Self confidence and the publication cycle

The publication cycle in my field is slow. Very slow. “Fast” journals proud themselves on 3-month rounds of reviews. An average round takes 6-9 months, with 12 months not being unheard of. Papers almost always go through 2, occasionally 3, rounds of review before acceptance.* On top of that, an additional 1 year can easily go by between acceptance and publication. This means that the papers I’ve had in press this year are ones that I did the work for and presented at conferences around 2010-2011, as a shiny new graduate student.

I’ve been thinking recently about how this delayed feedback loop has affected my self-confidence as an early career researcher. These days I am starting my second year as a postdoc, in a place where I am pretty much left on my own. I started a few new projects when I got here, and have been writing up some results over the summer. It’ll soon be time to finalize a couple of papers and decide where to submit them. I’ve been able to present this work locally and get some feedback from colleagues, but my schedule has made it impossible for me to travel to present the work at conferences. This means that I am going to be submitting this work semi-blind, and that’s made me wonder: how do I know if it’s any good? I don’t even have feedback yet on the work leading up to this research, aka my dissertation research, because of how slow the publication cycle is.

So, where do I go from here? On the one hand, I want to aim high and choose the best-ranked journal that fits the work. But on the other hand, if the work is not good enough, I may waste 2 years finding that out.**

Being on my own for the first time and not having the immediate feedback of my PhD advisors has been a difficult adjustment for me. It’s hard not to have anyone down the hall to quickly run my thoughts by. In many ways, I realize that I would not be here now if it weren’t for them. I am in general not a very confident person. Although most days I know that I am very good at my job, it’s still far too easy to shake my confidence: not getting cited by a senior colleague who I know knows my work despite it being very relevant, not being invited to that workshop in my area of expertise by a junior colleague who I’ve chatted with about the overlap in our work on various occasions, being complimented on my “cute little talk” at a conference — those things get to me.***

While I was in school, my advisors provided the encouragement that I needed. I knew that I was good enough, because they told me so and because (more importantly) they treated me that way. Now, I am woefully lacking that. I recently encountered this study on women in industry that showed that the ambition and confidence of women plummeted 60% and nearly 50%, respectively, after two years at their jobs. The authors of this study stress the need for encouragement in maintaining confidence and drive, which their research indicates that men get more frequently than women. I am starting my second year now, and absolutely do not want to end it like the women in that study.

How do I change my mindset and feel confident to submit my papers to the best venue possible? (Because, damn it, I am good enough!) Here are some things that I’ve been doing.

Find others in similar situations: Through talking to other early career researchers I meet at conferences, I know that this problem of loneliness and lack of feedback is all too common, and so is the shaky self-confidence that it can lead to. Together, a few of us have formed a pact to have each other’s backs: to share job market rumors, to read each other’s papers, to cheer each other up when we’re down. This friendship has been invaluable to me. It’s funny how much easier it is to see your friend as the brilliant researcher that s/he is than to think of yourself that way.

Establish collaborations: Working with colleagues has been an excellent way for me to get feedback from others. My collaborators are mostly researchers at similar career stages to mine, but I trust their judgment and respect their opinions. They are the kind of person who would read my manuscript or grant proposal even when it’s not joint work, and I will happily do the same for them. This is the best way I know of to deal with the overly slow feedback cycle in my field.

Talk about it: Every time I openly talk about being insecure, or having a paper rejected, or worrying about how others perceive me, I encounter astonishment at the fact that I openly “admit” these facts. But soon thereafter, my conversation partner will reveal facing similar woes in his/her own life. These problems affect everyone and are all too commonwe just don’t talk about it. Realizing just how not special I am has been helpful to me in putting my insecurity in perspective. Even the most successful people I know have occasional doubts and setbacks.****

Celebrate your achievements: Once in a while, I try to remind myself of my accomplishments. It’s easy to forget all the small and large things that you’ve successfully done, if you are constantly looking ahead to the next battle. Openly celebrating your achievements is something that women are socialized not to do, but is very important for my ability to situate my work in the right context. I especially like this recent post by Lara Hogan on celebrating achievements as women.

Create a network of mentors: This is the kind of advice one reads fairly often, and as a young student I remember thinking to myself “yeah, but how do you do that?”. My very first mentor who was not a faculty member at an institution I attended***** found me through happenstance. We sat at the same table at some conference dinner. We chatted for a while and got to talking about the lack of mentorship for women academics. I mentioned that I’ve always had male mentors and never a female one, and she volunteered to fill that role for me. She is retired and not in my subfield, and as such can offer a unique perspective. I can ask her anything without fear of repercussions, and this has been absolutely priceless. She has given me this advice: identify the women who you admire who are 5, 10, and 20 years your senior, and find a way to reach out to them. You could ask to chat about your shared research interests, or take a more direct approach and say you admire their success and wonder if they would mind talking to you about how they got there. If you hit it off, follow up again once in a while and update them on how you’re doing.

