EnGendering Confidence – Part 1 (Cardozo #postac post)

by Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

When people ask what the Alt/Post-Ac consultants do, we usually describe a range of services: self-assessment and job-searching strategies, document generation and editing, mock interviews, etc.  Yet the more I work with this distinctive population—PhDs (or ABDs) effecting a career transition—the more I believe that the core of all these things is a two-word mission:

Build Confidence!

From a consultant’s external perspective, it’s easy to see a client’s strengths or appreciate the unique nature of their profiles.  For the most part my clients are multitalented and well-suited for any number of alternative pursuits. Perhaps this reflects a self-selective process in which highly multifaceted people are more likely to explore Alt/Post-Ac careers?  Whatever the case, far from being a one note Johnny or single-minded scholar, these folks have reservoirs of alternative interests and skills (though they often need prompting to recall that, as academic culture leads us to devalue or forget “other” experiences).

Strikingly, there is little correlation between my clients’ achievements and their confidence levels.  Despite impressive portfolios, they sound more like recent evacuees from a war zone than people on the brink of a capstone. As one of my clients put it ever so poignantly:

“I came to graduate studies with a sense of confidence after having engaged in leadership activities in the public and nonprofit sector. I left graduate studies with my ego quashed, my confidence shaken. The ideals that drove me to enter graduate studies, to effect incremental societal change through scholarship, slowly collapsed.”

The specter of self-defeat tends to raise its ugly head early on in our process and I have to point out: “Umm… you have a tremendous background chock-full of transferable skills” or, “if those people are such jerks, why would you want to work with them?” There is a huge gap between my clients’ actual conditions of possibility and the dejected way they tend to feel.  And there are good reasons for that.

  1. Many academics lack information about alternative careers (this is the aspect most easily remedied by the crack research skills of most PhDs and informational interviewing): once you find out more about what the rest of the world does, it’s easier to imagine yourself out there somewhere.
  2. There is the problem of translation that I and others have addressed in prior posts:  it’s not always easy identifying transferable functions across different roles or fields; we’re so focused on job titles that we miss the constituent parts which might transfer readily between academic and other kinds of work. (TPII consultants can help with this).
  3. Emerging from a Ph.D. program is like a mole tunneling out into sunlight: it’s disorienting. Taught to prioritize and think one way for so long, it takes some time to find your bearings in expressing other values or pursuing other goals.
  4.  Most significantly, my job as a confidence-builder exists primarily because the unspoken mission of doctoral education is to destroy confidence.  How else can you get a bunch of smart people to toe the academic line against all known odds, often in the absence of humane treatment and in the presence of (as the client above put it) “far too many academics and colleagues who in one way or another exhibited the worst of the human condition?” If you are not identified as ascendant in the star system (and maybe even then) you are destined to be plagued by imposter syndrome and besieged by doubt – doubt in your own intellectual abilities when compared to those who seem effortlessly accomplished (in part because you are rarely privy to the process that got them there), and doubt of ever having a viable academic career (a well-founded concern, as things turn out). All of which—via a concatenation of logical fallacies—leaves you convinced you’re not fit for anything else.

In short, graduate school is to confidence as expeller pressing is to olives – a method of extraction by squeezing under high pressure. Matriculate into any doctoral program let the oozing begin!

The Confidence number from The Sound of Music perfectly captures what any PhD goes through when considering jumping off the track that has structured your life for so long.  Maria’s struggle to be a good nun in the Abbey is a pretty good analogue for the monastic commitment of the scholar.  But the drama of leaving that sheltered life to serve as a governess to seven unruly children in the shadow of the Third Reich pales in comparison to the perceived terrors of Alt/Post-Ac job searching!

As the musical number begins, Maria is on her way to her new assignment, wondering why she feels so scared when she has always longed for adventure. She gives herself a musical pep talk of monumental proportions, delivering some pretty impressive footwork while singing and toting both a guitar and a suitcase, reaching the jubilant crescendo of “I have confidence in confidence alone” just as she arrives at the Von Trapp mansion gates.  Abruptly, the music cuts out, and she faces the imposing façade in a poignant silence during which –we may safely surmise – all of her confidence evaporates.

