The Irony of Impostor Syndrome: Everybody has it

I happened to read several things this week that were all related to being happy in academia, and the solutions all stemmed from getting over insecurities. Erica sent a paper around to the lab about the importance of stupidity in scientific research. CompassBlogs wrote that self-promotion is okay, and even necessary. Small Pond Science had a piece about getting past the stereotype that grad students are just unhappy, anxious, and poor people who made terrible life decisions. A discussion there linked to an EEB and Flow post about mental health in academia, which then led to this Chronicle article about Impostor Syndrome.

Let me say first that I love my academic job. I love my freedom to do mostly what I want on a daily basis and I love that most of the work I do is because I want to do it, and not because I have to do it. Even when I feel overworked, deep down I know that my job is easier and more enjoyable than most other jobs in the world and there’s not a single job for which I would trade (side note: I need to remind myself to re-read that last sentence once a week or so!). But also, there is not a week that goes by where I don’t experience Impostor Syndrome and say something like:
“What did I do to deserve to be here?”
“I’m not even that smart, so why do they let me do this job?”
“What qualifies me to teach this class, when I’m still learning this stuff myself?”
“You’re giving me a grant? How did I fool you into thinking that I can do something productive with it?”

As a scientist used to looking at data, I can look at any objective data about my own performance and see that I’m doing just fine, but it doesn’t mean I really believe it and it doesn’t stop from repeatedly asking these questions of myself. Hello, my name is Casey, and I have Impostor Syndrome.

We impostors (and I’m pretty sure that “we” is 90% of you too) think they’ve somehow gotten here by luck. We keep fooling people into thinking we’re better than we are. We tell ourselves to fake it until we make it and fool them with our confidence. Maybe you even think you’re a bad person or disingenuous for giving somebody a false impression of yourself? One of these days, we just know that the whole charade will come crashing down when somebody discovers our dirty little secret. People will point and laugh and our neighbors interviewed on the evening news will say, “I knew there was something wrong with him all along”.

So how does one cope with this and still become successful? One way is to have a great support group. I’ve had great academic advisors (Jen Lau, Tom Miller, Don Levitan, Steve Dudgeon) that unknowingly helped to alleviate Impostor Syndrome by treating me like an equal and making me feel like I belonged. I know plenty of people whose advisors, whether on accident or on purpose, have made them feel insufficient. Graduate students looking for a new lab…ask the current students there whether their advisor makes them feel better or worse about their abilities. But honestly, I don’t think there’s a way to fully solve this problem. Academia attracts a certain phenotype. Introverts are more common than extroverts. Shy is more common than bold. Insecure is more common than confident. That’s not always easy to observe though. Most people hold their insecurities on the inside and project confidence outwardly, which is at the root of Impostor Syndrome. The fake-it-til-you-make-it strategy really just perpetuates the idea that everybody else is confident while you’re not. I know people will read this blog and think, “Wait, HE is insecure? He’s always so confident!” (damn, now I’ve given away my best trick!). So part of me feels a little guilty about perpetuating the problem. Yet, admitting insecurity is often viewed as a sign of weakness, or even incompetence. Thus we’re left to do what’s best for ourselves, leading us to a Tragedy of the Commons scenario in which our false confidence breeds a lack of confidence in others and in ourselves. In fact, I had to run this post past a few friends to make sure I wasn’t committing career suicide by admitting my insecurities. Would this hurt my ability to get a grant? Would it affect my authority in the classroom? I got mixed answers to these questions, by the way.

However, I can say that it makes me feel WAY better when I realize that everybody else feels the same way. Seriously, bring up the idea of Impostor Syndrome with an academic peer. Inevitably they say “Oh yeah, I feel that way all the time”. You probably had no idea that person felt they were an impostor until they told you. For me, that’s comforting. Ok, we’re all equally uncomfortable! So think about that friend who just admitted their insecurity. You thought they were confident and successful before. Does this revelation change your mind about that? Probably not. Did you think they were successful only because of their confidence? Maybe a little. But more likely, you saw them give a great talk, or looked at the number of pubs on their CV, or they said something in a reading group that you thought was really insightful. Don’t be afraid to tell people that…more than likely they thought what they said in the reading group was stupid, or that they just got lucky when they got that paper published.

As I discussed Impostor Syndrome with friends this week, one particularly smart one pointed out that maybe it’s a good thing. We work in a field that’s built on uncertainty. Science is all about disproving, so maybe having the field filled with people who are naturally skeptical of their own success is beneficial to the kinds of science we put out. It should make us even more confident in our field if we know the results have already passed a strong self-filter. I think there’s some merit to that argument, so maybe feel better that you’re contributing to the greater good?

Meanwhile, I’m still faking it, hoping that I’ll make it one day, but it’s comforting that other people are in the same boat. I’ll end by saying that I think it’s also important to look back at the objectively good things you’ve accomplished. Be aware of your successes, even IF you think they’re less than you want them to be. You know more as a senior than you did as a freshman. You’re a better scientist when you finished grad school than when you started. I start with the small successes. Neither of my first two grad students dropped out in their first year (in fact, they’re both doing quite well). The new lab is still intact; nothing has blown up. Data is being collected. Undergraduates passed my classes and appear to have learned something. Moreover, their reviews indicate they even enjoyed the class. I’ll keep faking it to the best of my ability, but it’s nice to look behind you and realize that you’re making it too.

Please feel free to share this with others, or comment below about your own stories of Impostor Syndrome and how you deal with it.

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