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I’m a second year PhD student experiencing a great deal of pressure for meetings and talks when supervisors/other professors are present. I want to find methods for relieving a bit of this tension as the high adrenaline during the meetings now makes me too nervous to actually think straight or so tensed I freeze and don’t contribute anything. Especially when topics related to my own work are discussed, I’m extra tensed as I’m expected to know the answers. When put on the spot I usually don’t. I do want to learn this, as for defending my thesis and during talks at conferences I should be able to think on the spot. Additionally, these meetings drain so much energy without being that useful in this way.

I create this pressure myself and I think the reason for this is twofold:

  • Performing under pressure and being assertive during talks and meetings are things I find hard and therefore I try to work on this in these meetings. However as the pressure actually prevents me to preform on these points, it causes more frustration, leading to more pressure in the next meeting.

  • On the other hand, I am very aware of the professors in the room and do not want to come across stupid and I want show what I’m capable of. Some of the (more established) professors can also be quite critical towards students and phd’s and while this can be very useful, sometimes it’s just really derogatory and hurtful, not constructive at all. I think I’m also intimidated by this.

Peers in the same situation do experience this as well but most of them just accept this as it is, I’d really like to do something about it. I discussed it with my supervisor as well, she was very understanding and we agreed that preforming under pressure and being proactive during talks are learning points for me, but that only lead to me wanting to show during the meetings that I’m working on it even more. I think the key probably lies on trusting more my own knowledge and being okay with not understanding and knowing everything, I just don’t know how to achieve this.

Has anyone experienced similar situation and maybe has concrete tips on how to deal with this and relieve some of the pressure? Many thanks!

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    Some of the (more established) professors can also be quite critical towards students and phd’s You get them everywhere. Most of the other academics are probably unhappy about it too, when it goes too far, so while silent, they are likely to be on your side
    – Chris H
    Nov 22, 2023 at 10:51

5 Answers 5

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Let me suggest two things, one simple, one not.

The simple thing is to ask more questions than you make statements. The others in the meetings have more experience than you do and good questions can lead to research. Don't think of questions as revealing lack of knowledge but as a way of getting up to speed.

The harder thing is practice, practice, practice. It is natural for novices in any field, even doctoral candidates, to feel insecure and often a bit lost. But those others went through the same thing in the past and seem confident now because they've had a lot of practice. Especially hard for introverts at first, but if you think of it as a learned skill rather than a natural ability you can get there.

In some fields (math) even saying "I don't understand" can lead to positive things if arguments are incomplete as presented. As a student my peers often thought I was brilliant because I asked a lot of questions. Others had them also, but didn't ask. (My mom, on the other hand, thought my constant questions were a pain in the ***).

In New York the answer to "How does one get to Carnegie Hall?" is "Practice. Practice. Practice".

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    Thanks for the answer! Asking questions is for sure something that can really help and is practice at the same time. The question then is, how to ask questions. The problem now often is that because of the high pressure I put on these meeting I cannot think very straight and questions do not arise naturally as would happen when I’m reading something or so. Are there practical tips to being able to get your mind off how others perceive you and wanting to perform well and let your curiosity flow again.
    – ihi
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:47
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I think we humans tend to poorly assess how others assess us. Sort of an egotistical problem we never grow out of as toddlers where we assume we're always being judged by others even as we walk in the street or visit a store. In reality, people just aren't paying that much attention to you, they're focused on themselves and how they are being judged. When they do judge, they do so according to their own experiences and feelings: they judge you for getting in their way, not for how well you walk. If you trip and catch yourself they're thinking "glad that wasn't me! And glad they're not hurt and I don't have to decide whether to help" not "they're so uncoordinated!".

A scientific presentation/talk around professors is a little different but it also extends that principle. The other people aren't there to judge you, they are there to hear about science. They like talking about science in their field, it's their favorite thing. They'll judge you only by how much science you help them talk about. If you don't know the answer about something, it might give them the chance to show off what they know: they'll remember how smart they must have seemed to everyone, not how the student doesn't already know everything (if you did why are you a student?). They'll remember you more negatively if you make them seem dumb in front of their colleagues than if you let on you are not omnipotent.

