Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

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How to Radiate Confidence (even when you’re not feeling confident)

I was once asked, “How did you develop your unshakeable confidence?”

This came as a bit of a shock to me because, to be quite frank, I do not always feel confident, and if I do find a little confidence, it is certainly not unshakeable!

At the time, I had no idea how to answer the question because I simply did not agree with the notion, but later it occurred to me that, in others’ opinions, whatever I was doing seemed to convey confidence. So I was very curious to figure out what it was that I was doing that gave off this air of “unshakeable” confidence.

I started to do a lot of self-reflecting and began comparing everything that I was doing to everything that others were doing in the same situation. By trying to take an outsider’s look at myself in comparison to others, I started to realize a few things…

It first started to make sense when I was in a group meeting in which a few very important people were in attendance… I noticed that I behaved quite differently than a few of the other graduate students and postdocs in the room. More importantly, these were things I was doing naturally and unconsciously – I didn’t realize I was doing them until I realized others WEREN’T doing them.

Here are some of the key differences I noticed:

1) Posture – Sit Up Straight

While most of the individuals in attendance seemed to be hunching their shoulders forward, I was sitting with very straight posture – shoulders back, not rounded over, and with my back straight against the back of the chair (i.e. not slouched with my rear end towards the front of the chair causing me to lean back in the chair).

In looking at those who weren’t sitting up straight – as in, those who were adopting a slouched or hunched demeanor – I got the impression that they didn’t want to be there or that they were afraid to be there, and that they were somewhat disinterested in the meeting itself (which could have been viewed as “disrespectful” by others in attendance).

Thus, if I was adopting the opposite posture, I must have been conveying the opposite message – that I wanted to be there, that I wasn’t afraid to be there in the presence of some big-named important individuals, and that I was respectfully paying attention.

2) Chin Height – Avoid Pointing Down

We’ve mentioned this before on the CNSPY blog: But we’ll mention it again because it’s that important!

Most of the people in the room who were slouching and hunching forward also had a downward pointing chin – as in, the angle between their chin and their neck was acute, and the end of their chins were pointing towards the floor. In contrast, my chin only pointed down when I needed to write something down in my notebook.

For the majority of the time, my chin was either horizontal to the floor as I looked at and listened to an individual at the table who was speaking or it was pointed upwards slightly as I looked at the presenter (who was standing) or the slides on the screen.

As mentioned in the previous blog (linked above), your chin angle can subtly tell others your place in the hierarchy. If your chin is pointed down, you must inherently look up at others when they speak; thus, they are “above” you, literally and figuratively. If your chin is parallel to the floor, this subconsciously puts everyone on the same level – no one is above or below the other. Finally, if your chin is pointed up, you must tilt your eyes downward (thus, looking down on someone) in order to see them when they speak, which suggests to the other person that you feel you are “above” them.

Note though, that an upward chin angle when you are sitting and the other person is standing is natural and, thus, completely acceptable – it doesn’t portray that you are above them, it simply shows that you are listening and paying attention.

However, regardless of whether you are standing or sitting, having a downward pointed chin still conveys that you are beneath the other person and that you are intimidated by their presence. Giving others the impression that you are afraid or intimidated certainly doesn’t portray confidence.

Thus, with my horizontal or upward tilted chin, I suppose I appeared more confident than others in the room who had a downward pointing chin angle.

3) Lean In – Physically 

Another thing I did differently was that while most individuals remained slouched or leaned back in their chairs, I often leaned forward during important parts of the discussion, either to listen more closely or to offer a comment myself.

Last week, our guest blogger, Dianna Bartel, discussed some important aspects of “non-verbal listening,” which can also help you radiate confidence in certain contexts. In her blog post, she mentioned that leaning forward while listening shows attentiveness to your speaker.

In addition to attentiveness, leaning or sitting forward (and perhaps leaning on the table in some cases) during a discussion can also demonstrate that you are not intimidated by the big wigs, that you are not afraid to actively partake in the conversation, and that you feel your participation in the discussion is warranted and valuable and should be treated as such. All of these things inherently convey confidence.

4) “Lean In” – Figuratively

Yes, I am referring to Sheryl Sandberg’s version of “Lean In” here. If you haven’t yet read her book, Lean In, I highly recommend that you do so, and that goes for men AND women.

It is not a “woman-book” as some people perceive it to be. The advice she provides is applicable to both genders and, specifically, to anyone who is trying to get ahead in their field and make a name for themselves. If you fall into this category, then do not be fooled, this book IS indeed for you!

Now, back to main point of the blog post…. In this meeting, I noticed that I was one of the few people sitting at the table who wasn’t a PI or an Industry representative.

