Courage needed, Take a Deep Breath

athene2012As the dozen women chosen to get on their soapboxes this year hone their ideas and wonder how to put them across without Powerpoint slides or much in the way of props, I wonder how many of them are losing sleep over their forthcoming appearances. I know last year I approached the event with some trepidation because it was so unlike anything I had ever attempted before. It is easy to regard the unknown as scary, dangerous territory simply because there are no landmarks of prior experience to hold on to. Once something is familiar it is easier to think ‘well I’ve got through this twice (or 10 or 100) times without coming completely adrift, so the next time is likely to be OK too’. If one can’t think like that, because the first attempt (or the first several) were so disastrous, chances are you won’t continue to expose yourself to the challenge in the future.

There is no doubt experience helps; it is one of the (few) advantages of growing older. Once you’ve stood up in front of your peers that first time – be it your own research group or a platform at a major international conference – you know it won’t actually kill you. Your legs may shake, the laser pointer quiver in your hand and your voice be tremulous but once it’s over you know you’ve got through and survived. Next time, the wobbles should be less, the sleep the night before less broken and the nervous tension in the days ahead of the occasion less overwhelming.  After a few years you’ll be an old hand and able to offer sage advice to the next generation.

So how should you approach some special scary first-time event? Standing on a soapbox may cause butterflies in the stomach, but if you do fall flat on your face (metaphorically or even, I suppose, literally) how serious is it? It seems unlikely that your job depends on it, though a modicum of self-respect may. But if this event is some genuine deal-breaking moment, a job interview perhaps, or that first major conference oral presentation, what can you do to lessen the fear and to improve the chances of doing yourself justice?  The first thing I would advise is preparation and research. Suppose it is a job interview for a lectureship, find out who is going to be on the interview panel if you can, learn as much about the department to which you are applying as possible and try to join up as many dots as possible. Work out answers to the obvious questions such as:

  • How do you see yourself fitting into our department?
  • What attracts you to joining our department? (to which the best answer is not ‘it’s a job innit’)
  • Who might you collaborate with?
  • What courses would you like to teach?
  • What sort of group do you want to set up and how will you set about funding it?

If you have confident answers prepared to some of the easy-to-anticipate questions, you will have more energy to cope with the left field variety. Sometimes these arise from people scrutinising either your research (possibly even failing to understand it) or your career path and expressing a genuine but unexpected curiosity about something that perhaps you’d rather have glossed over. That year of complete lack of productivity because you got side-tracked by 5-a-side football or doing the lighting for the student drama group – you’d hoped no one would pick it up but suddenly you feel very exposed.

The second thing I would advise more generally, really doesn’t apply very well to job interviews although it is something I try to bear in mind each time I take up some new challenge: consider what the consequences are if things go wrong. Unfortunately, in the case of a job interview the truthful answer may be you end up unemployed. But, more frequently, it is usually consoling to contemplate the reality that if you mess something up, chances are most people won’t notice or, at the very least, won’t remember for more than 5 minutes just what an idiot you made of yourself. Since, even at this late stage in my own career I still seem frequently to be doing things for the first time, I try very hard to bear my own advice in mind.

So, last year when standing on a soapbox in the rain speaking to a modest-sized audience, if I’d made a complete hash of things (and perhaps I did!) there were not only few to laugh at me, but of those even fewer whose paths were going to cross with mine again. A few weeks before that Soapbox event I had done another first, when I wrote my first (and so far only) Comment is Free piece for the Guardian. I had felt quite bruised by some of the comments and I awarded myself a very public B-  (though someone through Twitter accused me of grade inflation, asking if that was typical of Cambridge); indeed that whole experience was very public. But a year on, I doubt if anyone other than myself remembers the event and it certainly, manifestly, hasn’t stopped me writing. It would be nice to think I’d learned from that particular experience so that, if ever asked to contribute to that forum again I’d make a better job of it. That is really the most that one can hope for.

So, for this year’s batch of Soapboxers and for anyone about to embark on some first-time venture, the only thing you can do is prepare as well as you can, breathe deeply and plunge in. Each new task will only be a new task once; it may turn out to be fun, it may turn out much less well. You’ll never know if you don’t try.


Prof. Athene Donald, DBE FRS, is a Professor at the University of Cambridge. Her work focusses on using the ideas of soft matter physics to study a wide range  of systems of both synthetic and biological origin. You can follow her on twitter @AtheneDonald

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