“Sweet, fooled ’em again!”: More thoughts on the Impostor Syndrome

February 15, 2008

A recent article on Science Careers covers the Imposter Syndrome and how it affects scientists.

“Impostor syndrome” is the name given to the feelings that Abigail and many other young scientists describe: Their accomplishments are just luck or deceit, and they’re in over their heads. The key to getting past it, experts say, is making accurate, realistic assessments of your performance. Perhaps equally important: knowing you’re not alone.

You are most certainly not alone if you have the feeling that you are a professional impostor and are sure to be found out eventually, with great humiliation and shame leading to unceremonious ejection from your field. You are not alone. The question for today is whether we can, as professional communities, minimize the effects of Impostor Syndrome in hampering the productivity of scientists?

The article in Science Careers is, of course, well behind the blogosphere and in fact the three part musings (one, two, three) of mrswhatsit and ScienceWoman’s musings on career (old site, new site) were no doubt prime motivators for the article. (Laelaps has recently pitched in.)
Back on the old Drugmonkey, the BM had this to say:

As a mentor though, it poses interesting questions. We all know we’re supposed to be supportive and encouraging and all that. “Good” mentors are great at these “atta-postdoc” skills. All true. But are we supposed to diagnose “imposter syndrome”? How is one to set up an imposter-syndrome-friendly environment?
A related question is what degree of confidence do you project as a PI and mentor? The “troops” want to be encouraged, excited and motivated by someone surging forward with great confidence, no? So we shouldn’t burden them with our own problems, like, say grant funding, right? But what about the appearance of “super-prof-ness” and the effect this has on the outside (or inside) observer? Read comments over on FSP for an illustration of “You’re so cool it makes me feel unworthy, how do you DO that?”. So in some senses the highly confident PI is not good for the imposter syndrome trainee.

In my comment on this topic, I kinda booted the response to PI responsibilities. So let us be clear. We as PIs should indeed be sensitive to the Impostor Syndrome and do what we can to minimize the effects on our trainees (and peers). The reason why is that the “professional diagnosis” is bogus in some part by advancing a blame-the-victim remedy. To wit, the aforementioned Science Careers piece mentions several times that a solution to Impostor Syndrome is for the person to boost up their valuation of their own accomplishments and capabilities. This is great and all but circular. If they already did that, they might not have Impostor Syndrome in the first place!
Science careers have certain structural and cultural issues that contribute to an Impostor Syndrome encouraging environment in my view. Simple awareness of these issues may, perhaps, assist in keeping your own laboratory from furthering the Syndrome. There are also a number of PI behaviors that may stand explication. I have a few thoughts.
Science is a meritocracy of the unbelievably brilliant: We have a convenient conceit in this business that the career success and scientific accomplishment are essentially linear functions of how smart one is. Readers will know that I find this to be a bunch of crap. While it is true that there is a correlation between smarts and success, this relationship is highly variable. Many other traits, skills and circumstances contribute. Perhaps most critically, in an unbelievable state of dissonance, RealTrueScience is supposed to be all about accomplishment, the data collected, the interpretations drawn, etc, and NOT about one’s authority based on identity (or even past accomplishment)! This is important because under the “smartest = best scientist” belief our prospects are determined by who we are, not by what we accomplish. The Imposter, of course, focuses on feelings of self-worth vis a vis some intrinsic-worth standard and minimizes the focus on accomplishment. The solution is to minimize our reverence for authority and to focus on the merits of the accomplishment.
Never let ’em see you sweat: This is a tougher one because in a prescriptive sense, this is good advice for any career. Creating the perception of effortless accomplishment is a good idea because people tend to infer from this that you are farking brilliant (see above). It creates the confidence that of course you can handle more and more work (handy when stacking up multiple grant projects at 5% effort!). And in a nasty sort of way, the more you can make your rivals suffer from doubt about their own competence, the better for you. Still. There are aspects of this that are going to create a bad environment for those around you that happen to trend towards Impostor feelings. So my solution is to go ahead and show the warts. Or, some of them anyway. To discuss with trainees the doubts about career, grant success and getting a paper accepted. To show the process that I go through in hopes that it becomes apparent that no matter what my natural talents might be, “success” requires a heck of a lot more. And this “more” is often a bunch of stuff that can be rather easily learned and adopted by a scientist in training.
“Sweet, fooled ’em again”: One of the first things that comes up on discussion of Impostor Syndrome is whether this is yet another issue in which women are at greater risk for career-hampering “stuff”. Now certainly, there are men who chime in with “Yeah, I have this too”. There are highly successful women profs who cop to feeling like impostors. And yes, DearReader, I find many of the Impostor Syndrome traits and implications to be highly familiar. In short, I too keep expecting the ax to fall, the shoe to drop, to be found out and to be unceremoniously kicked to the career curb. There is an aspect of me which feels after even the simplest of career accomplishments that I’ve gotten away with one. So what does this mean? Is it the case that those of us who plod along or are wildly successful despite self-doubt have simply adopted good coping strategies? Which could therefore be taught to trainees? Or does this mean that we do not actually suffer from Impostor Syndrome to the severity of others?
Coping Strategies: Unfortunately I have minimal insight. Because I think my best coping strategy, that of “fark ’em” is not something that can be readily learned. So I’ll turn this over to you, DearReader. One thing that does come to mind has to do with life goals setting. Hey, stop rolling your eyes. I can barely even spell self-empowerment. The point being that we have tendencies to move goalposts on ourselves. And if we do that without recognizing that we’ve just passed what was once a very important goalpost, we never credit ourselves with a Win. So try to keep in mind those previous goals. Remember when just getting that PhD seemed like a BigDeal? When all you really wanted for Christmas was a first-author paper accepted? an R01 award? What were your goals ten years ago and if you’ve met them, do you credit yourself?

