Shut the Hell Up About Your Imposter Syndrome

This is the last time I am writing about Imposter Syndrome. Seriously, you muffins need to knock it the fuck off.

It’s not that I don’t love you, and it’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t want to help. But, I’ve decided in my many years of blogging, and with all of the wisdom that has given me, that Imposter Syndrome is a scam. A big fucking scam.

 

scam.bmp

Figure 1: I know that Imposter Syndrome sure is.

What sparked my ire? This email from a probably lovely, young reader who I am sure is perfectly wonderful. 

Dearest Goddess,

I humbly bow at your altar of wisdom and hotness and offer these lovelies [I could not post the pic because it was embedded in the email in a way I couldn't get to save, but I assure this reader I have not resorted to full-time flats yet.  Me and my heels are still bff] as a tribute to your glorious, pregnant feet (because if they’re anything like any pregnant ladies’ feet that I know, stilettos are out of the question).

I am set to start a PhD program in the fall and in the process of applying and interviewing, I’ve done a lot of talking to professors and networking at conferences and such. Everyone, (including some of the biggest names in my sub-discipline) was very impressed with the fact that I was at these conferences as an undergrad, not to mention the fact that I was presenting a poster on my honors thesis. They were impressed that I had read a lot of papers and that I could talk about them in the context of the research we were discussing at the time. They were impressed that I had research ideas prepared. Objectively, I’m fairly qualified to be starting a program in the fall, since I’ve received an offer of admission and I’m on the wait list at 3 other programs, but my question is this: when/how do I start feeling like I’m not a giant fraud? I’ve talked to enough people to know that impostor syndrome is basically universal, and I’m a psych student, so I’m aware of it generally (although it’s a different line of research than what I’m in), but no one has really told me how to make it go away other than realizing that you’re not really a fraud and that you do deserve to be there. And no one has really said when exactly that happens (when I defend my master’s thesis? my dissertation? when I get a job? tenure? full professorship? some sort of lifetime achievement award?).

Thank you, lovely Goddess,
~A.

Here’s the problem with Imposter Syndrome. Having Imposter Syndrome means that others believe that you are super great, but that you believe you are fooling everyone – that you will not be succesful.  But, this implies that if you fail, then you truly are an imposter.

Thing is, as a scientist it seems as though I fail all the damned time.  In the last year I have written several grant applications.  I heard last week that one of them will not be funded.  Does it make me an imposter?  No, it means that sometimes I am going to fail at things. I don’t know if any of the others will be funded.  I hope that they will.  But, if they’re not, I’ll learn what I can and try again.

 My dear blog friend Pascale Lane has recently written a great post on failure

I’ve had experiments go bad and I’ve said my share of stupid things in meetings and seminars.  I am convinced, and I know from their recent posts that my colleagues Drugmonkey and Physioprof would agree, that you just have to be bold and persistent.  Try to submit to higher impact journals.  Submit several grants a year.  Apply for awards.  I recently applied for an award that I technically wasn’t eligible for.  I wasn’t not eligible, but the guidelines for eligibility didn’t specifically include people like me.  I was surprised, but pleased, when I received it.

Being a scientist is like being Sisyphus.  You push the rock up the hill.  Frequently the rock rolls back down the hill.  You push it up again.  Then it rolls again.  Sometimes you get lucky and the rock stays on the hill a while, and then it rolls back down.  The thing is, everyone’s pushing the same rock up the same hill.  Just learn from other the best ways to push the rock, and enjoy pushing the rock, but don’t get frustrated when the rock rolls down the hill.

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Figure 2: PUSH TEH ROKZ!!!

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51 responses to “Shut the Hell Up About Your Imposter Syndrome

  1. My fave quote for dealing with impostor syndrome is from Thomas Edison. Too lazy to look it up right now, but to paraphrase…’Before I invented a lightbulb that worked, I had to invent 1000 lightbulbs that didn’t work.’ I tell myself this all the time in lab. I am a Thomas-Edison-in-the-making, but I’m only about 350 not-working lightbulbs into the process.
    People who can’t deal with failure don’t belong in science.

  2. Failure is something we all learn to deal with, or die trying. If you never fail, you never live.
    Imposter syndrome is more than mere fear of failure; it’s a sense that somehow all of your accomplishments do not demonstrate competency but merely result from luck or other random acts. The reason this syndrome is such a bitch is IT MAY NEVER GO AWAY. There are still days when I hear that little voice in the back of my head, and I have to remind myself that I am damn good at what I do.
    Don’t wait for imposter syndrome to go away; just sit in front of the mirror and tell yourself that you are good enough, strong enough, and, gosh darn, people like you!

