The Pitfalls of Transition

Scicurious is talking about Imposter Syndrome today, which is the irrational fear that everyone will realize what a spectacular fraud and general dumbass you are.  Drugmonkey reminded me of a post I wrote about this a few years ago when I was feeling less than charitable and also offers the following good advice at Scicurious’s joint:

For those new to this sort of discussion, I recommend a few simple tools if you want perspective. PubMed and RePORTER to start with for biomedical scientists. I think NSF also has a grant database? Fastlane or something? The departmental web page, look for CV links. The point is to review the career arc of some of your favorite heroes and not-so-heroes (for these latter, maybe start with a paper or three that seem to be the person’s “only” work of significance).

Review their entire career to date. Figure out the timeline. Where did they train, with whom and for how long? Was the person a shining star at every possible moment?

Thinking about the post I had written previously made me think about how I am a very different Isis than I was when I started writing this blog.   It’s led me to think about the evolution of my time here at MRU.  I have been here for several years now and things are going really well for me.  We’re writing manuscripts and grants and churning out really good data.  I’m also really happy here.  I have colleagues that I like and the intellectual environment is really great.  There are people working on things that compliment my expertise nicely.

I didn’t feel this way when I first came to MRU.  I went from being in a lab where I had friends and data for papers and was a total rockstar to being by myself with no new data.  The day I arrived at MRU I opened the door to the labspace I was to use and found at least an inch of dust on everything.  There were some crickets living in the corner and some of the equipment had been turned off without really being prepared for storage.  I found fungus and mold growing inside.  I had no friends and no family here.

It was really hard to come in every day and feel alone. The second semester I was here I took on two undergraduate students from a program to help me and it was a huge failure.  Not only had I not really established the techniques we now use, but I had never really mentored students in research.  You can’t really teach students when you have no idea what the fuck you’re doing. I was far too informal with them and they walked all over me.  I’m not saying that they were bad students.  I am saying that I was not a good mentor to them.

It was very hard for me to stay positive during the first year that I was here.  It was hard to keep myself focused on the fact that, if I kept plugging away like the tortoise, I would eventually be successful.  I can remember many, many emotional conversations with my colleagues Dr. Buttercup and Dr. Triple Threat, telling them that I felt like a failure.  Or that I wasn’t being successful.

It was very difficult for me to go to research seminars and see the scads and scads of data that other labs were generating when I was still struggling to get our experimental assays working properly in a new environment.  That made each failure really sting. Dr. Triple Threat would tell me that if I kept on the path that I was on, he could see that I would reach a point when I had more papers to write than I would know what to do with.  At the time I thought he was a dirty, dirty liar.  In retrospect, he was right.

I suppose the point of this reflection is to remind myself that we are perhaps especially vulnerable to these feelings of imposter-isms when we make a transition.

advice animals memes  - Animal Memes: Chemistry Cat: Well? Finish the Sentence!
Figure 1: Insert very clever ending sentence here that I don’t have time to think up because I have to run to a meeting.

14 responses to “The Pitfalls of Transition

  1. Yes, to me the transition to becoming independent is the step that I fear most…

  2. and those that cat!

    “At the time I thought he was a dirty, dirty liar. ” – harsh! lol

    I am happy you have found some measure of success. Being successful and having a happy family life and having some friends you actually get out with is more than most of us can hope for.

  3. DrLizzyMoore

    Shit yeah!

  4. The idea that DrugMonkey and his glad handing crew of NIH insiders like Comrade Physio Professor understand Imposter Syndrome is a total joke. Why does anyone listen to these jerkwads who keep all the grant money tied up in their postdoc factories?

  5. Hey, I never claimed to understand imposter syndrome. Only that dyckewadde DouchemOnkey did.

  6. I like the lolcat as is. It has a meta feel to it, like “Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data, can finish this sentence.”

    But yeah, the transitions are rough. I find that not knowing where the Kimwipes are is oddly demoralizing.

  7. Oh this was well timed for me. I start a new TT in the fall and just started panicking – oh my god I have to go from ‘promising scientist’ to really productive scientist. It happens – good to know it feels daunting even for the most fearless. Deep breaths – thanks for this piece!

  8. Thank you!! I am at that stage now, and although I rarely suffered from imposter syndrome as a student, I find it occurring almost daily during my first year on TT. Managing a shared technician is particularly trying… So if you have any wisdom, I am all ears! Anyway, I really needed this post, so thank you!

  9. Thanks for this post – I am a first year graduate student who moved away from my family/friends/former grandeur and have been feeling the pangs of impostor syndrome as well as feelings of general isolation and what-the-fuck-am-I-doing. I admire you not only for the fact that you seem to have a successful career but that you have a great attitude about it. It’s honestly very comforting to know that I’m not the only one who has felt this way and that there is a distinct possibility I can come out on the other side with hopefully an iota of awesomeness.

  10. Pingback: imposter? who, me?? | Balanced Instability

  11. Completing the sentence:
    “And those that never, ever complete their data.”

    But I think that ‘extrapolating from incomplete data’ can also mean ‘learning from your mistakes’ and ‘then designing experiments to help complete the data’.

    Eg your comment about mentoring – you obviously analysed what was wrong with your first attempt at mentoring, and worked out how to do it better. I’m sure you do this with your science too. Some people either continue to do things the same way over and over again (with the same poor results, believe it or not) or they give up and go and do something else.

    Thanks for sharing this. It gives hope for those who feel they are just slogging away, right now, that there is a better future.

  12. Hmmm. That’s interesting. I never heard of impostor syndrome before. I’m not in a scientific field but I feel something very like it on a regular basis, and it doesn’t have to do with “depression” so much as being in school right now when I’m from a background and family where NO ONE goes to school and everyone is extremely poor, and having little to nothing in common with virtually everyone around me. Although my grades are nearly as perfect as they can be I can’t help feeling like I am wasting my time and money in school because what is someone like me doing there, aren’t I supposed to be cleaning a kitchen somewhere? It’s hard to describe.

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

  14. OrganicExtract

    Thanks for sharing. I just defended my PhD in March and am in the process of moving across the country to start a TT teaching position at a small university this summer. Almost every single day I find myself wondering what on earth I’m doing and when “everyone will realize what a spectacular fraud and general dumbass [I am]”. I appreciate the encouragement that there is hope for making it through the transition and flourishing on the other side.

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