the visibility paradox

Growing up in a family of nine children, it was sometimes difficult to get the attention you wanted from mum or dad. There were, quite simply, too many little and not-so-little people clamouring for attention. Pushing the boundaries too far, acting up, or failing an exam at school could be guaranteed to get parents to focus on you alone to the exclusion of other siblings. From a personal point of view, that attention was not a good thing. On the other side, being singled out for positive attention could be achieved by, for example, cracking a funny joke (the Martins love a laugh), winning the school footy game (the Martins love their sport even more than they love a laugh), or making a chocolate cake (the Martins love their food even more than they love their sport). But doing what was expected of you, helping with meals, keeping the house (relatively) tidy, mowing the lawn, taking the bins out to be emptied, basically being orderly and keeping things ticking over – well that was baseline. No brownie points for that, only demerit points if you messed up.

It’s a cruel fact of life for researchers too that doing what you are supposed to do – being clever, curious and productive – is not always enough to succeed. Yes, these are prerequisites, the baseline if you like, but progress through the ranks is improved with visibility. Increased visibility helps get that job, grant, fellowship, promotion, award. One way of getting increased visibility is by speaking about one’s research to an audience – taking opportunities to talk about your favourite scientific subject.

Many new to research and academia don’t know this golden rule and let opportunities slide. They prefer to think they’ve dodged a bullet by avoiding having to speak to an audience. When the call comes out from PhD supervisors asking for volunteers to speak at a symposium/seminar series they don’t respond. When they attend a conference, they choose not to be considered for a talk. It’s too difficult, the work isn’t complete, the questions might be really tough, it’s easier to sit in the audience and listen to others. There are always many reasons not to put their head above the parapet.

This is the visibility paradox. Researchers benefit from increased visibility, but a lack of confidence or self-belief stops many – especially early career researchers (ECRs) – from seeking visibility.

This missed opportunity will then go to someone else who does accept the challenge. As a result, that someone else becomes more visible and moves ahead of the pack. That someone else may be naturally more self-confident but is probably no more clever, curious or productive than those that don’t put their hand up.

The increased visibility will have knock-on effects. Their speaking experience builds up a bank from which that someone else draws strength when they volunteer for the next scary speaking opportunity. Their CV will be bolstered, peers will respect them for taking on the daunting challenge of speaking in public, and research leaders in the audience will recall their work when the ECR’s name comes up on selection panels, or when ECRs need to be identified to speak at conferences. Increased visibility leads to increased success, leads to more visibility, leads to more success.

Sadly, many excellent researchers, especially women, lack confidence. As Greg Petsko noted in his Genome Biology commentary “Almost without exception, the talented women I have known believed they had less ability than they actually had. And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more“. This observation is supported by recent research in the field of mathematics, reviewed by Curt Rice who summarised that “Men tended to overestimate their future performance on the arithmetic task, and women tended to underestimate it“.

So, how can we ensure that all clever, hard-working young researchers have an equal chance to succeed regardless of their level of confidence starting out?

Here are some thoughts.

If you are an ECR:

1. First, recognise that you are not alone in being nervous about public speaking. Most people are ridiculously apprehensive when they start out; I certainly was. Panic attacks, weeks of sleepless nights, wobbly voice, I have had them all. I still get edgy before a talk*. Fortunately, speaking in public isn’t actually life-threatening, and nerves do disappear to a great extent with experience. On the other hand, as my mentors advised me early on, nerves shouldn’t disappear altogether – a little adrenaline helps ensure a great presentation. One other thing to remember, people in the audience will want you to succeed – they were young researchers themselves once.

2. Volunteer. Take on the challenge when there is a call for speakers. Yes, it will be tough to put yourself out there, but there are rewards to be gained as well.

3. Practise, practise, practise. The one sure-fire way to help overcome nerves is to take control. Work out what you are going to say, and practise saying it to make sure that all the important points are presented within the allotted speaking time. Don’t read the talk from notes.