  3. I’ve never heard of Imposter Syndrome, but if it really is fear of failure and thinking that successes are random occurences then I don’t see how anybody could call that a “scam”. In fact it bares a striking resemblance to what my line of thinking is and it’s based a lot off of anxiety. I guess any mental illness that you can’t wrap your head around is also a scam?

  4. AquaticHaggis

    I am convinced that a sure cure for Impostor Syndrome is DIVERSITY.
    And, the cause of this ‘syndrome’ is LACK OF DIVERSITY.
    A young woman scientist working exclusively under the guidance of older men can feel awkward, even if she is scientifically competent. The way you act, communicate with, and lead people is likely very different from the way older men do. Without any maliciousness (usually) these men just do not know how to talk with you, include you in social events, and may feel uncomfortable with you due to gender or cultural and age barriers.
    It’s easy to see how you might feel out of place because you are DIFFERENT, but NOT intellectually.
    Diversity changes this. Once we meet and interact with people just like ourselves that are in leadership positions and doing the jobs we aspire to do, we are able to see ourselves in their positions.
    I remember the first time I saw a highly ranked female senior scientist leading a meeting. The room was full of men, she was doing her thing, talking, answering questions, and it felt absolutely normal. Nobody seemed to care that it was a woman. This frail woman in her 60’s loved her work, she was confident, intelligent, and in control. That was the first time I saw a woman really in charge. It was awesome.
    Meeting successful professionals who have a similar background as you will help you see what is possible for yourself. There is ‘more than one way to skin a cat’, and there is more than one way to work and learn. We just have to bring it.

  5. I think people refer to it as a ‘scam’ because any one individual thinks it is only happening to her/him (or a few other cases they have read about).
    In fact, it happens to everyone, all the time. I think it is no different from actors having stage-fright, even after years on the stage.
    When I was first married, my husband and I used to laugh that we didn’t feel ‘ready’ to be a married couple with a place of our own, and we felt like we were kids just ‘playing house’. Now, 40 years later, with kids of my own who have grown up and left home and are being successful, I STILL feel like I am not ready for a place of my own and I STILL feel like I am a kid ‘playing house’.
    It never goes away, it is just part of the human condition I think, we just have to find our own way to cope with it on a day to day basis. Some things you do ‘get used to’ if you have supportive colleagues, other things always seem strange.
    Life would be boring otherwise.
    d.

  6. D. C. Sessions

    Imposter Syndrome? Fancy name for self-doubt. Think about that a minute, though. Isn’t the cornerstone quality of a good scientist … doubt? Well, I suppose you could doubt everything but yourself — if you were a total dweeb with no sense of introspection.
    Do I know people who have no self-doubt? Sure. They’re poster children for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Most people know that end of it by now, but read the paper again. It ain’t just that the nonstarters think they rock — the ones who rock all underestimate how good they are!

  7. I had planned to end my school time with my masters and take some time before I got my PhD. In my last year, my lab advisor that I had been working with one day came up to me and told me he had a paid PhD position opening up for the following year. A few other people had applied for it, he was disappointed that I hadn’t, then asked me straight out if I wanted the position because he would really like me to continue there.
    Me: What? Really? Just like that?
    Lab advisor: That is what I just said.
    Me: *continued disbelief* Why?
    LA: What do you mean why? Do you honestly think that you haven’t been doing solid, quality work on difficult field work for the last two years? If you don’t then I’ll take back my offer.
    Now I’m at the end of my first year of my PhD research. I still have insane bouts of Imposter Syndrome, but I try to think back to that conversation. Do I honestly think that I haven’t done the quality work that deserves to be here?
    I’m a female in an almost exclusively male lab/field research institute. They’re all inclusive and fantastic to work with. It’s not about failure: I’ve done that plenty. It’s self-doubt, but it’s also something else. Like once my cover has been blown I don’t have to keep pretending I’m so smart and can be dumb for a little while. So it’s stress, too. And the general feeling that I can’t believe that all the hard work I’ve put in actually paid. Life handed me something supremely good and now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop (flip-flops in my case, heels are not often my friend).

