Home » imposter syndrome » Learning by doing – imposter syndrome strikes again!

Learning by doing – imposter syndrome strikes again!

Let’s get this clear to start with. I enjoy presenting. From the response I get when I present, it would seem people enjoy my presentations, and sometimes even are challenged by them.

However, on the 3 occasions when I have presented since starting my DPhil, I have found myself getting nervous and generally just not doing as good a job as I know I can. The first time, I gave a presentation, I dried. OK, in the informal context of the lab meeting it didn’t really matter, and in some ways it was helpful finding out that I could recover and carry on and not lose face, but I do not suffer stage fright, so what was that all about.

The second presentation I gave was as part of a course focusing on communication skills. We used blogs, designed posters, wrote abstracts and gave a short presentation. That time, I didn’t dry but I was aware of being very nervous and not really saying things as clearly as I wanted to.

The third time was yesterday. I wasn’t as nervous, but I had over-prepared and had far too much material so I ended up rushing and missing out important aspects of what I had to say.

During the same period, I have given other presentations in other contexts and I have not had the same difficulties – in fact in other situations, I have enjoyed the experience and made a good job of the task. So what is it that affects me adversely in those situations when I am presenting to peers and colleagues as a research student?

I think part of the answer is what I wrote on my facebook page prior to yesterday:

I usually quite enjoy presenting, but get much more nervous doing stuff at Sussex than I do anywhere else – maybe I think they are more likely to blow my cover, or think I’ve got to be clever instead of just being me….

It’s that old enemy known as “imposter syndrome” – there is something about having to prove myself, so I over-prepare, include too much content, trip over my words, and almost turn into a gibbering wreck, only managing to perform at all because I have done so many successful presentations in the past and know the drill.

Another part of it, which was very evident yesterday, and is related, is losing confidence in my belief that I know what I am doing, and taking too much notice of the advice I am given without weighing up whether it will actually fit. What I should have done yesterday, given it was a research in progress presentation to my colleagues, was to focus on what I was doing, what my preliminary findings were, and why these were relevant. I had plenty to say and could easily have put together a tight, but challenging presentation. Instead, I not only put my presentation in context – it did need some kind of brief contextualisation, but not 6 slides worth – but I also threw in a summary of the tension between the medical and social models of disability to give what I was saying theoretical credibility. Some of the extraneous stuff was there because I chose to include it, but some of it was there because I had been through the slides with my supervisors and they had suggested how I might ‘improve’ the presentation. Their comments were valid and well meant, but rather than weighing them up and deciding what I had room for, I took all their ideas on board – after all, they are the experts – and did not use my own judgment or knowledge of timing.

To make matters worse, having got an acceptable presentation worked out, instead of pruning it to fit the time available, I added additional slides and re-ordered the sequence so that those slides which didn’t really fit had a proper place.

So I had too much material and inappropriate material. Combined with my nervousness which meant I took longer than necessary to settle into the presentation, which made the early part even more clunky than it might otherwise have been, no wonder I ran out of time, had to rush through stuff and omit the most interesting elements.

People are nice and forgiving. There was enough there to satisfy those present. But I know I can do better – and if I am going to do better I need to believe in myself and sort out my own priorities and be willing to prune in order to communicate what matters effectively.

At least, I know that I have enough material for about 3 different presentations if I slice it up appropriately, so I guess it wasn’t a complete loss!



  1. Christiana says:

    Liz, I feel ya on being nervous, trying to prove, and over compensating as a doc student! Don’t have any helpful advice, just sharing.

    What does dry mean in your context? UK English for ?


  2. ailsa says:

    i feel for you, go gently.
    When i did one for my peers I tried to put 5 yrs of study into about 40 mins. It just didn’t fit.
    I wanted to prove the breadth and depth, but didnt, couldnt.
    Next time, if there is a next time, I’ll choose a patch of interest instead.
    At least with a conference there’s a theme to reign it in.
    At least with a conference i never have to see anyone again so there’s an element of not caring about judgments made.
    I find there’s a familiarity with colleagues that’s more threatening than a room full of strangers; you have to live with them afterwards, meantime they feel like they know you so they can say anything… and there are other agendas being filled.

  3. lizit says:

    Thanks for the responses – and for putting it all in context ailsa. Good point about the anonymity of conferences. Even if you know some of the people in your audience, chances are you are not working with them on a regular basis, and even if you are, there are plenty of other people around to balance the odds.

    By ‘dry’ I mean being lost for words – actually unable to speak. It is something that I have only experienced the once and found really scary. Being faced by a room full of people and literally not knowing what to say, even though I had a whole lot of stuff prepared to say!

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