This has resulted in some hits and some misses, but has overall been a successful strategy for me. I have generated a small but growing network of wonderful women who email me once in a while to ask how I am doing, forward me relevant calls for papers, and generally give off positive vibes. I’ve never officially asked any of them to be my mentor and I don’t know if they would think of themselves that way, but all that matters is that they care about me, and I know I can reach out to them if I need anything. Getting an email from one of them just checking up on me really makes my day.

Remember, too, that at any career stage, you can not only be a mentee, but you can also become someone’s mentor. So: I pledge to tell someone near me that I think she is great before the end of this week. You should spread the word, too. We are all great, we just occasionally need to be reminded of that!


* Or rejection, as the case may be.
** Damn you, Reviewer #2.
*** I’ll give you one guess as to the gender of these colleagues.
**** In fact, listening to someone who you find exceptionally successful tell you about that time they got desk rejected with a nasty letter from the editor can be particularly illuminating.
***** It’s probably worth mentioning that my PhD advisors are still as awesome and supportive as ever. I am very lucky to have them. I just feel that I need to grow away from them to become fully independent.

9 thoughts on “Self confidence and the publication cycle

  1. Hey, don’t make this a gender problem because it isn’t. You shouldn’t be ”on your own” in a postdoc program in the first place. You should have supervisors.

    • I don’t think I ever said (and I certainly didn’t mean to say) that the speed of the publishing cycle has anything to do with gender. I have no evidence to suggest that. How it affects my confidence might, but the nature of the beast is such that it’s very hard to prove that that is the case. Maybe all men feel the same way, too. I don’t think that would make this post any less relevant.

      The fact that I shouldn’t be on my own in my postdoc doesn’t really change the fact that I am. I also know for a fact that I am not the only one who is in this type of situation. At the end of the day, we have to deal with the reality as it is, and not with how we wish it could or should have been.

  2. thanks for the thoughts on being a mentee and a mentor. Whenever people say “build a network,” I definitely have that “but HOW does this work?” reaction. I’ll look forward to trying new ways to reach out.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I was unaware of the stats about many people losing confidence post-Phd, but it rings true for me. Re your suggestion to celebrate achievements, I found that really important during my PhD when my labwork seemed endless and the ultimate goal of submitting my thesis was years away. To help motivate myself, I started what I call my mini-milestone scheme. Whatever big endless task I am working on (most papers take years from conception to publication), I try and break it down into smaller units so there is something to look forward to that I can celebrate. It might be along the lines of 1) finish fieldwork, 2) finish labwork or data analysis (assuming these are challenging), 3) preparing a first draft of the paper, 4) submitting the paper*, 5) paper accepted. When I achieve each of those, I earn a bottle of champagne. My friends, academic and otherwise, are always happy to share a glass of champagne and say ‘congratulations’. It surprises me how much I find this helps motivate me to keep my nose to the grindstone. In some ways this motivation can actually be a little harder the longer I am out of PhD. Initially there was a massive sense of achievement for each paper published, but there is much less of this now that I have a decent number of publications behind me. But celebrating each of them, and the challenges along the way, helps.
    * I have learned the hard way to celebrate this one quickly! My most rapid rejection was within 1.5 hours of submission, so I hadn’t even had time to feel a sense of achievement before my hopes were deflated….

    • That’s a good point about celebrating steps along the way to the final product. I like that a lot. I do sometimes worry that telling others I’ve accomplished XYZ would be perceived as bragging, but there are easy ways to celebrate by myself and with non-academic friends that I think would be a good addition to my work process.

  4. Pingback: And good things happen too | Geographies from here

  5. +1 to what Sue said.
    Definitely take the time to celebrate the milestones. I take my lab out for lunch any time anyone has anything accepted … but I think I should add the same for papers submitted. By the time something gets accepted it always feels like an anticlimax. If you’re thinking about an academic track, the reality is that no one really encourages you. So, make sure you reward yourself or it starts to feel like a grind.
    Also, I totally agree with your corollary – peer feedback on a good job done is amazing.

    Re: your papers ready to submit. Can you ask for advice from your PhD mentors? I definitely did that a few times to give myself more confidence shortly after PhD. With more experience, you become more confident in your judgment (although everyone is always susceptible to Reviewer #2).

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