  8. But be careful: self-doubt is normal and even healthy, but extreme Impostor Syndrome can be a symptom of depression. I was lead engineer on a huge project, had several design engineers implementing my designs, had excellent performance reviews, got along well with everybody on the project… and was utterly and hopelessly convinced that one day everyone would figure out that I was an incompetent fraud. I slipped off several times a day to the bathroom to cry.
    Then I finally got treated for depression. Now I have my share of self-doubt, but it’s the normal, healthy kind that keeps hubris in check, forces me to double-check the details of my work, and causes me to take several deep breaths before approaching the senior people in my field.

  9. ….that you just have to be bold and persistent
    Word.

  10. I had impostor syndrome too, but then I realized everyone else was also an impostor, so actually I fit in perfectly… ah science.

  11. Thanks jf, that says it all!!!!!!!!!!!
    d.

  12. Birger Johansson

    There is a word for the opposite of impostor syndrome, but I cannot recall it at the moment. People who grossly overestimate their own abilities, and do not get wiser from their failures. Sadly, politics (and business) seem full of such people.

  13. @12 – I know a phrase whose acronym is FIGJAM. (Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me).
    d.

  14. stripey_cat

    Karen @8: me too, except I’ve made a less complete recovery than you describe. I actually felt no sense of positive achievement or personal success when I got my degree from Oxford; later on (as the depression worsened and I had delusional episodes) I thought I’d been sent down, failed or quit the course. I think the important difference between normal self-doubt and mental illness is whether you can see the positive achievements as well as the failures: Isis’ point that enduring failure is normal is true, but it is not normal or healthy to feel that even success is a failure.

  15. It’s not a sham, it’s just that the term doesn’t have a specific technical meaning. It probably should though. Something like:
    “Impostor Syndrome” : “self-doubt” :: “Anorexia nervosa” : “wanting to be attractive”
    Those with the emotion can empathize with the disorder, but not necessarily fully, and to pretend the disorder is just the presence of the emotion is excessively dismissive. One can no more ‘get over’ Impostor Syndrome by simply willing oneself out of it than one can ‘get over’ anorexia or alcoholism.

  16. Isis the Scientist

    Becca, are you really comparing Imposter Syndrome to mental illness or addiction disorders?

  17. Calli Arcale

    I have a strong hunch that Imposter Syndrome really exists, but is not a disorder. Rather, it’s a part of the normal human condition, and is experienced by damn near everybody. There is likely a very small number of people who are utterly convinced of their brilliance, though it’s impossible to know without being able to hear their inner monologue.
    Imposter Syndrome is nothing more than the quite reasonable doubt that you’re really up to the challenge that life presents. Nearly everybody (and perhaps actually everybody) gets it from time to time. If you get depressed, it will probably get a whole lot louder, and you’ll start to believe what it says, but it was really there all the time — all that’s changed in depression is that you start listening to it as if it were the voice of God and not just the “what if” module of your brain.
    It’s entirely natural. In order to be social creatures, we have to care about what other people think about us. And since we can’t hear their inner monologues, we have to try to take our best guess. We know that best guess has a good chance of being wrong, and because we know that, we know *their* best guess has a good chance of being wrong as well. On top of that, sometimes people will pay us really nice compliments, but we may notice that they’ve overdone it, or that it’s not consistent with our own self-images. “You are so kind and generous, you’re like Mother Theresa!” “Huh? I just cussed out a Salvation Army bell ringer, and then cut a guy off in traffic. I am not kind and generous.” (Ignoring for a moment the question of whether or not Mother Theresa was really nice herself.) And we look for patterns. If we recognize a pattern of people saying nice things while we see ourselves as jerks, we may start to think the whole world is messed up — and how likely is it that they’re all messed up exactly the same way? Clearly, there is only one possible explanation — you have managed to fool them all. You’re putting on a front.
    It doesn’t help that this impression is actually somewhat true. We are all putting on a front, at all times. The trick in dealing with that nagging “I’m a fraud” feeling is to remember that this front is not actually dishonest. It’s simply a sort of standard interface for dealing with other human beings. And try to have a little more faith in other people; they’re not as stupid as you might think, and they can see through a lot. Most of the time, when you think you’re fooling the world about how nice you are, the person really being fooled is yourself, because you’re not letting yourself see your *good* points.

