There’s been a lot of attention paid online lately to “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s that sneaking doubt that makes you feel like you don’t belong somewhere because you aren’t qualified, and eventually someone will realize the mistake and fire you. In short: that you are an Imposter. It’s extremely common among graduate students and young faculty. In fact, I haven’t met a graduate student that didn’t doubt themselves and whether they deserved their place in a research program at some point in their studies. Most studies on this phenomenon have been relatively small and in specific populations of people, thus estimates of affected individuals range from 40 to 70%, at some point in one’s life.
From my experience, in academia, Imposter Syndrome stems from feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that you need to learn, or the amount that you need to accomplish. The interdisciplinary approach to graduate studies has increased the number of scientific fields you now need to be familiar with, and compounds the amount of material that you have to memorize. This seems to leave many students feeling inadequate and dumb, because they are unable to perfectly recall every fact they learned in two or three years worth of graduate courses. For post-doctoral researchers and assistant professors, your To-Do list only grows longer by the day, as the reduction in federal funding increases the competition for fewer and fewer job postings and more pressure to distinguish yourself. These tasks seem insurmountable, and that you simply aren’t up to them. You start to doubt your abilities, and think that there has been some mistake. You think, someone will realize how dumb I am, and that I don’t deserve to be here.
At best, Imposter Syndrome makes you nervous, at worst, it can lead to a lot of work-place stress and low self esteem. It can also prevent you from taking risks in your research, or being ambitious in the positions you apply for, or make you feel guilty about taking time off when you feel that you should be using the time for career development.
Imposter Syndrome, or more clinically, Imposter Phenomenon, has been studied for several decades, and is reviewed thoroughly here. Originally it was thought to be a symptom found only in professional women who weren’t emotionally strong enough to deal with the stress of the workplace. Later, after it was described by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1985, and observed in many different careers and both genders, we came to understand that this sexist stereotype was in fact common to high-achievers, “perfectionists”, and those with anxiety and the motivation to succeed.
Correlations have also been found between feeling like an imposter and low or conflicting family member support, low self-esteem or general self-doubt, neurotic behaviors, or when there are negative consequences to achieving success. For example, if a person is ostracized by friends or family for working hard, studying, getting an education, or generally wanting a “better life” than the cohort has. This can also occur when there is jealousy or competition between coworkers, where a promotion or other success would alienate you.
Own your success
When graduate students express feelings of self-doubt to me, I remind them that they already got into grad school. Their graduate program was satisfied by their application, their PI or advisor chose them for their accomplishments. I remind them that in academia, you can’t compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone has come from different backgrounds, has different work experience, took different classes, read different papers, and has different research and career goals. Maybe you got PhD but you don’t want to do research, only teach. Maybe you only want to do research. Maybe you want to publish ten papers a year, or maybe you only want to publish once a year because that is more consistent with the pace of your research and the type of work that you do. Maybe you have more post-docs who work on complicated questions, or maybe you have undergraduates and your projects are smaller. Some research fields (especially literal fields) can’t be rushed, and it’s unrealistic to expect prolific publications from everyone. Cognitive behavior therapy guidelines for dealing with Imposter Syndrome recommend distancing yourself from the need for validation from others, to improve your self-awareness about your own abilities and needs, and to lessen the feeling that you need to hide the real you.
There is no litmus test for whether you are a “good graduate student”, or a “successful researcher”, except for your own demanding self-assessment. All you can do is try to set realistic goals for yourself. And not vague, large ones, such as “I want to publish 5 papers this year”. Be more specific, and more short-term: “This week, I want to finish the Methods section of this paper, and hopefully have a working draft of this manuscript by the end of the month”. I also find it helpful to keep a written record of what I’ve done. Maybe keep a running To-Do list, and at the end of the week, month, or year, look back and see all of the things you have crossed off. This is most helpful to me when I find that projects are getting delayed, or analyses need to be redone, or I generally feel like I am spinning my wheels. Or, when I write a number of grants but some of them don’t even get submitted. I still did all that work, but if I don’t have that item crossed off my list, I don’t have a visual reminder that I accomplished something.
And keeping a tally of everything you’ve done- not just the things that get published, can help you prove your worth and your effort when it comes time for job assessment. Whether it’s a weekly meeting with your PI where you need to account for how you’ve spent your time, an annual performance review, or the tenure process. If you have a written record of all the things you have done, all the little things that you spent your time on, you have proof that you have been productive. Remember that success and failure are often out of your hands- especially in research. Sometimes all you can do is try your best and hope that your fairy grant-mother rates your proposal wish as “outstanding”.