Pretending to be self-confident as a scientist

Recently, I got the following piece of advice:

“You know, to be a professor, you do not have to be self-confident. You just have to appear self-confident. You do not have to change yourself at all. Just pretend! Privately, you can have all the doubts you want.”

I think this is wrong. If you have to lead a group of PhD students, pretending is a bad mistake. PhD students are smart. They will know.

I am truly impressed by a professor if I hear him/her say: “You know, this is a good question which perhaps indeed is a problem for our research. Let’s try to figure this out….” but honestly, this happens rarely. Many professors are offended by good questions.

It is really annoying that the application process for faculty  jobs seems to require that we pretend to be extremely self-confident, when in the job, this pretending is actually a problem and can mess up the research and the atmosphere in a group badly. Many professors pretend to be (or are?) self-confident to a degree that borders on delusion. I’ve far too often heard PhD students say that they have to give their advisor ‘what he wants to hear’ in order not to hurt his fragile ego.

Shouldn’t science be a place where we should all discuss our doubts and where we should enjoy critical thinking, second-guessing and critical questions? Pretending to be self-confident is a good thing for a car salesman, but is it for a researcher? We all anyway have the tendency to be blind to problems in our research, even if we don’t actively try.

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One Response to Pretending to be self-confident as a scientist

  1. Matt Wall says:

    I am constantly afraid I’m going to be found out, and people are going to realise that I actually know very little! Refreshingly, I heard a famous and very well-respected British scientist on the radio a few weeks ago saying exactly the same thing!

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