  18. Although we tend to diagnose mental illness and addiction disorders using a binary framework, that doesn’t lend itself to a very accurate description of human beings and their emotional/social/cognitive challenges. I think there is, in reality, a spectrum of such things. And I think there is a spectrum of Impostor Syndrome.
    I have seen cases where self-doubt is not just a waste of energy, not just counterproductive, but almost personality-destroying (I’d say ‘soul-destroying’ but that sounds a little too dramatized and moreover isn’t as descriptive).
    One way of groking that may be what Karen suggests- to point out that Impostor Syndrome can be a sign of and/or coincide with, mental illness, in such a way that it needs to be taken very seriously.
    Another way of groking the destructive force at work is to say that there is a level at which self-doubt becomes very pathological. I’d argue that “Impostor Syndrome” is as good a term as any for what happens when self doubt is mental illness.
    Of course, if we use that framework… many people who describe themselves as having Impostor Syndrome… are about as accurate as the people who say they get “depressed” over the lack of new episodes of Jersey Shore.

  19. Agree with #18 that there is a spectrum of this – as there is with all human emotions and reactions.
    BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, these posts (particularly the one from Stripey_cat, have reminded me of the work of Prof Miraca Gross who has been an advocate of appropriate education and social treatment of Gifted and Talented Children.
    A book summarising her work, as well as her own distinguished background, is advertised here (but if you google her name, you will see many, many other works by her).
    http://gerric.arts.unsw.edu.au/media/File/In_Her_Own_Write__A5_Flyer.pdf
    She talks about it being a disadvantage in society, she talks about ‘mildly’ or ‘profoundly’ gifted in the same way she talks about her own handicap with a hearing impediment.
    Her occasional radio interviews and one talk at the school by her predecessor have helped me in the raising of my own kids, particularly my youngest.
    One of her main themes is that profoundly gifted kids (and people), if they never meet and associate with anyone else like them, and if they are not recognised as having special needs, grow up thinking that everyone else (like them) does all the stuff at school easily and immediately, and to ‘not’ know the answers straight away feels like failure to them. This sometimes goes across to talents in music and/or sports as well.
    In other words, they have never experienced failure as the rest of the human race does, and therefore they do NOT develop any mechanisms to cope with it, dust themselves off and get up again, and learn from their mistakes.
    When they do get to work with their peers, or even people who know more than they do, they suddenly find they do not know all the answers any more (remember, some of these kids are way, way brighter than any high school teacher they have met). Since they know no better about others, they think everyone else DOES know all the answers.
    So two things happen. They think they are not ‘up to’ working with these people (or finishing this degree or doing this experiment – whatever) AND they think everyone else is way brighter than they are.
    They just have had no experience of it being any other way.
    Miraca Gross’s answer, when raising kids, is that you need to give bright kids OPPORTUNITIES TO FAIL. One of the ways she advocates this is to give them opportunities to be with other bright kids – whether it be summer workshops or camps, or competitions, or whatever.
    It seems to me that at the extreme end of the spectrum of Imposter Syndrome, this is what is happening. Extremely bright people are coming into contact with other extremely bright people FOR THE FIRST TIME(and/or situations where they don’t know the answer, such as SCIENCE RESEARCH), and they just have never learnt emotional mechanisms to cope.
    One of the other indicators of giftedness (not necessarily
    ‘profound’ is that these people assess and respond to social situations in a very analytical, and sometimes sensitive, way. This does not help if one has a tendency to feel things at the extreme end of Imposter Syndrome.
    So maybe it is an example of profound giftedness.
    Maybe everyone has a tendency to feel it, but some of us ordinary folk have developed mechanisms to see it in perspective, whereas some really bright people are feeling it for the first time and don’t know what to do about it.
    Just philosophising. I know it doesn’t help.
    Anyway, read Miraca Gross and her colleagues if you can. She is just amazing. JUST AMAZING. And sensible.
    d.

  20. @Isis
    “are you really comparing Imposter Syndrome to mental illness…?”
    This is exceptionally insulting to someone with depression. It either demonstrates that you have no awareness of the spectrum of mental illnesses and their effect on a person’s scientific work and related self-esteem or that you think your daily problems are so unique to qualify you as above those of us who merely plod along without being pregnant, female, underrepresented, etc. Seriously, Imposter Syndrome is highly interrelated with depression. I know many scientists who have never been able to rise above it, and have been unable to continue as scientists. Really.

