Not so long ago I missed my flight back from Sydney to Melbourne. When I realised I was eating dinner instead of being on a plane on the way home to my family I flipped out. Luckily I was with the wonderful @witty_knitter, who made me take some deep breaths and finish my sausages while she looked up the number for the airline. When I finally got through to a person at the call centre the conversation went something like this:

Call Centre worker: “It says here ‘Dr Mewburn’ – is that correct?”
Me: “That’s right”
Call centre worker: “And why is it that you missed your flight Dr Mewburn?”
Me: “I misread the ticket”
[a short pause]
Call centre worker: “How did you misread the ticket?”
Me: “Look, I have a PhD ok? It doesn’t make me immune from stupid”

Sadly this is true. A PhD involves an ability to learn new things and a certain amount of gritty determination, but it doesn’t make you immune from stupid. If anything, getting a PhD makes you  more aware of your limitations than you were before. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

In my job I have the privilege to work with some extraordinarily intelligent people. I mean – really clever. Intimidatingly clever. Clever to the point where  I dare not open my mouth in some meetings for fear someone will discover I shouldn’t really be there. It’s not easy to live in a university and be of average intelligence so I have some coping strategies, developed by watching how clever people behave. The general principle here is: if I act like a clever person, I may become clever – or at least I will appear to be clever (which, existentially speaking, is the same thing).

So here’s 5 of my coping strategies – I hope you will write in with some of your own. Those of us who live by the ‘fake it until you make it’ principle need all the help we can get!

1) Wherever possible, be the one to speak last

When I first started going to meetings at the University I was always the first one to jump in and give my opinion. I think this was a hang over from my school days; I was the nerdy girl at the front of the class, always out to prove that I was smarter than anyone else. But being too eager to give your opinion all the time just doesn’t work in the professional world; more often than not people will think you are annoying rather than clever because you appear to monopolise the conversation.

I don’t always succeed in holding the nerdy girl inside, but at least I try. I can’t remember who gave me this advice, but I have tried it now for years and found it to be sound. If you wait and listen carefully to what others are saying it gives you time to reflect on and digest the conversation. If you speak last you are more likely to be the one who comes up with the unexpected, novel or creative suggestion at the end, rather than being the one who is just stating the obvious. If you can’t think of something creative, speaking last gives you the opportunity to connect what other people are saying together and offer an explanation or over riding principle which others will usually agree with – instant cleverness guaranteed.

2) Have some ‘pocket facts’ handy

As Mr Thesis Whisperer is fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. Throwing a few choice statistics about your field of expertise into a conversation will make you look extremely clever, without too much extra effort. For instance, I have lost count of the number of times I have sat in meetings where someone says that such and such must be true about doing a research degree because it was true for them, or because they have heard so often they assume it is true. Statements like “research students are poor communicators and need to be taught transferable skills” drive me really crazy, so I try to have some ‘pocket facts’ on hand to counter these common assumptions.

Recently my friend Nigel Palmer did an analysis which showed that most research students think they bring skills into their PhD, not the other way around. The only skill that students consistently claim they developed while studying for a PhD is library and information retrieval skills. This shouldn’t surprise us because 55.2% of students come to research degree study from the workplace, not from undergraduate degrees and a significant number of them have had a gap of more than 10 years since they last studied. That little statistic usually stops that particular line of criticism of research students dead.

You’re welcome.

3. Learn the lingo

Every place I have ever worked or studied has had its own dialect. At RMIT university we are extraordinarily fond of acronyms. Here’s a list of the ones I use on an almost daily basis when I talk with colleagues:

  • ATN
  • DDogs
  • RTS
  • AQF
  • PREQ
  • CES
  • DVC R&I

And that’s not counting the more esoteric ones, which I recognise, but don’t have to use often. Mr Thesis Whisperer calls these ‘TLAs’ (three letter acronyms) and they populate most advanced knowledge fields and institutions. Sadly, knowing the right TLAs, what they mean and how they relate to each other, makes you look clever. Luckily acquiring this sort of information is a bit like learning to spell: you only have to learn it once, and if you have a  decent memory, you will look clever for years and years.

4. Beware of jargon

Despite the fact that knowing the TLAs  is advantageous, if you speak in jargon too much the truly clever people will get suspicious. There’s an excellent chapter in Howard Becker’s book “writing for social scientists” (which should be renamed “writing for everyone”) which talks about the urge to “write classy”. It’s a trap thinking you can copy language you see in books and papers and it will make you appear more intelligent.

Now, I have absolutely no data to back this up, but in my experience of university life, most academics are not going to admit they don’t understand you, they just wont really listen to you (or cite your papers). People who can translate difficult concepts into language that others can understand are often more persuasive. Since persuasiveness often conflated with cleverness, speaking clearly and concisely is a winning strategy.  This is true as much for thesis writing, in my view, as it is for meetings and presentations.

5. Turn the problem around

Sometimes problems need simple solutions, not more complex ones. One trick which my boss shared with me recently is to ask: “what should we do less of?”. A disarmingly simple question, but an extremely powerful one. Take your thesis as one example: what can you do less of? The pomodoro technique is a good example of this principle in action. By working in shorter bursts, but with more focus and concentration, you can achieve more than sitting at your desk all day banging your head on the screen.

What do you think? Have you watched clever people in action while you are studying? What have you learned from them?

Related posts

How to win (academic) friends and influence people

Why you might be ‘stuck’

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