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Life wisdom I learnt from research conferences
FS-UNEP Centre / 11 April 2023
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Sustainable Finance Researcher
Menglu Neupert-Zhuang is a member of the research group at the FS-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance. Her research interests are in behavioural and environmental economics. She is passionate about studying financial decision-making in the context of redirecting the economy and society towards sustainability. Her impact-oriented research contributes to the latest policy debates in sustainable finance.

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When I started counting, I realised that I had been at more than 30 research conferences and workshops in the past 3 years. I still have flashbacks in my mind about each of them, like in a film. The sheer number of times that I was out there in front of an audience astonished even me. I was there as a listener, a comment provider, frequently a speaker and sometimes even a session chairperson.

My research efforts have been spent studying investor decisions in sustainable vs non-sustainable assets. Presenting at conferences, large and small, is an essential part of my work life. The papers my co-authors (Oliver Schenker, Marco Nilgen) and I wrote, to our honour, were accepted by, amongst others, the EAERE conference, the SURED conference and various events organised by renowned research universities.

But what takeaways do I have for you? Well, these lessons could be as important in life as in work.

Conquering your self-doubt

Perfectionism is the number one enemy of researchers. Frequently harsh self-doubt attacks. The haunting question “Am I good enough?” dwells in the subconsciousness. You may think: “Should I submit my paper to a conference? It is not perfect yet. What if I get rejected”. What I learnt is that in this situation: be active and seek feedback from your supervisor and fellow researchers. If it is an opportunity worth pursuing, just give your best, revise and submit your work to the conference! I realised that a small dose of self-doubt is healthy, but a large dose is poisonous. And please remember that after a few times, you will get used to it, and all of these become less frightening!

Enjoying “criticism”

After you get the green light to present at a conference, you might start to look for the big names and fall into a victim mentality and think, “Oh my God, they will spot my mistakes, criticise my work and destroy me.” But the reality is that most established researchers at conferences can be extremely nice, helpful and approachable. You will see that their insightful feedback can save you not only from detrimental design mistakes but also weeks’ worth of work if you were to scratch your own head alone. What brings a warm community feeling is that you make acquaintances and friends, and you probably will see them again at other conferences in the following years.

Do not attach your self-worth to research success

The world of academic research is fiercely competitive, and many benefits, including funding and job positions, depend on previous records of success. Yet, I believe that our self-worth as a person is upheld no matter what.

One topic that always arose during the chitchats in the conference breaks was the career uncertainties experienced by researchers. Increasing the number of own academic publications seems to be the only way to secure a long-term employment position as a researcher. Ironically, publishing for the sake of publishing rarely, if ever, creates good research. Regarding this matter, I consider myself lucky: my biggest strength comes from the self-awareness that, with my skill sets, I can also do professionally well in a less research-oriented career. But research is my passion, and when the opportunity of doing research is there, I simply love it.

I think the bottom line is that we stay happy and self-fulfilled while being researchers, even though we might get lost in criticism and doubts occasionally. A more experienced researcher I met at a conference on the small hill of Ascona told me: “Try your best but live in the moment. You will see that there are other important things in life as well.”

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