In which I grapple with my Inner Imposter

I’ve been thinking a lot about Imposter Syndrome this past week. It’s no surprise why: several funded positions have come up in the department recently, and the process of applying for science-related personal funding always brings out the worst feelings of inadequacy in me. All I have to do is read the ideal candidate description, with its lists of essential and desirable qualities, and the uncertainties surge up inside.

No matter how well qualified I am, I tend to feel as if the words must be aimed at someone else – someone better. In my mind’s eye, that someone is usually a brash thirty-something with a male face (even though I know from my colleagues that youth and a Y chromosome are no immunization against Imposter Syndrome). Worse, I feel a deep sense of uneasiness as I go about the process of spelling out exactly how and why my skills and experiences precisely fit the bill. It is, in fact, about the only writing task that drives this prolific writer to avoidance tactics like getting up to make a cup of tea. Penning a scientific manuscript, a ten-page research proposal – even a novel – is a doddle in comparison.

How very un-American of me, you might be thinking. And it’s probably true that I’ve been in Britain for so long that I’ve lost the ability to feel comfortable when unabashedly blowing my own horn, even under circumstances where it is definitely warranted. But there is something deeper afoot, I suspect. Some well-buried wiring in my brain – perhaps linked to an evolutionary caution against standing out, against sticking one’s head above the underbrush (only to get spotted and summarily munched by a passing tiger).

My friend, a prominent mid-career male scientist in academia, recently shared his top tip for overcoming Imposter Syndrome. He had read a few studies, like the one here, reporting that a confident posture can boost self-confidence. A bit worried about how nervous he tended to be under harsh scrutiny, and always a keen experimentalist, he decided to give the method a go during acute circumstances: an interview for a highly prestigious lectureship. Just before reporting for the interview at the relevant university, he went to a nearby loo, locked himself in a stall and tried out what looked to be the most evidence-based successful posture: standing boldly with feet wide, shoulders flung back, head high and hands on hips. After holding the pose for about five minutes and glaring defiantly at the door, he reported for the interview.

The results were remarkable. Normally quite understated, self-deprecatory and not prone to hyperbole of any sort, he told me afterwards that he was frankly surprised by the words that had come out of his own mouth. They were glib, assured and confident, and he hardly thought before he spoke. So far so good, right?

Except – some of what came out of his mouth, he confessed, was unabashed bullshit.

“Bullshit,” I asked, “in sort of an exaggerated way – like making your data sound perhaps slightly more solid than they actually are?”

“No, I mean, I have a feeling I actually made up a few things on the spot. I can barely remember what I said – it was as if I was on drugs.”

My friend was mortified at how the exercise had affected him, and vowed to never use the technique again. Even when it transpired that he had got the job. I’m not so sure, though…it sounds like a winner to me, provided that you somehow manage to rein it in properly and not spout off fibs. There must be some happy medium whereby a postural technique can impart confidence without turning you into a purveyor of fine fiction. Perhaps the dose was just too high, and a minute or two of the stance might suffice.

Somewhat coincidentally, my podiatrist recently had similar advice for me. I’m suffering from chronic postpartum foot pain, and he thought that improving my posture and gait might help alleviate some of the symptoms.

“When you walk,” he said, “imagine that you are striding down the red carpet and all the cameras are flashing. Stand tall and declare over and over in your mind, I’m Doctor Rohn!

Just before I sent off my most recent application last night, I texted “I’m Doctor Rohn!” to my friend in all caps, stood in The Killer Bullshit Stance for exactly two minutes, and then re-read my statement. Did it, on reflection, actually look a bit wishy-washy in places? After a bit of thought, I bolstered a few of the sentences to make them sound more assertive and self-possessed. (Don’t worry, I didn’t add any fictional Nature papers to my CV.) The confidence exercises actually did seem to make a difference.

All this is just fine and dandy, but for one niggling notion. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, goes the saying. Equally, just because you suffer from Imposter Syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good enough, either. Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to walk the line between self-confidence and bullshit. I just think that some people are better at it than others.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Women in science, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to In which I grapple with my Inner Imposter

  1. cromercrox says:

    What an interesting post. I think the cause of Imposter Syndrome is the disconnect between how the world sees you (successful scientist, auteur, blogger, gardener, salon hostess, parent, novelist, cell biologist and celebrated wit) and how you see yourself (achingly tired, worried about next job, hurty feet). The world will see the first part and not the second and will naturally think you’ll feel marvelous. Successful scientist, auteur, blogger, gardener, salon hostess, parent, novelist and celebrated wit, the world will say – what’s not to like?

