On the 14th March I received an email telling me that my abstract had been accepted for the New Directions in Sherlock conference at University College London on 11th April (#NDSherlock). This gave me 4 weeks to write a 20 minute speech on the topic I had chosen: comparing the ethics and morals of Dr House and Sherlock Holmes. I was excited about the topic and about giving my first paper.
Little did I know what personal hell I was about to put myself through.
As a PhD student (particularly as one who would like to go on and research professionally) conferences are essential for networking with academics, and of course, for demonstrating your own academic prowess. The first ever conference I went to was also at UCL (also run by Tom Ue – a great organiser) and I blogged about it here. After that experience, I was happy that UCL was going to be where I presented my first ever academic paper to an academic audience; I was excited! After all, I thought, I have a lot of experience of speaking in public through clubs etc. during my school years, so I can easily stand up there and deliver. Plus, I was flattered that they had chosen me and I got to work straight away. I watched episodes of House M.D (again!) and read essays on the topic. I was feeling good. And then I began writing; I finished my first draft, sent it to my supervisor for advice. Great. I received it back the next day saying ‘add more theory’ and…
It has been said all academics have what is informally known as: ‘Imposter Syndrome’. This is where an academic believes that someone, someday, is going to realise that they’re not as intelligent as people perceive; haven’t read everything they might have read; don’t have all the answers to the questions other academics may have on their work, and feel inadequate when comparing themselves to other academics in their field. I heard this and thought ‘YES! That’s me’. Though I am not usually wracked with a lack of confidence, there is definitely a part of me that still can not quite believe I am doing a PhD at all – it’s for brainy people, right? I love stretching my brain; reading; analysing; but does that mean I can be as good as the other academics in my field? Can I stand up to that kind of scrutiny? It’s scary.
There was a moment then where Imposter Syndrome kicked in with a hardy boot and I thought, ‘I can’t do this’. I was about to give a presentation to potentially 150 people, and have my arguments critiqued. My brain went into overdrive. But I would like to share some things that helped me overcome this fear in my final week, and in the end, helped me give a first presentation to be proud of.
With 4 days to go – I was feeling horrendous. I wasn’t sleeping, I was having anxiety dreams and I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I went on Twitter and found that other speakers from the conference were discussing how nervous they were! I joined in their conversation and we had a laugh about it, discussing what kind of musical accompaniment would be best suited to our presentations (I went for violins, just to have the Sherlockian feel). This helped a lot. It wasn’t just me; we were in it together.
The evening, still with 4 days to go – it was explained to me (and 1500 other people) by Derren Brown that when you are overwhelmed by something, you visualise that thing as above you. Your eyes will naturally look up when you are thinking of it. This is apparently because your brain is representing the object of your fear as towering above you, it has power over you. However, with meditation/visualisation you can take that picture in your mind, shrink it down, and visualise it on your iPad or tablet. Instantly you are above your fear and you have power over it. By doing this, I was actually able to sleep peacefully that night.
With 3 days to go – and with only a few hours notice, I organised to meet a lecturer at my University (Portsmouth) who is an expert in the theory I was using. I explained to him my ideas and we discussed possible aspects I hadn’t considered, but mostly it put my mind at ease that I hadn’t completely ‘missed the point’. I went home and made edits.
Still with 3 days to go – I sent my final draft to a literature and blogger friend who read it through, helped me change a few sentences and sharpen up my ending.
With 1 day to go – I had finished my final final draft, created a powerpoint, read my presentation a hundred times to myself (and my mum), had it all printed and ready to go. I packed my bag and went to stay at my brother’s in London.
On the day I turned up nice and early and made full use of the book-seller’s stall before it started (I have a new bookcase and there’s a shelf empty, can’t be having that!). Fortunately, I was the third speaker in the first panel of the day, which meant I only had to wait 40 minutes to give my presentation. I was shaking… I was also the only one so far who was reading their presentation verbatim… I realised last minute I hadn’t marked on my paper where to change the slides – urgh!… But fortunately, in a state of panic my brain goes into organisation mode and I sorted myself out. I read the paper I had prepared to a room full of people; it ended, and they clapped.
That was it. It was done. I enjoyed the rest of the day and the other papers; I met other academics, and Sherlock fans; I had tea and went home. After so much build up of panic, it was such a relief to meet so many lovely people who, whether or not they agreed with my arguments, were complimentary and celebrated with me that I had completed my first academic presentation!
So the lesson learnt from this conference is, again, people are much kinder than you fear and with just another few weeks until I do it all again at Portsmouth University, we’ll see if the lesson sticks this time.