[Update: A scientist’s life, Female Science Professor and Young Female Scientist on “confidence” as a related theme]

9 Responses to ““Sweet, fooled ’em again!”: More thoughts on the Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    When I read “unceremonious ejection from your field”, I started to imagine CEREMONIOUS ejection. Don’t. It’s not a nice mental image.


  2. RandomLawyer Says:

    When I first started practicing law I had a strong sense that I had no clue what I was doing. (The fact that law school education is almost entirely theoretical didn’t help any.) The main thing that boosted my confidence is seeing the work of other (far more experienced) lawyers.
    The lesson I took is that while I didn’t know what I was doing, neither did anyone else.
    I also know a highly successful author (one of his books made the New York Times bestseller list) told me that he lived in fear of getting a letter from his agent telling him that “they” had discovered he wasn’t a real writer and he had to give back all the money he’d earned writing.
    I think the imposter syndrome is more widespread–across practically every profession–than almost anyone realizes.


  3. some random imposter Says:

    and then there are those imposters who ARE found out, who are unceremoniously dumped from their field, shunned by their families and friends and find, after years of struggle, that they are unworthy for anything whatsoever!


  4. Interrobang Says:

    I am not a scientist; I work in IT, which is probably #2 behind science in number of self-suspected impostors. I actually used to describe myself as “a potsmoking punk posing as professional” to various friends. Once I got some more work experience and stopped being the “overeducated twenty-odd intern,” I realised that everyone else was basically either making it up as they went along, or generally only as or less competent than I am, so that helped. I hate to bring it in, because I think the programme in general is a pile of superstitious BS, but the Al-Anon maxim “fake it ’til you make it” works pretty well against impostor syndrome, too — to lessen it, at least. If people think you know what you’re doing, pretend you do until you’ve actually do, and maybe no one’ll notice. 🙂


  5. When it affects a person to crippling levels–when they cannot think or function effectively because of it—obviously the Impostor Syndrome needs to be addressed and dealt with/coped with.
    However, I think that some degree of it is not a bad thing because the syndrome is grounded in doubt. A certain degree of doubt can be a positive motivator and can keep a person alert to quality and standards of one’s performance. More importantly, it can help keep a person from getting to be overconfident/negligent/cocksure to the point of closed-mindedness.
    One of my favorite quotes, from Bertrand Russell, goes “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts”. Particularly in science, I think we need to retain the overall mentality of humility and introspection and avoid getting to be more and more like Wall St hucksters. The realization of doubt and the acceptance of it as normal and even good, goes a long way to maintaining wisdom.
    Of course, it takes a while to realize that confidence and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Again, Russell: “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”. That doesn’t mean he didn’t think much of his beliefs—just that he had arrived at the best possible conclusions under the circumstances, but that he could nevertheless be shown the next day how he had been mistaken.
    So one should not live and die with one’s work/accomplishments, as long as one’s work has been done ethically, and the analysis done reasonably soundly (i.e. generally accepted standards). One has to learn to separate one’s ego (or ‘guilt’ as the case may be) from what may happen in the field at a later point in time. If later work overturns your result, so be it. Progress often does that to people and ideas.
    In science, you can be truly ‘exposed’ only if you willfully and calculatedly cheated/fabricated data etc—in that case, of course, the Impostor Syndrome is not so much a syndrome as it is reality.
    So I think one way to deal with it is to consider the syndrome, should you have it, a good thing. Chances are it is a sign of your conscience and your desire to not screw up. So, harness this doubt and make it work for you—at any time that it rears its head, address the specifics of the issue objectively and to the best extent you can. Over time, I think such an approach will build healthy confidence while maintaining a good chronic level of introspection.
    So within reasonable limits, I guess I agree with Russell that doubt equals wisdom. Call yourself wise and get some confidence from it!


  6. CC Says:

    This line of self-pity has always struck me as a backhanded sort of arrogance, probably due to the big-fish-in-the-little-Drosophila-pond female professors from whom I first heard it: “I hold such a prestigious position, doing work that demands so much brilliance — why, sometimes I feel inadequate for it! I envy you grad students and the security of knowing your worthlessness.”
    And in hindsight, indeed they were pretty overrated! Frankly, if scientists find themselves fearing that they’re only capable of imitative, inconsequential, unimaginative work, the majority of them are probably right.


  7. anonymous Says:

    Re: This line of self-pity has always struck me as a backhanded sort of arrogance…
    Presuming that CC is uninformed rather than malicious, I would like to clarify what *I* think the post is about.
    It is not “I hold such a prestigious position…”, but much more along the lines of “I should be better than I am”.
    I have witnessed those who are full of themselves and say things similar to what CC quotes – but that is not impostor syndrome.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    revere, over at Effect Measure, had a post some time ago on Imposter Syndrome which is fascinating.


  9. CC Says:

    Presuming that CC is uninformed rather than malicious…- but that is not impostor syndrome
    I appreciate the presumption, and particularly the exclusion of the possibility that I’m both! Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear from all the links that “impostor syndrome” refers not to “I should be better than I am” but to “I have become better than I am”.
    In fact, neither is necessarily arrogant as a private thought; the former is obnoxious when clumsily shared with peers, and the latter is when clumsily shared with lessers.


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