deadlines to figuring out a work schedule). Relearning to think of myself as an autonomous individual from the academy is a long and on-going process. For at least six months after my defense and submission, I thought of myself as a “new PhD.” When asked what I was doing now that I was done with my studies, I answered, “well, I just finished my PhD, so ….” Not much followed those initial words. In the sense that a good deal of my life revolved around the PhD process in work and social spheres, I was the PhD. I certainly am not unique in this case, but I haven’t found a lot of other people talking about this ego encompassing (eclipsing?) aspect of being in academia.

I have largely rebuilt my self-confidence and every week I get better at celebrating the small successes that indicate I am indeed on the right track. My partner is happier now that we can go grocery shopping without strangers giving him the side-eye and I am far more willing to venture into unfamiliar work territories. I think that the hardest part of transitioning away from academia has been having to reconceptualize what constitutes work and success – and, if the past few months are any indication, I’m doing just fine on my own. Now to work on patience ...

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