Owning Difficult Moments

Public speaking is not my favorite thing. In fact, it something that brings me a great deal of anxiety and stress. To reduce this stress, I generally over-prepare and can become too scripted. Several months ago, I presented at a conference. The presentation was a poster session organized specifically for doctoral students. During poster sessions, several presenters hang posters displaying their work around the room and attendees walk from poster to poster to learn about each project in a brief presentation. I was nervous before presenting, but my advisor kindly assured me that I would be fine. Right before we presented, I learned that professors would be walking around and grading our presentations, which spiked my anxiety. I focused on my key talking points and treated each attendee as though they would be rating my presentation. Afterwards I felt more confident. Questions that the attendees asked help to inform the next brief presentation that I gave. Nonetheless, I was still surprised when I won the award for my research category. This experience boosted my confidence through a combination of experience and immediate feedback.

Several months later I was scheduled to give the same presentation at a different conference. It was a busy time of the semester and I did not practice my presentation as diligently as I had the first round. And if I’m being honest, I was also feeling far more comfortable as a result of the previous conference. During my first interaction with a participant, I could feel myself rambling. I had strayed from my key talking points and I could tell that I had lost my audience member. During my ramblings the woman grabbed one of her colleagues to have her look at my work, which was similar to work being conducted at her institution. Flustered, I began explaining my research to the second woman, whom I will call “reviewer 3”. Less than a minute after she arrived at my poster, reviewer 3 questioned the appropriateness of my methodology and my subsequent findings. In response to my burning face and stuttered responses reviewer 3 asked “who is your advisor” - not in the tone that a graduate student wants to hear this question. I sputtered out my advisor’s name, hoping I had not embarrassed her too badly and off reviewer 3 and her colleague went.

Afterwards I was mortified, and truthfully a little angry. After all, I believed my methods were sound and that my findings could contribute to the literature. But as I reflected on the experience, my pride and insecurities blurred my ability to consider her critiques and improve or defend my own research.

A few weeks later we received reviewer comments for the manuscript written about this same study. One of the reviewers pointed out similar concerns presented by reviewer 3 at the conference. This time, however, I was able to consider the comments and reflect on my own conclusions and descriptions of the research. I was able to engage in a discussion with faculty at my institution about limitations of my research and how to more accurately represent the significance of my findings. I realized that what my professors had been explaining was true - academic discourse and the review process does provide the opportunity to improve our research. It also gave me the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about methodological strengths and limitations.

These combined experiences taught me several lessons. First; reviewers and conference attendees have different expectations, expertise, and interests. They will therefore respond differently to the same information. Second; their responses are not a personal attack; they are an opportunity to consider a different perspective. Third; I need to learn to take myself out of my research. I need to engage in discussions about the methods and results without my pride or insecurities obstructing the opportunity to grow as a researcher. This of course is easier said than done, but I now have experiences to personalize what my mentors continue to emphasize. I, like my work, am an iterative work in progress.