Diversity in Science Carnival: IMPOSTER SYNDROME EDITION!

Apr 30 2012 Published by under Academia, Blog Carnivals

Welcome to the 15th Edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival, focusing on Imposter Syndrome! I knew that this issue affected a lot of people, but you'll realize just how many from the unprecedented number of people who have submitted posts! So I hope that here you'll be able to see just how many people suffer from imposter syndrome, what it means to people, where it might come from in academia, and maybe find some ways to overcome it!


(Stolen from Contemplative Mammoth, because it's awesome)

Imposter Syndrome: It is just you, but you're not alone.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you're not qualified for your career. Not only that, other people are going to "find out" and summarily kick you out as a fraud. It seems kind of silly, but it can seriously affect someone's confidence, causing them to miss opportunities and not apply for the advancements they could achieve. I've even, sadly, seen it force many people out of academia entirely. But getting out of academia may not even help! Over at Significant Figures, a PhD in Biochemistry talks about how Imposter Syndrome followed them out of academia and into their new career as a science writer. Squirreled thoughts writes about the imposter syndrome going the other way, stepping into academia from outside work, and how imposter syndrome can strike even when you know you're an expert.

Imposter Syndrome is not a constant. There are moments of confidence, and moments of difficulty. Over at The University of Washington SACNAS Student Chapter Blog, Sabrina talks about her dealings with imposter syndrome in not one, but two graduate departments, showing resolve and persistence as she pushes through the bad times and heads toward the good ones. And at the Tightrope, Dr. O talks about her current issues with imposter syndrome as a brand new tenure-track faculty member, and writes about one of those horrible days, those days that many of us will recognize. Finally, at ChemistryBlog, azmanam writes about life as a tenure track faculty member in chemistry, and how the moments of imposter syndrome may come in moments of mentorship, not just in research and teaching.


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Imposter Syndrome: Where does it come from? Why does it happen?

No one has really even investigated where Imposter Syndrome comes from or why it happens, but many people were glad to put forth their ideas for this carnival. I thought that maybe it comes from an unwillingness in science to show your warts, to show lack of confidence or failure. The desire to appear successful might give young students the impression that perfection is necessary, and none of us are perfect. Drugmonkey offered the opinion that we often view scientists who succeed as being deserving on a personal level, when in fact, a lot of success in science is a more complicated, or just more lucky, than that. He also looks at a lot of the institutions in academia that might cause imposter syndrome, the idea that you can't let them see you sweat, and that academia is a meritocracy based purely on brilliance.

Building on the idea of Brilliance in academia, Chad and DrMRFrancis both built on the solitary genius idea: that many scientist biographies are written as though there is no failure, no effort, just the inevitable triumph of genius, something which is a pretty demoralizing thing to look at when you're the one struggling. As interplanetsarah at Women in Planetary Science writes, when you achieve something, people often response "oh, you must be really smart", rather than "oh, you must have worked really hard". DrMRFrancis also notes that men in the majority may well feel imposter syndrome just as badly because of these factors, and may be afraid to express it, feeling like they should belong, rather than that they do.

Of course, there are other reasons to feel imposter syndrome beyond those of the genius, infallible stereotype of the scientist. Danielle writes eloquently of imposter syndrome forced on her from the outside, and how being in the minority means that many in the majority will question your achievements, eventually causing you to question them yourself. A book chapter from "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It" (warning, the link opens a word document) also asks us to consider the source of our imposter syndrome, how we rank our achievements based on what other people think.

And as Dr. Isis explains, some of the worst periods of imposter syndrome can come during periods of transition, where there is little in the way of support. Without the support group around to bolster you, starting a new job or new position can increase feelings of imposter syndrome.

But not everyone gets imposter syndrome, and looking at those who do not may be able to provide insight for those of us who do suffer from it. Zinemin believes that she does not suffer imposter syndrome because she has always been skeptical of authority, something which allows her to see through the perfection of senior professors' facades:

To paraphrase Lord Varys from ‘A game of thrones’: “Scientific authority resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall…”


Babyattachmode thinks her own lack of imposter syndrome
might be due to looking on the bright side, being happy when things work out and not dwelling when they don't. Finally, Miss MSE thinks that her lack of imposter syndrome may be because she's never been a "best student", and writes about how her family made her into the confident scientist she is today.


