By Michael

Two weeks ago the Research School of Earth Sciences here at the Australian National University hosted a symposium titled “21st Century Resources“. It was indeed an interesting symposium (or conference? or workshop? or colloquium?) covering a variety of subjects including ore deposits, energy use, climate change, and more.

Being an experimental petrologist specialising in ore deposits myself, I was particularly interested in the third and last day that had the catchy name “Metals for the Millennials“. One of the scheduled talks was about unconventional resources and rare earth elements by Carl Spandler, a professor from James Cook University in Queensland. Unfortunately, he had an unexpected appointment he had to attend, and he asked my supervisor if he could give the talk instead of him (by the way – Carl is also on my supervisory panel). Instead, my supervisor suggested I do it instead. Surprised and exhilarated by the opportunity to speak in front of important people in the symposium, I agreed.

Now, all of the talks I gave so far in similar occasions were about my own research. Things that I am extremely familiar with, but a very narrow sub-sub-sub-field of science. Even though I always think about the wider implications and try to hit the “why do we care” spot in my talks, it’s still about a very specific thing. I got much better at it since my first conference ever—Goldschmidt 2012 in Montreal, Canada—where I completely panicked and did not get any questions at all (I’m pretty certain it was the case because no one understood me). Some talks were formal whereas others were less so, for instance our own petrology group meetings. Richard Arculus, a recently retired professor, once told me that a good presentation is one that is given in a conversational tone. “I have something interesting that I found, you might want to listen.” His conversation with Richard Fidler is an excellent example of that.

And it works—for my own stuff. My recent talk (which turned out to be completely wrong, but that’s for another post) at the group meeting was in this style, and in my recent holiday to Israel I had two talks which were in a similar style and it was all good. No stress. No impostor syndrome.

This time it was different. Even though the topic (rare earth elements) is exactly what I do in my PhD, and three slides were about the same locality I’m working on, it was different. I had to talk big and wide. It wasn’t one slide of “why do we care” in a presentation about my own research, it was one slide of my own research in a presentation of “why do we care”. This wasn’t even my talk, and people were expecting a talk in the same level that someone of the calibre of Carl would give. So yes, Carl did show me the presentation the day before and told me roughly what I should speak about, but it was mostly up to me. That morning I rehearsed the talk several times in my head: an unusual thing for me, because I always refuse to rehearse my talks as it makes it scripted and ruins the conversational style I’m aiming for, but I had no choice this time. It had to be spot-on. And I panicked! During the talk before mine, I had sweaty palms and my hands were so cold as a result, I had to sit on them to keep them warm! This was something I didn’t feel in several years.

Personally, I felt the talk went terrible. My voice and body were shaking. Maybe my non-native English accent disguised it? I missed several points I wanted to discuss. The talk actually went too fast, by the time I got to the summary slide I still had around 5 to 10 minutes to go (staying on time was not a thing at this symposium apparently, so no time pressure). And then… Now what? People did not come to hear Carl Spandler (that is, myself) speak for 10 minutes about something that deserves more time. So I started giving my own opinion about each of the bullet points in the summary slide. This wasn’t something Carl prepared me for, but rather this was based on my own knowledge the field and the literature. And it came with huge amount of impostor syndrome. Will anyone say that my opinion is wrong? Will anyone mention that I’m just a PhD student, not even half-way through, and not the big and famous professor? Fortunately, none of these happened. It even felt much better than the “scripted” part, earlier in the talk. Yay conversational style!

After the talk, several students approached me and said that I did well. First of all, I’d like to thank you all, you have no idea how much it means to me. They mentioned how confident I seemed, which seemed a bit bizarre because I was not. Second, maybe it wasn’t that bad? Maybe I actually know enough? Maybe I am not an impostor, even when talking about things outside of my own small niche of research, out of my comfort zone? This was indeed an educating and eye opening experience. Let’s hope that my subconscious learned from that, and that next time I will not have to sit on my hands before I give an important talk.

Related reading: Human Behaviour: Find your voice