I’ve just gotten back from an academic conference. It was one that I used to go to often as a student; but stopped as my work became more suited to other audiences. Having not been to it for a few years, I’d forgotten the differences between presenting here and elsewhere. To my cost, as I did a poor and hesitant presentation. I thought I could breathe again after that – relax – and have conversations about research. I was wrong.
I’d also forgotten something else. In other audiences, I’ve found a ‘broad church’, receptive to my findings, ready and wanting to collaborate with me (there is another danger in that, but that’s for another time). Here, I found people talking themselves up – talking about themselves – not in exchange, but so that I couldn’t, for trying, get a word in edgeways. This wasn’t even humble-bragging for the most part; it was brazen, outright boasting. The zeitgeist here was self-promotion and competition.
I felt my mood sink, as I listened, as politely as possible, to the difficulties of examining PhD theses, and getting authors for book chapters, a full list of grants, and the trials of negotiating your workload in a permanent position. These people completed their PhDs at the same time, or after me. I don’t yet have a permanent position. I have only a couple of modestly-sized grants, and a number of papers. I wouldn’t have liked to talk about my research, had they given me the opportunity to speak.
Returning to my room, I did what I couldn’t have done in the moment. I ‘googled’ those I was talking to. I discovered that, actually, their papers-list was far shorter than mine; yes – more grants – but as the nth co-investigator on multi-authored ones, rather than as the Principal Investigator. I breathed more easily, and reflected.
I am guilty, I know of false modesty, on occasion; of attributing my work wholly elsewhere (my supervisor re-wrote most of it), or of playing down or even dismissing achievements. This is me; it’s how I tend to operate. Mainly because I feel better when someone then says ‘actually that is a prestigious grant’ or ‘it was your idea’ than I know I would if that someone instead reclaimed their authorship or forcefully asserted their own contribution. From that position, someone is only going to be able to make me feel better about what I’ve done.
I also have the Complex Needs service in the back of my mind. The assessment of last year suggesting I have traits of narcissistic personality disorder, because I asserted my intellectual knowledge then. The desperation not to be seen that way, in spite of numerous reassurance since that this was a false impression – and that NPD requires assertions of achievements without the commensurate evidence of them.
There are, too, of course, calls in the Bible, not to boast in anything but Christ – to bring all things back to the glory of God. I won’t claim that this is the reason I feel unease in talking myself up (the reason I give above is foremost) but it does support a posture of modesty.
Something has happened in the past few years in academia. The job market seems to have led to the most frightful self-aggrandisement in conversations. Once, I would have talked measures and methods, and discussed collaboration. I would have felt the passion for the research topic, and for furthering knowledge. All I felt last week was a drive towards competition and self-promotion.
I am going away again to a conference next week. As much as I hate the sound of my own trumpet, I find that of others hard to hear, too. I’m hoping that the friendliness and cooperation I remember of that conference is still there. I find more harmony in that.