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Imposter Syndrome: Silencing the beast within

So what can we do about Imposter Syndrome? A lot of people had great ideas for how institutions could help. Jedidah at Essentially Liminal notes that many academic institutions can be hostile to people of color, with lack of mentors and other successful minority students, and notes that some groups have started to bring in minority scientists in groups, to help stave off the culture shock of some academic departments, and to help provide a support structure for minorities entering the program. Given how many people think real support groups can prevent imposter syndrome, having the support groups in place, as 27 and a PhD explains, could go a long way to decreasing feelings of isolation.

A day in the life sciences encourages us to be the weed, to know that we may not feel like a beautiful rose most days, but weeds are tough and strong and can bust through their problems. At the The University of Washington SACNAS Student Chapter Blog, keolufox also emphasizes the importance of confidence, and also of goal setting, keeping track of and being proud of what you have achieved. Jaquelyn at the Contemplative Mammoth notes that she overcame her imposter syndrome with feminism and mentoring other people. Feminism let her know that she was not alone, and that some of what she was feeling was institutionalized against her sex, and mentoring helped her to feel proud of her own accomplishments, but on a confident face, and help others overcome similar feelings. And an anonymous writer at Minority Postdoc notes that we should acknowledge our mistakes, but we should know that they are just that: mistakes. And that everyone makes them. When in doubt, as Bashir notes, act like you belong there, and fake it til you make it.

But in the end, whether there is help or support around you or not, you've got to acknowledge that your imposter syndrome is wrong. You got this job. You deserve to be here. As Gerty-Z says, you can only keep trying and doing the best that you can. Isis agrees, and compares life in science as a Sisyphean task. Roll the rock up, it goes back down again. But it's not just you, everyone's got their own rock. When it comes down to it, have confidence in yourself, and just keep swimming.

And last but not least, please do submit a post for the Diversity in Science Carnival next month! May's theme will be Celebrating Asian Pacific Island Heritage Month, hosted by The University of Washington SACNAS Student Chapter Blog. So write blogs about noteworthy scientists or personally influential scientists from this heritage, or if you're Asian/Pacific Islander, you can write one about yourself and what you're proud of! Please submit posts to the Diversity in Science Carnival via the Submission form. The deadline is May 25.

Thanks for all of the wonderful entries, and we'll see you next month! Please let me know if I missed any of your links, and I would be glad to add them in!

20 responses so far

  • [...] For a massive compilation of grad students and profs blogging about imposter syndrome, go here. I’ve you’ve ever felt like an imposter, you are definitely not [...]

  • [...] at her blog on Scientopia, Scicurious is hosting an edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival devoted to “imposter syndrome,” the nagging fear of secret inferiority that almost everyone seems to feel at some point in a [...]

  • Great carnival. I like the highlighting that this isn't just a "woman" thing and that it can vary situationally.

  • bg says:

    The Imposter syndrome is a great idea for a blog carnival because it is a problem that is by definition nearly impossible to recognize in oneself. Having so many people share their experiences allows those struggling with imposter syndrome to give themselves permission to consider the possibility that they could fit into the category.

    When going through career transitions it could seem mildly adaptive, especially because in its less severe form it comes across to others as conscientiousness and being a team player, which is rewarded on a short term basis.

    The inefficiency and damage that the imposter syndrome does is (in my experience) related to how a domineering person with an equal or higher work/school status can essentially use the affected person's imposter feelings as a lever to manipulate them, which is easy to do if the affected person is unaware of the phenomenon. This creates a vicious circle where the person with imposter feelings starts to behave as if they are guilty of something even when they are not. This then induces more imposter feelings,withdrawal and isolation. So a truly conscientious, respectful person can be scapegoated and their strengths that could contribute to a team are obscured.

