When talking in seminars makes you feel like you don’t belong

This is the last of the blog posts inspired by this really interesting research by Cisco that asked graduate students with imposter phenomenon about what they thought and why. See the other two posts: about academic writing and academic reading. This post is about the third most frequent example students talked about, speaking in front of others.

One part of the research degree process that is often overlooked are the regular times when you need to talk in front of your peers in small groups: seminars, reading groups, lab meetings, symposia etc. There is more advice out there about ‘public speaking’ like in progress review sessions, at conferences or in job interviews, which are high stakes situations designed to make you feel (at least a little bit) nervous! But we talk less about these relatively smaller and more informal situations.

For many people, talking to their peers about their research are among the most energising and exciting moments of the degree—whenever I give students a chance to talk in a workshop I can barely get everyone back on track. However, for some people it is excruciating to be asked to speak even in front of quite a small group, and I have found Zoom means more people have these feelings, even though they might have felt differently in face-to-face sessions! 

Cisco reports student’s self talk included common themes like:


‘Just all of the terms, the language, […] was completely unfamiliar to me, and I felt stupid, and I felt like I didn’t belong to that community.’


‘But don’t say anything because what if you’re wrong? And if you’re wrong, then what is everyone going to think about you?’ 

‘Why didn’t I know that 20 years ago?’

Student reflections reported in Cisco (2020)

That might feel familiar. So, what can you do? 

You can check out these posts that talk about the feeling of having to know it all already, and the feeling of needing to do it all yourself.

But in this post, I want to talk about ‘speaking in public’ in opposition to ‘academic talking points’. 

So much journalism, small talk and academia is marked by the desire to deliver talking points and score points for talking. Many conversations are clearly just people waiting their turn to talk. This is not a great way to learn, engage, lead, or develop. Seeing conversations or seminar discussions as chances to ‘score smartness points’ is stressful for the talkers. But it clearly also causes issues for those who are not talking. Because talking is framed like a scoreboard, listening is reduced to mentally giving out points for what the other person said. 

Some workplaces and research cultures explicitly or implicitly run so that every conversation is actually a battle for airtime, and it’s common to try to sabotage other people’s chances. But this is a sign of a toxic environment, and not at all what we should be aiming for.

‘Questions at seminars are often viewed as a sort of academic blood sport, and some academics (although fortunately not the majority) enjoy scoring points by drawing blood.’

Rugg and Petre (p. 172).

We should be working towards the exact opposite: energising, authentic, worthwhile, academic conversations. That’s what we love about getting together with our nerd pals.

Authentic academic conversations have three parts

  1. A chance to listen to another expert (or an emerging expert student!) 
  2. A chance to find out more from the expert, usually by asking a question
  3. A chance for others to bring their unique insights into the conversation, from their lived experience, reading or perspective.

There are lots of chances, and most of the conversation is not about you. It’s generous, collaborative and social. It’s all partial, and the whole is greater than any one part. That may be encouraging!

Knowing what good scholarly conversation looks like might empower you to find opportunities to experience it. It might help you to reframe what the seminars your department runs are supposed to be like; or it might encourage you to form your own supportive academic communities!

It might be helpful to know what might happen if you did make a comment or question that showed you didn’t understand.

The first thing to know is that it is not the end of the world, or your career, if you make a silly mistake. We’ve all done it, and we’re all still here!

At a recent seminar, I misheard ‘gene’ for ‘genre’ and asked about it: but then the respondent was gracious, I was gracious, and when I talked about it later with another participant it turned out they hadn’t noticed I’d made such a basic error! If I’d been too embarrassed to discuss it with a colleague, I might never have been reassured no-one else noticed!

I’ve always been happy to be the person asking the basic question in public. In my experience, that super basic question often turns out to be the question everyone had secretly wanted to ask, and I’ve generally found that the expert in the room is really happy to explain why the answer wasn’t obvious, but actually quite complex or meaningful.

These many positive experiences of being brave about showing my ignorance in public, have made me braver! And the many positive experiences hugely outweigh the examples of academic assholery. I also learned how to judge if I am hanging out with with colleagues or competitors. It took me a while, so take your time and trust your gut!

You can also read more widely, and learn from people who have been there before:

I hope this encourages you to talk up in seminars, to ask questions, to experience generative and generous academic conversations. As always, if an encouraging blog post is inadequate, talk to a professional because everyone deserves to have fun and learn with their academic nerd pals!

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