4. Ask for help. Give a practise talk in front of your colleagues/ supervisors or anyone else available. Ask for feedback on the presentation (was the text on the slides readable? did the data make sense? was the importance of the work clear? were the conclusions sound?). Ask for questions on the research, to prepare answers in advance of the real thing. Change the presentation in response to your colleagues’ feedback.

5. Celebrate afterwards. With others. Yes, it is stressful to present in front of an audience. Reward yourself on your achievement.

6. Learn and improve. Perhaps you didn’t get across all the points, or you fluffed an answer to an easy question. A day or so after the event, do the post-mortem. Work out how the talk could be improved for next time and make the changes there and then.

If you are a supervisor (or mentor, sponsor, colleague, friend) of an ECR:

1. Don’t assume that every new researcher automagically knows that speaking in public is important for success in research. Share this knowledge with each new team member when they begin their career, and frequently thereafter. Let the message sink in. Ensure ECRs have opportunities to gain confidence speaking, and to hone their presenting skills in group meetings. Reinforce the message when seminar series and conferences come up. Encourage ECRs to nominate to speak.

2. When asked to nominate speakers from your group for a departmental seminar series, don’t request volunteers. Instead, tap people on the shoulder: team members will gain a level of confidence simply from your belief in them. Share the speaking opportunities across all members of your team, especially those that shun the limelight. Ensure diversity – gender, ethnicity, seniority – when you are program coordinator. (check out my post on conference speaker policies).

3. When an ECR asks to be excused from giving a seminar because they don’t feel confident about speaking publicly, or don’t believe they have enough to speak about, don’t let them off easily. Explain the precious opportunity they are giving up.

4. If an ECR lacks confidence in their work, assist them to develop the research story they can present. Offer to help further by listening to a practise talk and providing constructive feedback.

In the end…

….overcoming the visibility paradox is not just about giving talks, it’s about building confidence and supporting diversity in the career progression of the next generation of research leaders.

So, back to the beginning of the post, am I now getting the attention I want from my parents? Well, my mum is now following this blog. Perhaps that might be just a little too much attention.

Only kidding mum! Happy 80th birthday for April 11.



Feeling edgy about talks probably harks back to the time when I started in research – and 35 mm photographic slides were used rather than a software program. The slides had to be loaded into a cassette upside down or back to front (or both?) to be projected correctly on to the screen. “Recipe for disaster” is an understatement there. Then there was the cassette. Inevitably, if you didn’t put the lid on carefully you’d end up dropping the whole thing on the floor, and there’d be a mad scramble to put all the slides together again in the right sequence and the right orientation. The most memorable occasion was when an eminent scientist discovered upon beginning his talk that the slide projector had morphed into a toaster. Every touch of the slide forward button launched another slide several metres into the air. Truly, it was hilarious. I have to say he took it in very good grace.


Related article:

whatever it takes?

The 2014 Australian Football League (AFL) season begins this coming week and, as everyone who grows up in Melbourne knows, it’s obligatory to support one of the local teams. My team was Essendon. My dad barracked for Essendon and so did 4 of my siblings. On the other side was Richmond, supported by my mum and 3 siblings. Uncanny. That distribution is almost genetic. Except for one brother – he supported Collingwood. (There’s always one).

I used the phrase “my team was Essendon” on purpose above, rather than “my team is Essendon”. As of last year I no longer support them. Why? Because they took their slogan “whatever it takes” far too literally. The team injected players with substances that may or may not have been banned, may or may not have been performance-enhancing and which possibly had not been tested in humans before. Apparently no-one can be too sure of any of these things, because Essendon FC couldn’t provide detailed records as to what was injected, when it was injected, or where the injected substance was sourced from.

Ethics approval? Duty of care? Health and safety of players? Apparently these didn’t matter. “Whatever it takes” was the Essendon slogan and “whatever it takes to win” the message. Essendon FC was rightly stripped of premiership points by the AFL and didn’t take part in the 2013 finals series. The Essendon coach, a former golden-haired boy from his playing days, was fined and banned from coaching for a year. The only redeeming feature if any, was that the team self-reported its use of “supplements” to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and the AFL early in 2013 when it became concerned that perhaps this wasn’t doing the right thing by the players or the game.