  21. Isis the Scientist

    If, as our letter writer describes, imposter syndrome is something that affects everyone universally, then it seems plausible that it is something about the situation that induces it. I think it has to do in large part with a fear of failure and being exposed as “a fraud.”. My point here is that as a scientist you’ll fail a fuckton. Doesn’t mean you’re a fraud or that you don’t deserve to be somewhere. It is a part of the job and part of being a successful scientist is being persistent through those failures and rejections. In the last year I have had several more junior than me be rejected for something and thier response is frequently the same – they worry they weren’t good enough or smart enough or whatever else. I remind them that it may not be about them. There are limiting funds and every agency has an agenda that they may not fit within. They should learn what they cam and then move on and try again. It doesn’t mean they are a fraud or not good enough to be here.
    I don’t deny that mental illness exists, or that people with self doubt can also have mental illness, but I think there is also a another pervasive something among those I encounter. A fear of failure and a fear of judgement and that I say people just need to work on getting over.

  22. I think it’s natural to fear failure, and it does take time to come to terms with the fact that failure is only a Bad Thing if we don’t learn from it.
    I still maintain that an extreme case of Impostor Syndrome demands more care than “get over it”. How do you know? It doesn’t get easier over the years. I was a senior engineer with years of experience under my belt when I fell prey to depression.
    But for people just starting out, my advice is, WING IT! Be yourself, be in tune with your interests and read up on them. Be wowed by the work in your field, but consider yourself a contributor-in-training, not an outsider.

  23. Thanks. I get to feeling like this from time to time, and I always try and tell myself to woman-up. But it helps to hear it from someone else.

  24. I have a strong hunch that Imposter Syndrome really exists, but is not a disorder. Rather, it’s a part of the normal human condition, and is experienced by damn near everybody.

    Ok, despite my better judgement, I have to jump in here.
    This sentiment – echoed by a number of other commenters – strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of what mental illness is. It’s not some kind of magic cloud that comes over you that makes you “ill” rather than “healthy” – it IS just part of the range of the human condition. Everyone finds it hard to concentrate sometimes – for some people, it makes it hard to hold a job. Everyone gets ‘down’ sometimes – for some people it makes life unbearable.
    EVERYTHING is part of a spectrum. There is no magic line – there is only the point at which you will be better off with treatment than without it – and that point is not only hard to determine, but may depend more on what treatments are available than the actual severity of your symptoms.
    /rant
    /overuse of –

  25. I see NO discrepancy between Isis @21 and theshortearedowl @24.
    If something (this ‘syndrome’ or something else) is worrying you, then you ‘work to get over it’. We all do this every day.
    If the worrying or the ‘working to get over it’ becomes overwhelming, and you can’t cope any more, then some sort of treatment can help.
    Otherwise it can become totally dehumanising and debilitating, as described by stripey_cat @14.
    Sometimes ‘help’ can be as mild as supportive friends, family or workmates – or even a discussion like this one on this blog to make you realise that ‘you are not the only one’.
    Sometimes, more professional treatment may be necessary – but as mentioned in #24, for various reasons, this is something very personal to be decided, for a number of reasons, one being the treatment available and whether you get positive or negative vibes from the first professional you encounter.
    Totally agree with #24 – everything is a spectrum.
    But it also helps to know that others are coping with similar things to those that are bothering you, and they are surviving. At least the possibility of survival gives hope.
    d.

  26. I just had another thought. I do NOT think ‘fear of failure’ is the same thing as ‘imposter syndrome’.
    I think you can be confident you haven’t failed, or won’t fail, but STILL feel that other people will suddenly find out that you are not as good as THEY think you are.
    Sometimes, it may be associated with fear of failure in THEIR eyes, but I don’t think it necessarily is the same thing at all.
    I think people are comparing apples and grapefruit here.
    Now, the discussion may help people, even if they are talking about different things.
    I think Isis is more referring to fear of failure; whereas the original letter writer is obviously more worried about moving into a professional situation that she wonders if she is prepared for, emotionally, and wonders ‘when’ she will feel like one of the club; even if she never ‘fails’.
    Some people have addressed this from their own perspective, but perhaps Isis has addressed something different.
    Anyway, I hope all this discussion from a range of viewpoints helps people who read it.
    d.
    d.

  27. Isis, you rightly took nicoleandmaggie to task for dismissing those who blog about their struggles in balancing work and family. And yet you dismiss impostor syndrome with “get over it.” Any time you find yourself dismissing somebody else’s problems with “get over it”, that should be a hint that you probably need to examine your own privilege.

