Fabulous, Question Mark

I flew to Sydney yesterday to be interviewed for a Research Fellowship. If I’m successful, the fellowship will fund my salary for one year while I continue to conduct research on dementia and carers. Despite knowing all but one of the people on the interview panel and having practiced responses to likely questions, I still felt like I was going to vomit. I seriously considered asking the cab driver to turn around and take me back to the airport.

As an introvert, it feels deeply unnatural for me to tell people how amazing I am. But as a researcher, it’s part of my job description. Most of the time my salary comes from external funding, not the University, and because this funding is always short-term, I’m almost constantly applying for the next lot. Every study or trial I want to conduct also has to be funded, so I regularly apply for research grants. All of the funding schemes – whether they  support salaries or research – are incredibly competitive. The large, national schemes, for example, have a success rate of less than 20%. And this is where the amazing comes in.

To make their decision, the funding bodies need to know just how awesome you and your research are. The research part is no problem – I can justify the need for it; the methods are solid; I have a clear vision for publications and presentations; and I can identify direct implications for policy and practice. The me part, however, is where I come unstuck. What they want you to say is “here’s how fabulous I already am, and here’s how much more fabulous I’ll be if you fund me/my research”. Frankly, I’d rather stab myself in the leg with a fork.

With practice, I’ve got quite good at doing it on paper, in written applications. It’s much easier to talk yourself up, if you don’t have to look anyone in the eye. But I’m still not great at doing it in person. You see, I’m a little bit shy. Okay, I’m a lot shy. In fact, a psychologist might say I have social anxiety. I hate being the centre of attention, I worry about being inarticulate or saying the wrong thing, and I always feel like I’m being judged. While people who’ve seen me speak at conferences or give lectures and workshops often beg to differ, what they don’t realise is how much preparation goes into making a presentation appear casual and effortless, or how drained I feel afterwards. I also grew up in a family that liked to play what comedian Maria Bamford calls “Joy Whack-A-Mole” – a cruel psychological game where one family member brings up something they’re proud of & the others race to knock it down – and I work in an industry where even the best of the best get rejected on a regular basis (did I mention success rates of less than 20%?). None of this bodes well for being able to tell interview panels how brilliant I am.

But I do it… because I’m passionate about the research. I rattle off my achievements and expound five year plans… because I consider it a privilege to spend my days working with people with dementia and their carers. I got out of the cab yesterday, walked into the interview, and used words like “world leading”, “cutting edge” and “innovative” to describe myself… because I want to keep conducting good research that makes a difference in people’s lives. To co-opt a phrase from Sex and The City, I might feel like I’m researcher and fabulous, question mark – but here’s hoping I convinced the interview panel that I’m actually researcher and fabulous, exclamation point.

Postscript – 13th October
I just received a call to say that I got the Fellowship. I might just be researcher and fabulous after all! I’m so excited that the research will be able to continue and it’s also great news for me personally (it’s always a relief to know you’ll be able to pay your rent!). But… the funding is only for one year. So I’ll have exactly one week to rest on my laurels and then I’ll start working on the next applications. It truly is a bizarre system.  

2 thoughts on “Fabulous, Question Mark

  1. Pingback: Pimm’s & Privilege | Dr Siobhan O'Dwyer

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