Last week I attended the last day of the British Science Association‘s Festival in Birmingham. There was a real buzz about the place and it had clearly been an extremely successful few days. I enjoyed hearing Ineke de Moortel – the Rosalind Franklin Lecture Award winner – talk about solar flares and sunspots in lucid and accessible terms as part of the lunchtime x-change conversation event, in which I also participated along with several others. Each of us were interviewed for about 10 minutes, one following the other in quick succession. I had hoped to talk about my science; I was firmly told I had to talk about gender issues. Robin Ince was another of the speakers, talking about why he has become so committed to covering science in his stand-up comedy routines. Robin and I seem to be stalking each other, having only met for the first time in London last week (see here for why, as we were honoured with honorary fellowship/ degree respectively) yet so quickly doing another sort of double act.
During the afternoon I watched Alice Roberts do her best to grill a very polished Greg Clarke, the new Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities. It’s a curious combination portfolio, although Clarke did his best to defend its logic in the face of the questions. I also listened to Paul Nurse give his Presidential address explaining why science is the most truly revolutionary activity in the world and pointing out why it always has been so. And then we trooped off to dinner.
I found myself seated not only next to Robin Ince, but with another comedian on my other side, Steve Cross from UCL. His day job may be Head of Public Engagement at UCL, but he is also the founder of Bright Club and has just been named one of the 50 New Radicals by Nesta for his work setting up Science Showoff. Between this pair of witty gentleman I felt myself somewhat out of my depth – but then I think each of us did. And this is where I get to weave in ideas about impostor syndrome.
The three of us were cosily packed together at the dinner because we were each being awarded Honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association. Each of us admitted sotto voce to the others that we had forgotten we were supposed to be saying ‘a few words’ as we were presented with our certificates by Paul Nurse. Those words turned out to be going to be suitably amplified for the large company present at the dinner. Robin and Steve both got busy with pens, scribbling on the back of their hands (Steve borrowing my pen), but I eschewed such prompts, knowing full well without putting my glasses on I couldn’t have read anything anyhow.
Steve was summoned first – before the starters – and snuck in the fact that he felt like an impostor almost as soon as he started speaking. I felt that my thunder had been stolen: at UCL the week before, the orator at the honorary degree ceremony had singled out my early post about impostor syndrome as he talked about my writing. Certainly a suitable topic to talk about to graduands about to set out for the murky world of life beyond university, and one that encouraged a couple of people to come up to talk about it with me afterwards. But Steve had got there first and, as I munched my way through my starters, fielding comedic interventions from right and left, I tried to find a new angle. Twitter tells me I said ‘I want to make sure that academics understand that talking about their science is something that everybody must do’. I’m sure that’s correct, but the trouble with not having written a speech in advance is I only have vague memories of what I came up with on the spur of the moment.
Robin drew the short straw, in that he had to sit there with whatever impostor-like feelings he was suffering from and restraining himself from knocking back the wine until we got to the third course. Robin is of course famed for his double act with Brian Cox on the Infinite Monkey Cage, to which Paul Nurse referred in his words of introduction. And perhaps the most illuminating manifestation of impostor syndrome of the evening was contained in those words. Paul, with just about every accolade to his name from the Nobel Prize down, expressed anxiety about his appearance on the programme. Paul, who always seems so fluent, obviously didn’t fancy his chances as a comedian.
The reality is, and this was something responses to my original post showed so very clearly, most people feel like an impostor at least some of the time. If you end up being President of the Royal Society (and, on this particular night, President of the British Science Association as well) it means that, at the very least, you’ve learned how to cope with such feelings and not to let them get in the way. But it doesn’t mean that you’re somehow exempt. The more the topic is talked about, at least to my ears, the more it seems that those who don’t suffer from impostor syndrome are the rarities. This is why I think talking about it at a graduation ceremony is so appropriate (although you could argue this is already 3-4 years too late). People should not be left to suffer in silence thinking they are the only ones who felt when they get admitted to university/get an honorary degree – or even, for all I know, when they get rung up about a Nobel Prize – this must be a mistake; they didn’t mean me; they’ve got me confused with someone else and this is just a clerical error.
This week in Birmingham, the belief that the three of us Honorary Fellows shared was – why us, what am I doing here? It didn’t paralyse us so that we couldn’t say our few words to the assembled masses, it didn’t mean we weren’t delighted to accept the honour, but I believe for most people much of the time, that sneaky internal voice will continue to pop up and say ‘there’s a mistake here’. The advantage of advancing years is that you have a better chance of being able to say to that voice ‘shut up‘ and so get on with life.