    If the pattern stated above happens, the next endeavor attempted by the person with imposter syndrome will be done with even less self trust, and progress to the point that the person truly believes that anything they do will have a negative impact on others and in the workplace in general. Defensive immobilization is consequently the only remaining option for the person with imposter feelings. It is very hard to reverse once that stage has been reached, because others tend to form negative opinions of the affected person at that stage if the low confidence persists, despite the baselessness of doing so. This interferes with educational and work progress in many ways.

    In general it appears that a workplace culture that is authoritarian with a high power distance increases the chances of triggering imposter feelings in many different types of people. This may be because a "blame culture" demonizes one person to preserve the in-group integrity. When a mistake is made by a subordinate employee or student in a blame culture they will try to conceal the mistake. They will also ruminate about the mistake and feel as if there is no solution and that they are uniquely incompetent.

    The fundamental attribution error is fuel to the imposter syndrome fire. In authoritarian work cultures there are no sanctions for calling someone labels that indicate that the person asking the question or making the mistake has a permanent, internal trait defect such as stupidity or unreliability. Because of this the imposter syndrome will be perpetuated easily in these environments, where it is frequently believed to be an individual problem rather than a social one.

    Welcoming the discussion of mistakes does not equal having low quality standards for performance. However, a simple mistake or question should not be something that causes fear of pursuing solutions. Nobody is an island.

  • [...] you have not had a chance, please read April’s Diversity in Science Carnival on the Imposter Syndrome, hosted by [...]

  • [...] you want to read more about imposter syndrome, you can do no better than to catch this huge compilation of posts in the Diversity in Science Carnival, hosted by [...]

  • [...] If I can be perfectly honest for a moment, I was feeling hesitant about my suitability to give this talk.  I’m not the most prolific science blogger out there–my posting frequency tends to be negatively correlated with my thesis work–nor am I the most well-spoken.  Even though I’ve been blogging for nearly 2 years (!!) now, I still sometimes feel uncomfortable putting myself out there for the world to see.  I think some part of this is my natural tendency towards shy-ness, but also I’m quite prone to imposter syndrome. [...]

  • [...] Syndrome”, a condition many people deal with on a daily basis. Read all about it: Diversity in Science Carnival: IMPOSTER SYNDROME EDITION! (and pay attention to the pictures – they’re great!) Share [...]

  • [...] “I don’t know enough…and sooner or later, they’re all gonna find out.“ [...]

  • [...] “Imposter Syndrome” by Scicurious [...]

  • [...] a scientist is a hard job, especially early on as many of us struggle with things like low pay, impostor syndrome, the publish-or-perish culture, continuous efforts to slash the budget of NASA, and having to [...]

  • [...] not going to get into the details of Impostor Syndrome (understandably, it’s a pretty common subject in academic blogs), but if you’re reading this and think you’re the only one who feels this way, let me [...]

  • [...] 10.  Stop being a perfectionist.  Most academics that I know have the ‘problem of perfectionism’.  Don’t misunderstand – perfection in what you do is a suitable and admirable goal, and you should not compromise on your core scientific principles.  However, that particular statistical analysis, or manuscript, or data collection will never, ever stop and you can get caught in a vicious cycle where the end just never happens.  This circle of perfectionism will take all your time, sap your energy, and result in zero productivity.  Success in academia means you need to recognize that compromises are possible, and that your ‘close enough’ is probably at a very high level of perfection anyway, and you will be the only person who knows you got to 96% of where you aimed instead of 100%.  (…do you know about the impostor syndrome?) [...]

  • [...] PhD students suffer from imposter syndrome. This is why feedback should be a combination of positive and critical comments. Nobody (certainly [...]

  • [...] regular-blog-reading-kind-of-people will have come across this condition on one blog or another. This one provides an excellent overview of the topic, including many links to experiences with this [...]

  • […] about how mentoring and feminism helped her overcome imposter syndrome. Scientopia has a wonderful Diversity in Science Carnaval on imposter syndrome. Minority scholars or scholars on the margins can be particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome […]

  • […] runners sound like they have imposter syndrome. They’re afraid that someone will tell them that — even though they run regularly […]

  • […] It’s quite natural, and it can be fought. And it’s important to fight it, as a lack of confidence can be very detrimental for your carrier. A nice compilation of posts on the topic is here. […]