  28. Hi everyone, A. here.
    Firstly, thanks Isis, for addressing my question.
    Secondly, I think I phrased it wrong and my question is more what d. is talking about at 26. I don’t have any diagnosed mental illnesses (I am a little neurotic and anxious sometimes, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a disorder–not to downplay disorders or people who need treatment), I have a decent self-image and (I would say) better-than-average self-esteem, and I do know that I am at least somewhat capable of eventually becoming a good scientist(because I am at least smart and teachable). I’ve always been good at school, and being smart and nerdy is a large part of my self-image. I work hard and am persistent and am lucky enough to have friends and mentors who will kick my butt when I start to slack off and get lazy and whiny. My issue is that I feel like I’m in deeper water than I can handle at the moment. And it’s not a fear of failure, because I fail a lot. I used to be, but then one day I realized that the world did not come to an end because I wasn’t the best and it got a lot easier to deal with. Failing still sucks, but sometimes it gives me better ideas. I just think that I’ve gotten to a point where I am not sure I’m actually prepared for this next phase. When I started college, I didn’t even blink–I had no question that I would be able to handle it, that I was smart enough and persistent enough and prepared enough for that stage of life and the challenges that it entailed. Graduate school and the larger “Being A Scientist” thing is a different beast entirely and I do not feel prepared. For basically the first time in my life, I am being pushed to a level where the correct answer (or even the simplest way to get the correct answer)is not immediately the conclusion I come to, so I feel like I need to prepare more. Taking more stats classes and reading more papers and talking about more research isn’t making me feel more prepared, because I am still not coming to the best answer in the best way as quickly as I used to, and (from my perspective) as quickly as the people around me. I am being praised for things that I thought were just normal parts of being at this stage like they’re something special to me and I am beyond normal, but from my perspective, I feel like I am behind the learning curve and need to play catch-up. I guess my issue is that I don’t actually know what the normative standard is, and without understanding that, I don’t know how to get there (and, hopefully, beat “normal”). So my question is really: how does one identify what is “normal” for a successful scientist and then achieve that standard and go beyond it?

  29. Dearest A,
    Good luck and good management with your career. Well done so far.
    One does’t define ‘normal’. One luxuriates in being not normal, just being one’s unique self. Sometimes it isn’t comfortable. Most of the time it isn’t.
    If you are with a highly intellectual crowd, then everyone there feels the same.
    See also my post at # 19 and read Miraca Gross’s work and you will realise she is talking to YOU.
    d.

  30. Another insightful ‘read’ is Stephanie Tolan, for example about how to find out if you are a cheetah when you have never had the chance to run fast and find your own prey.
    Dearest A, this is your chance to find out. And if you are not a cheetah, it really doesn’t matter. There are plenty of places in science for all the other animals in the zoo (whoops, who said that?).
    And remember that even experienced actors get stagefright.
    See this article:
    http://www.stephanietolan.com/is_it_a_cheetah.htm
    d.

  31. I want to chime in because as a relatively new graduate student, I experience what I call “Imposter Syndrome” on a more or less daily basis, and I agree with A and other commenters who’ve said that it’s not a fear of failure. I’ve failed at many things in my life, and I’ve learned that if I’m not satisfied with my work or my situation, I can knuckle down and change things. But at the same time, since starting this degree, I’ve constantly felt like my work hasn’t been up to the standards of graduate school, and I feel like this despite the very positive comments I’ve gotten from my advisor and teachers. I have to tell myself, over and over, that there’s no way that they’d give me pity grades, because why on earth would they? That hasn’t stopped me from regular crying jags and periods where I am absolutely convinced that my advisor is going to tell me I’m being put on academic probation or that I won’t be allowed to continue in the program the next time I meet her.
    I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way – all of my friends in the program do, and my partner already has his masters and assures me that he never got over the feeling. If I didn’t have that support though, I think I would be struggling a lot more than I am to get through every day.

