Imposter syndrome... a real thing

A few times when I've mentioned "Imposter syndrome" I've been met with a reaction of disbelief. Of course, most people in academia know it all too well (I could theorize on why this is*, but have no substantiation for my beliefs other than my personal experience).

There is an article over at Science Careers right now: Getting over the feeling that you're not a phoney takes accurate self-appraisal (found via "On being a scientist and a woman", thanks for the heads up!) that I found a good read (it even has references! see it's real!). Sometimes it helps just to be aware of the problem, that it is real, and that you are far from alone.

I have struggled with Imposter syndrome myself. I have always been a good student, I've won scholarships and received recognition from people in my field at conferences, I've got papers published that people seem to read and cite, by all measures I seem to be doing relatively well... but then the doubt creeps in. Am I working as hard as my peers? Do I understand and know as much as they do? Are my publications as good as theirs? Did I just get lucky with this project I'm on? Could I have done as well with something else? Will I be able to produce successful results and publications somewhere else working on something different? Yipes! Why the hell do I not feel confident about my own success?? And yet, people seem to see me as successful, confident and knowledgeable, and I think at times I foster Imposter syndrome in my peers. On the one hand, I know it is important to project confidence in order for others to take you seriously and believe what you have to say, but on the other hand, it seems ridiculous for my peers to see me this way when at times I don't feel confident and am questioning whether I really know what I know. What an imposter I am!

I went through a particularly bad spell after writing the PhD preliminary or qualifying exam here. After all the stress of the exam I was sure I would fail it and that maybe it was for the best because I didn't belong here anyway. At the same time I was awarded a top scholarship and my brain just couldn't wrap itself around this apparent disparity between what I thought of my ability, and what was being validated externally. Which was correct? Was I an Imposter who didn't deserve said scholarship? Or was I just crazy? It has taken a long time to get over this (err... mostly over it) despite lots of other successes along the way. I told one of the professors in our department when he asked about the prelim exam that I found it a "soul-crushing, confidence-destroying experience" and he looked at me strangely and inquired how that could be for such a good student?

While I agree with the article that accurate self-appraisal is key to knocking down Imposter syndrome, afterall, it comes from within, how does one develop an accurate (and I guess un-biased) view of one's own success? The article makes some suggestions that I will try. Mostly though, I think it is good to talk about it, and perhaps it would help too to hear it from people who have made it already. A friend of mine's father is a professor in the same general field in which she is doing a PhD and she talked about a conversation she had with her dad about Imposter syndrome. She was mystified to discover that after all these years he too still feels somewhat like a "fraud" from time to time, despite a long successful career as evidence to the contrary. I hold onto that as an indication that these waverings and feelings of being an imposter are in my head, and that they can be overcome... though they may also be with me for the long run!

* I think it has to do with two aspects of being an academic. The first is the long period of time spent in school and under constant evaluation and comparison with peers. The second is the difficulty of comparing ones performance to ones peers once in a research intensive environment due to the diversity of work at the level. Due to our training, we may try even harder to determine our success (give ourselves a grade), but it becomes increasingly difficult to compare even different sub-fields as the nature of the research may mean more/less publications, more/less attention, more/less funding support... As such we end up as a bunch of over-achievers starved for evaluation and turn inward allowing our insecurities to compound, surmising that of course our colleges, who outwardly appear confident and competent, must be smarter, harder-working, and just plain better than us. These may at least be contributing factors to the prevalence of Imposter syndrome in academia... in my humble opinion. How to change this? I have no idea. Maybe there is a way to foster accurate self-evaluation earlier in our education, but I don't have any idea how to accomplish that.

1 comment:

Katkol said...

My name is Katherine and I came across your blog today. The imposter syndrome sounds like something I've experienced myself. Is there a cure?!

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