Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people can’t seem to feel that they are good at something, that they deserve to have their job or that promotion or what have you. It may sound really minor at first, but imposter syndrome can be insidious, pernicious, and prevent you from trying to get ahead and promoted, and even make you think you should leave your job.
I suffer terribly from imposter syndrome. It tends to strike suddenly and linger for days, or weeks, or months. One moment I’ll be riding pretty high, I might have got some nice new data, be excited over a new project, I might have submitted a paper or won an award. But then, something will strike, and down I go. The things that strike are sometimes small: someone senior implying I don’t know what I’m talking about, not being able to remember that Smith et al, 2008 regarding the highly specific administration of drug into a highly specific nucleus is the one that people mean when they mention “that group in Sweden”, making a careless mistake, having a procedure go badly and wasting time and money. Maybe it’s a bigger thing like a grant rejection or paper rejection (often more than one in a row), or a really BIG procedure going wrong.
No matter what it is, the thought cycle is always the same. “I’m too careless, I don’t remember enough, I’m not detailed enough, I don’t publish/get funded enough. I was never good enough to be here in the first place. I should go do something else where I don’t feel so STUPID, but I’d probably suck at THAT, too. Why won’t they just FIRE me already so everyone will know what a crappy scientist I am!??!”
In my more sane moments, this is patently ridiculous. I have a PhD from a more than decent institution, and I’m in a post-doc at a better one. I win awards, get published. Sure, there are setbacks, good data days and bad ones. I know intellectually that the perfect CV doesn’t exist. I know that persistence is what’s most important, no one just up and gets published. But during my times of imposter syndrome, my accomplishments are never enough. I remember that they’ll give anyone a PhD as long as they are “passable” and it doesn’t count for anything, I’ll remember that these days, you need a K or R award and a high brow paper or three to get a job. I feel I’m doomed because I didn’t pick the right mentor, the right lab, the right field. I feel like no weakness is tolerated. Even the fact that I am UPSET is a sign that I am too sensitive for science, I can’t take the heat, I clearly can’t take any kind of criticism, and I should get out now before I’m forced out with everyone sighing and saying they knew all along that I would fail.
Of course, during these times I try to tell myself I’m being silly. I am working as hard as I can. I am accomplishing good things! But usually the only cure for bouts of imposter syndrome is to…achieve something good again. Something better. Get a grant funded, a paper published. Impress people. Unfortunately, the further you get up the ranks, and the bigger the unis for which you work, the harder this gets to achieve.
The more I thought about ways to combat imposter syndrome, either by myself or in academia in general…the more I came up with nothing. Until today, when I was working out.
I’m doing circuit training, and as I worked my way through squat thrusts, Arnold presses and kettlebell lunges, I was thinking about how great I feel when I’m training and running and racing. Sure, I have as many bad days training and racing as I do in the lab, and I’m probably competing against WAY more people, but then, failure in running just doesn’t seem to hurt as much, there’s always the feeling in running that you can pick yourself up, work a little harder, come back a little stronger, and try again. Of course, there’s the fact that this isn’t my career, but still, even so, a bad race just doesn’t mess with my head. It rolls right off, I feel bad for a day, and then I get back up driven to do better at my next one.
And then I realized why. It’s because running, and sports in general, LOVE underdogs. We love to hear heroic tales of people who overcame great odds, who suffered staggering defeat, and then who worked hard, pushed themselves, and made it. You never read a profile of a great runner without reading about the hard times in their lives, the difficulties they had in training, the mental blocks, the personal troubles, whatever it was. The glory is in watching them overcome, and come back, and win, against the odds. Seeing people succeed after having worked so hard and dealt with so much is inspiring. We can believe that we can do it, too. We can come back, fight another day.
We love to hear about underdogs in sports, in media, in literature. But one place you’ll never hear about them? Science. Academia. No one ever introduces a great speaker with “I’ve known so and so for a really long time, and they’ve always been a great scientist. Even in the dark days when the grants kept getting rejected and we had to play poker in the lab because we were out of money, they never lost their love of science!”. No one ever eulogizes a scientist with stories of scientific hardship, unless they are the rare misunderstood genius. Instead we head nothing but success after success “Why yes, Dr. Jane Doe here has always been a wonderful scientist. Having received the Wellcome Trust Prize for “Scientific Tots” at the age of 3, she graduated with a bachelors in Chemistry and Physics from Cornell while simultaneously curing cancer, and obtained her PhD from Harvard when she was 17. Since then she has worked hard and discovered great things, publishing 50 times in Science, Nature, or Cell while serving as the ambassador to the United Nations, and is generally the most wonderous, most perfect person the world has ever seen. We can all worship her godlike splendor and admire the way she has brought us all world peace while she gives us this talk on atomic structure”. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but I’ve certainly many heard introductions that leave the entire audience sitting in awe. It’s stuff like this that makes us young’uns think we can never achieve what they have, very few of us are egotistical enough to believe we are the next Dr. Jane Doe.
And we don’t see a lot of professional weakness from our personal bosses, either. We are often shielded from their disappointment at grant rejections (unless it’s displayed as anger). We don’t ever hear the tales of how they might have struggled in grad school, had a bad post-doc position, or suffered from issues with work-life balance. I’ve never heard a boss or mentor of mine say that they had ever doubted their path in life or wondered if they’d be successful. Academia makes you project confidence, in the face of all odds. Of COURSE you got it funded. Of COURSE you knew you were going to get a position. Of COURSE. To show lack of confidence is to be weak, to be unprofessional, even to be…unsuccessful.
And while these tales of achievement and shining sources of confidence may be inspiring, they are also intimidating. They make us think we can never live up to what the successful among us have done. That we will never be enough. From where we sit, it looks like these people never saw failure in their lives. Oh, we know intellectually that it must be there. But we never, ever see it.
So maybe it’d be good in academia, once in a while, if people showed a little weakness. If mentors told their trainees that they themselves had worried whether they were “good enough”. If we heard about some of the research droughts, some of the difficulties. After all, how much of the arrogant confidence could be displayed…to hide insecurity? How many people brush off problems in front of their subordinates so as not to seem weak? Maybe it’s time we didn’t. Maybe it’s time we saw some of the failures. This may not be “professional”, but it will let us see that no one is perfect, and it will also help prepare trainees for the many disappointments that they WILL suffer, the papers that will get rejected, the grants that won’t get funded, the project that just won’t get off the ground. Maybe seeing a little bit of failure, hearing about some of the struggle, would actually be inspiring. Sure, I fail sometimes, and it’d be nice to hear that other people do, too. Hearing about the success of the underdogs in science may take away the imposter syndrome. If they came back to submit another grant, to try again, and succeeded in spite of the odds, our position might not look so hopeless. They overcame, and maybe, so can we.