When does “whatever it takes” cross the line? When does it no longer fit with an individual’s moral and ethical standpoint? For me, the Essendon supplements program did cross the line of what was morally and ethically acceptable. So I walked away from my team.

By this stage, you are probably wondering to yourself, what does this have to do with women in academia?

The thing is, I was reminded of the slogan “whatever it takes” and therefore the “Essendon supplements” saga by several posts I’ve read over the past few weeks.

One was Athene Donald’s post what does it take to get to the top where Athene reflected on what is valued in academia, what is not valued, and how we need to change the status quo. On reading through interviews with successful women at Cambridge, Athene noted “I was particularly struck by the person who said she didn’t care about the publication of a paper in a high impact factor journal as much as she cared that no one felt trampled on in order to achieve it; or the person who valued empathy and communication over a dictatorial attitude.

These are opinions I share, and I am sure many other academics share them too. Yet, there are many highly successful academics who do trample, and who don’t value empathy and communication. Because, well “whatever it takes”.

The second post that got me thinking about “whatever it takes” was my re-reading of why women leave academia by another of my favourite bloggers, Curt Rice. This 2012 post focused on a report on why female chemistry PhD students leave academia in greater numbers than male PhD students. Cited by the students themselves were reasons of poor job security, the intensely competitive nature of academia combined with a lack of self-confidence, and being told specifically that “they would encounter problems simply because they were women“. What stood out particularly for me on re-reading was this comment “Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless”.

In any setting, it’s important to be true to yourself, to your own code of ethics and your own dreams and plans for the future. When it comes to a career in academia, most of us choose this path because we are curious about our world, driven by the thrill of discovery in research and the joy of training the next generation. Research is fun. At least it is when you start out. We don’t realise often until it is too late that success in academia is measured by specific numerical indicators – number of papers, number of papers in high impact factor journals, number of first author papers, citations to papers, etc etc etc. All of these can be manipulated if you are so inclined. You can push your way onto papers that perhaps you shouldn’t be an author on. You can argue why you shouldn’t share the first authorship with someone else. You can harangue editors of high impact factor journals to send your paper out for review. You can even turn up on the editor’s doorstep to argue face-to-face why your paper is so much more important than any other. You can treat your PhD students like so much cannon fodder, requiring more and more hours of work, till they reach the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and sometimes worse. You can even manipulate or fabricate scientific data to get that big paper. It happens. “Whatever it takes”.

Academia, particularly academic research, is a career that generally comes with poor pay, long hours, insecure prospects and regular if not frequent relocations often to different continents (Australia, UK, Australia, US, Australia for me). This lifestyle clearly impacts on family life, yet many continue to pursue an academic career despite these downsides because of the other side of the coin: because research and discovery is fun, addictive even. And for me personally, there are the major attractions of working with an amazing team of clever young people, and collaborating with awe-inspiring thinkers that I trust, respect and like. But “whatever it takes”? No time for anything else? Trampling on others? Dictatorial attitudes? Aggression? Intimidation? Sexism? Harrassment? Discrimination?

At some point personal scientific success, with the emphasis on “whatever it takes”, is simply not worth it. It will cross the line of what a good, bright, young researcher considers acceptable. They will choose to walk away. As Athene Donald and colleagues have pointed out, this situation is wasting much of our best talent. We need to stop rewarding selfishness, and start valuing other measures of success. We need to promote leadership traits that foster cooperation and collaboration, that support our best and brightest into careers in science without asking them to give up everything else in order to succeed.

We could even look to Essendon FC’s original motto for guidance:

Suaviter in modo; fortiter in re – gentle in manner; resolute in action.

That’s not a bad motto to live by in academia or sport. You never know, perhaps Essendon FC might consider using it again, and then I might consider supporting them again. Either that or I will have to start following Richmond FC. After all, it’s in the genes – and Richmond is a progressive team, recently appointing the first woman President of any AFL club.

Go Tiges?