It’s okay to have nothing to say


I’m in a seminar room in the politics building having a casual discussion with my fellow PhD colleagues. The conversation swiftly transgresses to a healthy discussion about Keynesian economics, or the Cold War, or the genocide in Rwanda, or how many cousins the former German chancellor had.

Please don’t notice me, please don’t notice me.

They look over in my direction- where I’ve been sitting silently since we stopped talking about Killing Eve– prompting me to say something bold, something novel. I remain silent, or worse – I say something entirely wrong. It is then, in this moment, that my fellow peers realise that I had come to be in that room with them, not because of hard work and sheer intellect, but because of some freakishly lucky, unrelated circumstance. My cover is blown. I don’t belong here.

Before I started my PhD, I’d constantly replay that scenario (nightmare) in my head. I was convinced that when I started, people would realise sooner or later that I wasn’t actually as smart as them and I’d be banished from the academic community. A laughingstock.

Oh no, not another blog about imposter syndrome.

Bear with me.

Granted, there are worse nightmares to have, and I may have over dramatised my hypothetical scenario for impact. Regardless, I’m sure you’ve felt similar imposter-like feelings at one point. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure someone on your LinkedIn just posted something about it.

I’m not writing to tell you about imposter syndrome, I’m here to tell other apprehensive students, and anyone else who feels impostery (I’m in academia now so I’m allowed to make up words, heck … I think I’m expected to?!) or insecure in their intellect that you don’t need to foreshadow this nightmarish scenario in your head, the reality is much less daunting.

After I started my PhD, I came to realise quite quickly that it’s okay to not have anything to say. And what’s more, it’s okay to admit you haven’t heard of X concept or X canonical text. Because, although lots of my peers and superiors are intimidatingly intelligent and wonderful, they don’t know everything … and they don’t care if you don’t either. This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t to me until I sat in my first PhD working group.

We were sat in a circle discussing a peer’s paper for potential publication (try saying that five times after a few) and they were going around the room asking people for their input, one by one. I didn’t have anything useful to say, and quite frankly there were a few concepts in the paper I’d never heard of, so I wasn’t sure I understood it fully – but I didn’t want to draw attention to any of this, so I started frantically planning what I could say to make myself sound smart. However, as the knowledge baton crept closer and closer to where I was sitting, lots of other students – who were much further along in their academic career than me – asked the presenter to explain seemingly simple concepts to them. Others admitted to having nothing useful to say, and some just sat there silently.

The world didn’t implode. The academia army didn’t whisk them out of the room and banish them from ever returning. The presenter explained the concept and the student … well the student said thanks and learnt something new.

The moral of the story is: it’s OK to not have anything to say. Whether you’re in the pub or at a conference, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to admit you don’t know something. Ask someone to explain it to you, it’s liberating! If you don’t believe me, the wonderful Olivia Rutazibwa told me in an interview that we should admit these things out loud instead of being ashamed, especially as early career researchers – so, it must be true.

If you already knew all of this, well done for being badass. I’m now off to clear “what happened during the Cold War” from my search history.  

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