Imposter Syndrome

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.

cat-imposterFrom 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.

 

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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

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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”.

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Cinderella, 1950

Happy 1 year dissertation defense anniversary!

A year ago today I gave the public defense of my PhD dissertation!  It was a stressful day, especially because my laptop crashed just 10 minutes beforehand while I was practicing and making last minute adjustments!  Luckily, I had prepared by bringing the presentation on a flash drive, and by putting it on an online cloud drive as well.  My parents brought enough potato salad, cookies, cake, and Italian meatballs to feed the dozens of attendees and then some.  I really appreciated the friends and family that showed up to support me, some had even driven to Burlington, VT from Massachusetts just for me!  You can watch my full defense presentation on YouTube.

After a long hour of presenting my work and answering questions from the crowd, my graduate committee and I left for the closed-door portion.  For the next two and a half grueling hours, 5 field-leading researchers asked me questions about everything I had done, and what I might have done differently.  Finally, they asked me to step into the hallway while they made their final deliberations, where I nervously ate cookies as fast as I could because I hadn’t eaten in hours.  They came back out 5 minutes later smiling, and announced that I had passed!  You can read my full thesis here.

Where’d the spark go? When it’s time to break up with your graduate program.

Remember when you first met your graduate program? You got that little thrill whenever they emailed you. You started measuring the graduate student office for new drapes. You just wanted to spend all your time in the lab, and couldn’t be happier doing so. As time went on, you learned a lot about your field and about yourself. You grew as a person and became more confident in your work. Eventually, the relationship started to stagnate: you got tired of working on the same old projects, ran out of interesting classes to try, you felt like it was never going to get the next level and, well, you got bored. It happens to everyone, and it’s important to recognize the signs (1), before the relationship becomes negative.

I have seen it before. Graduate students have trouble finishing up projects and getting manuscripts published, their PIs change the subject when the time comes to set a defense date, they feel like a perpetual student, until they become frustrated at the creeping feeling of no control over their life or the pace of their career. And eventually, many of them reflect this frustration outwardly by complaining about their PI, their department, their university. This is detrimental to yourself and to the quality of your work (2) (3), to the other students around you who still have several years of graduate work to look forward to, and to prospective students (4).

And more than that, it doesn’t help you to find your next position, because you find yourself complaining to people that you probably shouldn’t open up to: people you meet at a conference, a candidate interviewing in your current department, the interviewer for your prospective job. No one likes to hear someone rag on their old boss if they might one day be the boss you are badmouthing on social media.  Nor they do they want a team member who is going to bring down the tone for the whole group.

When you are ready to move on in your career, you know, and you need to take responsibility and control of your trajectory to make it happen. Set a timeline and stick to it, sit your PI down and set a defense date, curate your CV and start applying for jobs. Not just the two jobs that you really, really want, but any job that you think you might be interested in. The post-doctoral job market is small, and it’s difficult to find a position. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as you may find yourself stuck in that particular graduate program if you’re not able to find a new position. The process will hone your skills as well, especially if you can get an interview. Use each opportunity, and if you don’t get the job, politely ask the interviewer how you could make yourself more competitive, or if there was an aspect of your work that was underwhelming or poorly explained.

The point is, don’t wait until you are sick of being a graduate student and can’t wait to get out, keep an eye out for your next move and be proactive about it. So put away those free t-shirts you got from vendors, get yourself some new business attire, get your CV in shape, and you’ll be surprised at how many interviewers ask for your number.

Here is another relevant and entertaining blog post on the subject.