  32. Depression: get over it!
    Great advice.

  33. Rob @ 32:
    Either:
    Congratulations at being an excellent Poe
    or
    Rot in hell.
    Your choice.

  34. Karen@33
    Thanks for the kind words. Nothing like civility to close out a discussion.

  35. postdoctorally anonymous

    @Rob: For what it’s worth, the striking lack of empathy in some of these comments is part of the reason I feel increasingly alienated in academia and angry about its culture. Recently I read somewhere that 94% of college professors feel they are above average relative to their peers. (I would love to see how the remaining 6% are distributed in terms of funding and institutions.)
    My guess is that academia selects for people who have higher-than-normal baseline confidence. I don’t think this confidence is necessarily “earned.” I’ve struggled with IS too, despite the fact that I almost certainly started from a much better place (in terms of my intellectual background and experience) than most people, but my constant self-doubt continues to slow me down. I wish I could go back and knock some sense into myself as an early grad student: I was so distraught by how long certain projects took; I was crushed by not having certain things published “on time”; I was and remain deeply embarrassed by all the things I didn’t and don’t know. Unfortunately, my main peer in my PhD lab was a true wunderkind, and I spent all my time convinced I didn’t belong. My adviser was the non-nurturing type. I continue to compare myself to the best people in different subfields and beat my head against project walls that should probably be torn down. And I freak out when I see other people heading places where I want to go (in terms of projects and experiments) but don’t have time because I’m still working on outdated projects X and Y that of course I should’ve finished years ago.
    I feel there’s a class of people that takes their self-confidence for granted. It’s much harder for other “iso-intelligent” people to attain the same level. Members of this latter camp probably suffer from “depressive realism” or just “realism.” The fact that many profs probably don’t assess their relative standing very well makes me wonder how “universal” IS is.
    Anyway, Isis, I was also pretty offended by the blog title.

  36. Or maybe youre really not iso-intelligent.

  37. postdoctorally anonymous

    I should add that I agree that a certain amount of “getting over it” is in order. I think getting over these fears is much, MUCH harder for some people than others, even holding achievements and intellect constant. Disparaging comments from others imply a lack of understanding or empathy from the person giving the comment, however, which further alienates the person who’s trying to feel like a valid scientist.

  38. postdoctorally anonymous

    @Realist: There is evidence among people who perform equally well of significant differences in self-assessment that correlate with gender and nationality. Whether I was really iso-anything is not the point.

  39. Off topic – ISIS ARE YOU OK? You haven’t posted anything for days, and you haven’t joined in the various discussions with your little wise sayings either.
    I hope you are travelling OK just at the moment, maybe sitting back and watching everyone play.
    Hugs.
    d.

  40. The negative feedback loop between imposter syndrome and major depressive disorder is often fatal. Isis shows a complete lack of understanding of, and empathy towards scientists who fight this duality. Imposter syndrome has absolutely nothing to do with failure. This whole post is wrong in many ways.

  41. @d.
    If I am not mistaken, Dr. Isis is currently at a large meeting (or so a little bird *cough*twitter*cough* told me).
    @Rob- I’ve seen what you are talking about and I feel for anyone who has to deal with it. As I mentioned, there isn’t a true consensus as to what constitutes “Impostor Syndrome”; and there are some people who feel aspects of it who are still in an emotional place where they can tolerate, and perhaps even benefit from, being told to ‘get over it’. It’s just there are also a lot of people for whom that message is very insensitive (or even cruel).

  42. Anonymous Faculty

    I hypothesize that a large number of graduate students and postdocs who spend a lot of time on blogs suffer from some sort of major depressive or social anxiety disorder.

  43. Anonymous Undergrad

    As a sufferer of chronic depression, which I let destroy my chances in an undergraduate research position, I have to say that I agree with many of the other commenters about Imposter Syndrome… it’s a serious problem and can certainly form a vicious feedback loop with chronic depression and anxiety. I actually became so concerned about my competence that I started actively avoiding the lab, which of course, made me right. Eventually (in my senior year, after working as an undergrad research assistant for most of my undergraduate career, something which objectively is pretty cool and exceptional) I was more or less told that I was clearly a bright student but needed to find something more towards my interests. My lack of confidence had crippled me into a fear of doing anything interesting, not out of fear of failure, but out of fear of being perceived as naive, not rigorous enough, etc, and as such I pigeonholed myself into being nothing more than a technician, despite having the opportunity to play with some cool hardware and test some of my ideas on my own.
    Now I’ve rationalized myself into thinking this situation was for the best and am now looking at other labs to do my MS in. Still, I do wonder if maybe I would’ve needed to change subfields if I’d done things differently, if I’d had more confidence, if I’d sought treatment for depression earlier.
    Even if I knew I wasn’t failing at what I did, I still felt that I would seem by trying to have original thoughts to be ‘playing scientist.’ Despite supportive graduate labmates and a supportive prospective thesis advisor, not being able to shake this impression caused me to waste one of the most fantastic opportunities I’d ever accepted. Maybe Imposter Syndrome isn’t worthy of its own label, but it certainly is a subtype or complication of depression and anxiety.