Every Alt/Post-Ac seeker recognizes this dismal moment, as you peer into YOUR uncertain future. Having been expeller-pressed from the academy, it’s perfectly normal to feel crushed. But you must never take those feelings of guilt, loss, shame and self-loathing as an objective indicator that you are unsuited to life beyond the surly gates.  I’m here to tell you that you will be an EXCELLENT governess! They are going to love you in the real world. But you have to regain your confidence first.  Like Maria, you need to realize that the Abbey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that Captain Von Trapp isn’t always right, and that you have something important and unique to contribute (let me now drop this analogy before it leads to the inevitable prospect of literally getting in bed with your new employer*).

*If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you must watch the Sound of Music immediately (fair warning: you’ll need about 3 hours).

In my next post I will look particularly at how confidence is gendered – a significant issue given that academe’s contingent sector and overlapping Alt/Post-Ac seeking population (in my client roster, anyway) is predominantly female. In that context, we will talk about practical ways to build confidence.


EnGendering Confidence – Part 1 (Cardozo #postac post) — 9 Comments

  1. oh wow, this right here: “the unspoken mission of doctoral education is to destroy confidence.” Mission accomplished then. It has taken two solid years (and counting) for me to gain a sense of who I was before the PhD and to remember that I had something to offer once. This was an encouraging post. Thanks.

    • hi Kristen – Good for you for regaining your Self! I think it’s not about returning to who you were B.C. (Before Confidence-squelching) or lamenting what you’ve become A.D. (After Diss). Rather, you’re entering new and uncharted territory – metaphorically something like skin-grafting–where you come out the other side of the doctorate and begin to integrate your larger history and toolkit of experiences and interests in ways you were not invited to do in academe. You don’t have to throw out the baby of your academic experience (all those skills and knowledge!) with the bathwater of stepping off the Ac track. If that makes any sense.

  2. Thanks, thanks, thanks for this! To expand on one of your points, one reason that I’ve noticed for the confidence deficit among academics is that, in academe, opportunities for feedback are often set up for *critique* (even when they’re called “reviews”). For example, in the dissertation defense, the dynamic is often one of a literal attack and defense. And we all know what peer “reviews” look like. In any case, your emphases on confidence building and self-affirmation are much needed!!

    • Very keen observation, Margy! In addition to the ubiquitous mode of critique which requires constant “defense” (an anxious orientation antithetical to real creativity and innovation) there are related cultural and structural issues in academe that privilege competition or individuality over productive collaboration and feedback. Sigh. Still, plenty of good folks in the trenches – we just have to identify and support each other in doing things our countercultural way!

  3. Oh my goodness, I just watched Sound of Music with my kids and this is exactly what I thought of watching that musical number!

    I am now mid career crisis, Ac market is all but over for me, but after failing at that I wonder why anybody would want to hire me, if I can’t get hired at the thing I’m best at. The idea of going ‘out there’ is exhilarating and terrifying at once.

    • Is your name really Maria?! How perfect in this context! I’d encourage you to reframe your situation in two ways: 1) academe is not a meritocracy (there are too few jobs for too many excellent candidates, and hires are as much about politics as academics), so “failing” on the academic market is no referendum on your skills and 2) “the thing you’re best at” is actually a complex bundle of multiple activities and related skills, which – once unpacked and recognized – can be reassembled and deployed in a new context that may even tap OTHER things you’re good at that academe did not. That’s some of where the exhilaration comes from!

  4. Hi Karen, I’m curious. Do you believe the lack of confidence during and after Ph.D. has any link with the gender gap in academia? Is it that students (maybe more females) are not applying for positions in academia due to low confidence?

    • Yes, my next post discussed this. Confidence is definitely gendered male in this society! Lots of empirical data on this. The number one cure for women is simply: taking action. Acting “as if” even when one lacks the confidence. Applying even when one isn’t sure. Leaving no answers blank on the test!

  5. Pingback: 2 Reasons Why Hiring Only Women Isn't the Answer | GradRookie

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