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Five ways to increase your confidence as an academic

Many academics lack confidence in some aspect of their professional lives, and while some are open about this, for others, it’s a well-kept secret, says Mary Beth Averill, academic writing coach, editor, and co-author with Hillary Hutchinson of The Confident Academic: Overcoming the small fish, big pond experience… and other difficult matters.

“I’ve been working with academic writers for over 30 years, and one thing that comes up repeatedly in my work with clients is their lack of confidence,” she says. “Even people who look to me like they’re at the top of their field sometimes feel a lack of confidence in some areas of their professional life.”

Academics are frequently beset with doubts about their work, their interactions with other people and their places in the organizational hierarchy at the institution where they’re employed, says Averill: “You lack confidence if you find yourself saying, ‘I’m not sure I’m smart enough, talented enough or good enough to keep going in this job,’ if you cringe when someone asks you how your book is coming along, or if you are considering a career change but are worried about navigating the world outside the academy.”

Confidence is a state of mind, she says. It starts with knowing who you are and what you want, then taking action to make what you want a reality. Confidence is also learned behavior, she says: “We’re not born with confidence. It’s something we have to practice. It’s built on real accomplishments and real challenges that are overcome, real conflict diffused and replaced with real cooperation. One of the challenges my academic clients have talked about is their lack of self-assurance or their inabilities to trust that they are as knowledgeable as the situations they’re in require.”

Why do many academics lack confidence in some areas of their professional lives? For many of them it’s due to the academic environment, she says: “In the academy, we’re meeting other people’s expectations all along the way. Graduate school training relies on a lot of testing and grading; meeting the expectations of a graduate advisor, chair, or committee; proving one’s value in a variety of ways, for instance at a proposal defense or a dissertation defense, and our resulting lack of confidence is totally understandable.”

Even if you’re on the tenure track or tenured professor, she says, you still have to keep proving yourself: “Tenure and promotion result in a lot of self-doubt. Teaching faculty have to keep in mind maintaining positive in the face of evaluations. And even senior faculty will have to handle reviewer’s critical comments—sometimes nasty comments—on their research arguments. The Academy can be a source of undermining experiences with microaggressions, sexism, racism, and unrealistic expectations of us. The ongoing scrutiny and pressure to please others, along with a heavily competitive environment may be at odds with our establishing our own foundations for enjoying teaching, research and service activities while developing our sense of self-worth, positivity, and confidence necessary to carry us through our difficult career situations.”

Fear of a failure is often at the root of imposter syndrome and confidence issues, she says: “High achieving academics in particular suffer acutely from imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is usually described with a focus on the individual. That is when somebody is feeling like they lack qualities or qualifications for the job that they’re doing.”

Averill shares five areas where you can build your confidence as an academic:

Letting go of perfectionism. Alternate ways of being in the world without being perfect include noticing when what we’re doing is good enough, being aware of when you receive diminishing returns on your efforts to achieve perfectionism, and looking at what led to the achievements that you can put on your CV.

Setting good boundaries and upholding them. Boundary setting is a practice, and one that will help you trust yourself, make better decisions, and build your confidence, she says: “Your boundaries give you permission to make your own work the highest priority when somebody asks you to give something of your time or energy. Learn to say no without apology. It’s uncomfortable to say no for many of us, but it’s something we can practice and learn.” Some ways to say no include putting an away message on your phone and keeping your office door shut. You can also:

  • Designate one day of the academic week when there are no classes as your research and writing day and let people know you won’t be available that day. If people e-mail you with a request, they’ll get your away message that tells them you’ll be dealing with that at the end of the day.
  • Put your work times into a calendar. List the time you’re going to spend writing or working on your research as an obligation in your calendar, just as you would block off the time that you’re going to spend teaching or preparing for your classes. When somebody asks you to do something, look at your calendar and remind yourself that you’ve already made plans for that time instead of immediately agreeing.
  • Say no is by saying yes. Figure out what kinds of activities you really want to do and say yes to that first, so that when somebody asks you to something else, you can point out what you’re already involved in.

Savoring “human being” versus just “human doing.” If you can take the time to really key in on your life and the calm, wonderful things that are going on, that can help you build confidence in the long run, she says: “Savoring doesn’t have to go on for a long time. You can savor the feel of a breeze on your cheek, the color of blue in the sky, the sound of geese migrating, the feel of a rug or floor under your feet. The key is to just stop and take it in.”

Practicing self-care to increase your creativity, which can build your confidence. Self-care can increase your creativity and energy level, both of which can build your confidence, she says: “Eat the diet that’s healthy for you, get regular exercise that works for you, sleep and rest well, maintain a spiritual practice or meditate, and maintain meaningful social connections. Self-care is not selfish.”

Embracing novelty or trying new things. Learn something new, brainstorm about a research or teaching talk, take another person’s perspective for a change, she says: “The draw of novelty can mean enhanced creativity, more energy, and more excitement in your life.”

Averill shares the following questions for you to consider as you work on increasing your confidence as an academic:

  • What will you do that is novel for you?
  • What will you say no to?
  • What will you savor?
  • How will you take extra care of yourself?
  • What will you do to combat your perfectionism?
  • For the question you choose, when will you take the next step?

Mary Beth AverillMary Beth Averill has been coaching and teaching academic writers for over 30 years. She wrote a dissertation in biology and an MSW thesis. This summer, she celebrated the publication of her third book, The Confident Academic: Overcoming the small fish, big pond experience… and other difficult matters. Mary Beth is the coauthor of How to Become an Academic Coach. The second edition of her second book, Scaling the Ivory Tower: Your Academic Job Search Workbook, is now available as well. As an adjunct Professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, she has taught Research Methods and Writing for Professional Publication. You can contact Mary Beth at As a follow up to her talk about strategies for academics to be more confident, Mary Beth and Hillary Hutchinson are offering a 4-week interactive seminar on The Confident Academic. For more information about the seminar,