I would be more careful not to seem arrogant rather than trying to know everything. I would think of this as a conversation not an exam; in a conversation you can admit you don't know without losing points and you can invite others to contribute in your place. It's more impressive when someone understands the limits of their knowledge than when they pretend to have no limits.

For your own research, the one thing you absolutely do need to be an expert in is what you actually did, because no one else in the room will ever know more than you about that. You have to be prepared to be the expert in you own work; especially if you've tried many things, make sure you review what you actually did when you present data/results.

Finally, presenting among professors at your institution is great practice for the wider and world. Everyone studying and working at your institution has an incentive for everyone else there to look good when presenting outside. If you get tough questions, see these as opportunities your friends are providing you to be ready for true adversaries later. They all know you're learning, let them help you learn.

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I definitely went through a stage where I had this problem. In hindsight, it reflected weakness in technical knowledge. You say "When put on the spot I usually don’t [know the answers]." How long does it take you to come up with the answers when you're not put on the spot? If it's just a few seconds to come up with the correct answer, then the issue is probably psychological. But if it takes time to come up with the answer even when you're on your own (and especially if you can't answer without checking references), then the issue is probably a lack of subject matter knowledge.

At the undergraduate level, it is sufficient to understand the concepts and techniques and be able to figure out the details when needed. But at the graduate level, the goal is expertise in a particular topic, and that means that you know these things cold. Sure, you'll never know everything, and there are some questions to which "I have no idea" is a perfectly fair answer. But in many cases, improving your technical knowledge will allow you to more confidently answer questions.

So how do you do that? Look at your work (and your group's work, and the subfield generally) with fresh eyes. Specifically: with very critical eyes. Pretend that everyone in the subfield (including your past self) is an idiot and you assume everything they've done is totally wrong. Then, start with the axioms and fight with them until you must grudgingly concede that the axioms are reasonable. Then rinse and repeat for everything else. Once your work has already withstood your own scrutiny, you'll have an easier time defending it to the scrutiny of others.

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It might help if you shift your perspective about what these meetings are and what they're for.

You seem to consider them as a test of sorts, requiring you to put on a top notch performance. Of course, you'd feel under pressure. Try instead to think of the meetings as an opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to ask questions about things you're confused about. Opportunity to share ideas and learn about science. Think of the meetings as being there for you, instead of you being there for them.

I know this is hard, but once you do it once, you'll feel so much better. If you need to just keep repeating to yourself that meetings are not a test. Right now you seem to be stuck in a loop. Before the meeting you might think I haven't done enough, I haven't learned enough, I'll embarrass myself. The problem with this is not only that it will affect your performance during the meeting, it will also affect you outside of meetings. You'll be unwilling to engage and feel stressed and might procrastinate too.

In addition to shifting your perspective, you could also try to manage expectations. You could talk to the profs individually and ask them what they expect of a second year student. You can ask them if you're meeting those expectations and if not what do they recommend you do? You can ask them who meets those expectations in their opinion and then you can go to those students, talk to them and learn what they're doing that you're not, or what they're not doing that you are.

You can also create agendas for the meetings and prepare more before hand so you feel more comfortable.

That's all that comes to mind.

I do agree that maybe there is an issue with a lack of knowledge. But you won't get anywhere if you constantly think that you don't know enough and that you need to learn more (it'll just kill all the fun). Even though this is invariably true for pretty much everyone, science is especially difficult because knowing what you need to know and where you can learn it can be just as hard if not harder than actually learning it. So if you set unrealistic expectations about how fast you're supposed to progress and how to measure progress you are bound to be disappointed and lose the will to do science.

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I was (and still often am) in a similar experience when giving talks. I can give you a tip that worked for me that refers to your statement:

I think the key probably lies on trusting more my own knowledge and being okay with not understanding and knowing everything, I just don’t know how to achieve this.

For me that was indeed the key. And what helped me be okay with not knowing everything was observing my advisors or other senior academics in meetings. When I collected enough evidence that professors are also stressed giving talks, at times are visibly challenged by the questions and sometimes have to manouver the way around the answer, or sometimes struggle to explain a concept clearly, it made me calm down. I realized that apparently none of us know everything, even about our research field, and we all have better and worse performances when speaking to an audience. So my advice would be: observe senior academics carefully during meetings or presentations and notice their shortcomings. If they can have shortcomings and still be successful academics, so can you.

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