‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

Source: ‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

The issue of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is becoming more and more spoken about, and is a condition I’ve seen, and experienced to some extent, myself.

I’m sure you’ll have some experience of someone you know believing they don’t deserve the position they’re in, or the grades they’ve gotten, and they insist they’re somehow fluking their way through life. Such people live their careers terrified that one day they’ll be ‘found out’ for not being as clever or successful as their peers, despite the fact that they’re doing a great job and do in fact deserve what they’ve achieved.

I myself know a female professor of chemistry who, despite rising through the ranks in her academic career, feels that she’s somehow a fraud, and may one day be found out as an imposter.

This way of thinking can start appearing long before an academic career starts – students, particularly female, at undergraduate level often convince themselves they don’t deserve the results that they’re getting, and that they’ve just somehow been incredibly lucky so far.

Unfortunately, these worries don’t always go away, and many scientists’ careers are suffering as they don’t have the confidence in themselves to submit to good journals or go for grant proposals that will no doubt be highly competitive. Indeed, in the world of academia, job positions and funding sources are becoming more and more difficult to get hold of, leading to the successful few often wondering how they could have possibly fluked that result.

The above post looks a little into this, and suggests ways to get yourself out of this way of thinking.

Furthermore, this article on the Nature Jobs website delves a little deeper into Imposter Syndrome, particularly focus on the early careers researchers whose careers are being very badly affected.

The article states that ‘in a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career’, but resilience to failure isn’t something that comes easy to many people, and constantly being knocked back can have a devastating effect on careers.

An interesting point that no doubt many of us have encountered is that, as an undergrad or postgrad, ‘being at the top of your class is just average’. When I first started university, I admit it was difficult suddenly not being one of the smartest in the class, but luckily I channelled this into working as hard as I could, and in the end I received a few university prizes which really helped my confidence. However, the higher up you climb the more ‘normal’ you become, and as you’re exposed more and more to the real world of academia, you realise there are research “royalty” who even your PhD supervisor can only dream of matching in publications and citations, and suddenly you feel inadequate.

It would seem that ‘those who are self-aware enough to realize that they don’t know everything’ are those of us who suffer the most. However, being a good scientist requires knowing the limits of your knowledge, and being intelligent enough to realise that prevents overconfidence and arrogance taking you down a dangerous path.

The article points out that accepting the possibility of failure would help many scientists struggling with their own self-worth, and that ‘the academic environment should be more open to failure stories’. I must admit, you do find yourself sucked into the idea that only certain results and publications count as a success, but even a negative result is a result, and embracing failure and using it as a learning exercise would help many move on with their research, and their career, with a more positive attitude.

An important piece of advice that I am currently living by myself is to stop comparing yourself to others. We have all our own research to carry out and our own careers to forge, and it will do no one any good to expect to mirror those of our apparently more successful peers. Research, careers, and lives in general are not races – we all have our own personal goals and aspirations, and we should seek to fulfill them in our own way. Hopefully, the widening acknowledgement of Imposter Syndrome will let those suffering from self-doubt know that they are not alone, and allow them to realise they do deserve their achievements, and they’re capable of bigger and better things.

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