It is easy to forget that completing your thesis is only one part (albeit a large part) of becoming a professional academic. Publishing in respected journals and gaining teaching experience are other easily identified steps on the path to an academic career. But is that really all there is to it?
At the end of November I attended a conference that had attracted four top-notch keynote speakers. As I listened to these venerated academics discuss their work, it struck me that they each had a distinct voice. Put another way, each of these scholars had a unique approach and/or tone for addressing the topic at hand as well as the wider field. Moreover – and perhaps more strikingly – each of these speakers projected a sense of being comfortable in his or her own skin while discussing his or her own work.
Finding our voice is something that most of us probably aspire to, and achieve with varying degrees of success. There is, I think, a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) difference between willing confidence as a way of camouflaging unease and projecting genuine confidence. In addition to the keynote presentations, I attended a number of conference sessions where various academics and practitioners discussed their work. Some of these presentations were excellent and offered a clear, reasoned account of a particular research project. Others, however, left me with the impression that the speaker was begging the audience to accept his or her work.
The difference between these two extremes could be attributed to any number of factors. On reflection, though, voice is the quality that comes immediately to mind. The best presentations (where the speakers projected easy confidence; i.e. had a clear, academic voice) were generally given by seasoned academics (and practitioners), whereas graduate students often gave presentations where a thin veil of confidence masked an unmistakable sense of anxiety.
It is hardly surprising that scholars with more experience in their field – and more experience speaking at conferences – give better presentations. And this is my point: I suspect that you will stand a much better chance of giving a stand-out conference presentation at the end of your PhD (when it really counts) if you give a few (quite frankly) rubbish presentations at the beginning. Academic voice isn’t something that can be taught. It isn’t something you’ll miraculously acquire one day while reading feedback from you supervisor. You have to develop it for yourself.