  44. It seems that for Imposter Syndrome to be present, the person must start believing that he/she is all that, on some level. But, then other parts of the mind realize that he/she is buying hype, and so guilt sets in. Imposter Syndrome seems rather like step one on the road to narcissism. Recognition of good work, is just that. Don’t take that praise as a validation of your worthiness – and thus comparing your worthiness to others, artificially inflating yours against your neighbors, and then deflating yours against your mentors. Your mentors will only “discover that you’re a fraud” if you’ve been secretly thinking you are better then your neighbor. That’s where it starts ;-)

  45. I don’t know if Ann @44 is basing her ideas on sound psychological theory (the start of ‘it seems’ indicates maybe she isn’t), but even so I would disagree with everything she says about so-called ‘imposter syndrome’.
    In my experience, it is when one HOPES to be ‘almost as good as’ one’s mentors and colleagues – perhaps one day, if one works hard. That is all. Some days, and for many people, most days, that ‘hope’ or ‘dream’ seems impossible to achieve for reasons that are not rational and do not stand up to scrutiny – they are just inadequate feelings inside oneself, with no apparent basis in fact.
    That is how humans are designed – with emotions often being more dominant than rationality.
    I think, from experience of mine and others (no ‘theory’ here), that people who feel this way have never, ever thought they were better than anyone – although others have often told them so, they just never believe it.
    d.

  46. Dear A,
    I want to recommend The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD. He does a great job of laying out the concepts of distorted thinking, the main ones relevant to Impostor Syndrome being (IMO): all-or-nothing thinking, personalization and self-blame, discounting the positive, and magnification.
    I wish someone had told me to read this book years ago. I never had impostor syndrome, but I do have a tendency to discount positive feedback when I get it, which makes me feel like I never get any!
    He also addresses how yes, depression and all of these things are part of the normal human condition, but at least one school of thought believes these kinds of problems are mostly caused by our tendency to reinforce them with distorted thoughts.
    I agree with Isis in the sense that I think Impostor Syndrome has been abused as an excuse, but I also agree with the people who say it is real. I have seen the personality-destroying effects of the extreme form, like Becca mentioned. It’s not the same as fear of failure. It’s the inability to incorporate success into your self-image. Yes, that probably comes from fear and leads to more fear, but eventually that leads to a lack of courage to try again. And ultimately, as someone else described, avoidance. To do well in science, you have to be willing to set yourself up for an infinite number of failures and keep trying no matter how scary it gets.
    Re: feeling in over your head upon starting graduate school, that is normal.
    Feeling compelled to compete with your peers, I personally think is unhealthy, but it is definitely the norm in science.
    I’m not a competitive person by nature, and competitive attitudes tend to turn me off. To get through college and grad school, I chose to focus on my own learning and not worry so much about what everyone else was doing, and that helped me a lot. I got through grad school by measuring my own progress relative to where I started (rather than relative to where I thought everyone else was).
    It wasn’t until the end of my career when I was forced to compete for a faculty position that I realized everyone else was busy fighting over scraps while I had just been trying to put my head down and solve important problems. Silly me!
    From your letter, I suspect you’re feeling disconnected from your peers and that you need mentoring. I would encourage you to try to give yourself credit and work on the confidence issues now, because they will only get worse if you try to ignore them. And you’re going to need to be hard as steel to have a career in this business.
    Good luck and hang in there – or hey, pick some other career. Whatever makes you feel like a happy, healthy human being.

  47. I had imposter syndrome until this year. The following things got rid of it. I saw my advisor squirm in his seat when I told him my dissertation findings and then he become noticeably uncomfortable when I told him what they meant. The next meeting, I returned a book he had authored about his theories. The book was noticeably thrashed because of my use. At great expense, I had bought him a replacement book. He told me to keep the replacement book. My advisor hugged me at the end of my dissertation defense. I went to a party of well known persons in my field. As I introduced myself, each of them nodded knowingly. When I told a faculty member that I had procured one of the four academic positions available this year and said that I felt very fortunate, he told me “No, you are very good and earned it.”
    Day in and out, I look like any woman you see in the grocery store. In many small ways, the important people in my field have told me that I have found the key. The imposter syndrome has disappeared.

  48. interesting topic which I just stumbled across finding by chance……
    amusing and strange imposter syndrome dialogue
    made me smile.

  49. Sisyphus-cat is about to shred the fuck out of the “rock”…

  50. Pingback: The Pitfalls of Transition | On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess

  51. Pingback: Diversity in Science Carnival: IMPOSTER SYNDROME EDITION! | Neurotic Physiology

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