One way that Sandberg suggests that we “lean in” is to sit AT the table. Often times, graduate students and postdocs will take a back seat in big meetings, offering the chairs at the table to the ‘important’ people. But guess what? By doing so, you are telling everyone else that you are NOT important, as you don’t qualify as a table-sitter. Just like the angle of your chin, this is another subtle cue telling others that you are beneath them.

If you were invited (or told) to come to the meeting, you have every right to sit at the table, and by doing so, you are telling others that you are valuable enough and important enough to be there, so you best with treated with similar respect as the big wigs.

Additionally, another way to figuratively “lean in” is to actually speak up. Regardless of where you are in the room, offer a comment. Let your voice be heard. And do it without waffling around…

None of this: “Um, if I could say something? … Ok… uh… well… I was just thinking that XYZ could be done this way perhaps, and it might help us.”

No, say what you have to offer without the cushion words that undermine your statement. For example: “Why don’t we try doing XYZ this way? This could save us time, money, and resources.”

There is an obvious difference in the level of confidence conveyed in each of the above statements. But aside from deciding which way to say it, AT LEAST SAY IT!

In the meeting I’m referencing here, I was one of the few people, if not the only person, in the ‘graduate students and postdocs’ category of attendees that spoke up and said anything at all during the meeting. I’m sure this had something to do with others thinking that I was actually more confident than I really was… even though, deep down, I was as nervous as ever!

Again, if you were invited to the meeting, your knowledge and opinions are valued, and should feel comfortable enough to speak up. And when you do, lose the fluff words. Say what you mean, and say it directly.

These figurative “leaning in” tactics – sitting at the table, speaking up, and speaking directly and definitively – will inherently make you appear more confident even if you are feeling a bit intimidated by your surroundings.

5) Attire – Dress the Part

The last thing I noticed at this meeting that really struck me was my attire. While scientists can often get away with an “anything goes” policy, there are times and places when a slightly nicer attire can make the biggest difference.

Knowing that we had a big meeting with Industry representatives who were deciding whether or not to provide our lab with serious funding for a particular project, I took it upon myself to step up my typical ‘jeans-and-shirt’ standard laboratory dresscode and wore a collared shirt with a pair of black dress pants that day.

In the lab, this outfit certainly seemed out of place, but in the room with many PIs and Industry representatives, most of whom were wearing suits or donning business-casual outfits, I looked like I very much belonged there. On the other hand, the graduate students and postdocs who wore their typical lab attire looked as though they felt the meeting wasn’t important enough to warrant a little nicer dresscode.

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that I was taken slightly more seriously that day due to the way I dressed. Thus, sitting at the table and offering fluff-free comments didn’t seem so out of place to the big wigs (despite that I was merely a postdoc, not a PI), and I probably gave them the impression that I was indeed an important member of the lab. And to think… all I had to do to earn that respect was change my clothes.

As they say, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”


Together, all of these things (1-5 above) most likely contributed to the air of “unshakeable confidence” that I seemed to give off. However, to me, I believed I was simply being respectful by sitting up straight, leaning forward, listening attentively, and dressing appropriately. Similarly, I felt that I was simply being helpful and constructive by offering comments and suggestions in the meeting. Little did I realize that doing these things made me appear more confident than I may have actually felt at the time.

Thus, going forward I have tried to make a conscious effort to ensure that I don’t forget to do these things at future meetings, networking events, national research conferences, small group discussions, etc.

I firmly believe that you can command respect by dressing the part and changing a few little behaviors that make a big difference. Importantly, this starts a wonderful cycle… as you portray more confidence and command respect, you are eventually given more respect. Once that happens, you will become more confident, and the cycle perpetuates itself. So, while you might initially adopt these strategies to convey a level of confidence that you may not yet have, by making these behaviors part of your routine, you will eventually become more confident naturally. 🙂

Act like you belong, and you will.


** Try these techniques and let us know if it boosts your confidence levels! **

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  1. I cannot agree with you more about dressing the part. We like to think that it should only be what’s inside that matters, but the reality is that appearance does matter. And how we dress reflects our position and attitude. Think the pope would have as much respect if he wandered around in jeans and a t-shirt? What if the airline pilot meandered into the cockpit in a bermuda shirt and shorts? I would have had serious doubts if I arrived at my surgery consultation to find my surgeon sporting jeans and a t-shirt. While scientists do not have a ‘uniform’ like these examples, the principle is the same. Lawyers do not have a uniform per se but not show up to court in cargo pants either. Yep, how we dress reflects our attitude we can’t help but feel more confident when dressed the part!

  2. Victoria Schulman

    May 5, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    I love your examples!! They really put “dressing the part” into perspective. It really is an important part of putting your best self forward. I believe it gives others confidence in you when you dress the part. I know I’d be a little nervous if the pilot of my plane or the doctor overseeing my surgery looked like he didn’t care much about his job! Excellent points! Thanks for bringing up such great examples!!!

  3. Spot on!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and real life examples.

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