    I have another thought about Imposter Syndrome – that it’s the empty vessels that make the most noise. It could be that the people who always seem to be so confident without making any effort are the ones with no inner life. They really believe the hype.

    On the other hand, maybe one needs some Yankee flag-waving from time to time.

    Many years ago when the world was young (ok, it was 1996) I was invited to apply for a prestigious temporary position at a prestigious American university. The position carried with it a prestigious prodigious whopping stipend. My sponsor – a prestigious professor well used to applying for (and getting) prestigious grants – asked me to send my CV, which I did.

    He spiffied it up.

    The document that came back for my approval was remarkable. When I first read it I couldn’t believe that the prestigious paragon described so glowingly within was me. On closer inspection I realised that none of the statements in that meconium encomium was false. Or even wildly exaggerated. They were just free of the self-deprecation one naturally inserts into one’s CV as a hedge against Imposter Syndrome – painlessly extracted by a third party.

    I got the position.

  2. Alasdair says:

    I’ve wondered if impostor syndrome acutely affects scientists because we are so used to experiments not working, that we find it hard to compute when they do. As such, we end up doubting whether it was our own capabilities as scientists that caused things to go well, or if it was something else (like luck, or a colleagues contribution). I’m sure, however, that we labrats are not unique in suffering from it.

    Regarding body postuer, if you ever get chance, I would recommend VOX Coaching. They’ve run a number of sessions at Nottingham which I’ve been lucky to attend. They breakdown things like body posture, voice style & volume, attitude etc and how it relates to the way you interact with people. Interesting stuff.

  3. Thanks for your kind words, Henry. Unfortunately, it seems that academia has a lot of time for hyped-up empty vessels. I have heard some rumors of an upcoming backlash (departments tired of hiring the Next Bright Young Thing [and their lucky Big Paper accessory] to beef up their credentials, only to end up with a mediocre egotist who doesn’t attend the weekly seminars, do their share of the teaching or manage to replicate the Big Paper act in their new setting), but these might be greatly exaggerated. I completely agree that getting someone else to vet your materials with a dispassionate eye is a good way of getting around the problem. I did that as well on my latest, but I couldn’t commit to all of her suggested changes – they were just too outlandish! Or so it seemed…hmmm.

  4. Alasdair, I think there is definitely something in what you say. Hell hath no skepticism like a scientist used to trashing others’ and their own theories on a daily basis. But for sure, it’s not limited to science alone.

  5. cromercrox says:

    Alasdiar is right – we scientists are sensitive to statements which might have no basis in fact – bullshit, in other words. But there’s no dishonesty in putting one’s own achievements in the best possible light. Just think about all the things you’ve done in your life – amazing things – about which you’ve forgotten or either think, well, everybody does these things, right? Commit to all the suggested changes to your CV made by your friend, and with a good heart.

  6. Stephen says:

    ‘The Killer Bullshit Stance’ sounds like an instance of a kind of ‘priming’ which I read about in Daniel Kahneman’s acutely observed psychological dissection of how we make judgements (Thinking Fast and Slow). Turns out, we are really bizarre creatures. Holding a pencil in your mouth forces you to smile and leads you to a more positive outlook, though I’m not sure how long the sensation lasts.

    I guess the fact that we don’t really understand how our minds are working is part of the origin of the discomfort that your friend felt at the change in his behaviour during his interview. It’s tough for those with any sort of integrity. Though, truth be told, there do seem to be plenty of bullshitters doing well for themselves in science — and in other walks of life.

  7. Paula says:

    Thanks for the insightful text, Jenny. The more I read and discuss Imposter Syndrome, the more I realise how common it is – and no, it’s not confined to science. Exploring techniques that boost your self confidence is a good start but it’s also about internalising that confidence, not as a one off, but as new way to look at our own achievements, abilities and capabilities.

    I’m a confessed Imposter Syndrome sufferer, trying to get better. It might be working, as I catch myself thinking “well done, you!” or even – heaven forbid – “you know best, so good of you to show it!” about things I do, say or write. For now, these are only occasional glimpses, but do make me more confident.

    I’m sure you have moments like that as well – just focus on them next time you need to write that all self-praising document ;-) (I know, easier said than done)

  8. Now all I need is a Biro that I am sure has not been exposed to any of my lab bacteria.

    Stephen, wasn’t the original source of this Darwin’s “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals”? I remember learning that his theory was that making an expression of an emotion can actually stimulate that emotion. Or as the Yanks would say, “Fake it to make it.” I really have to get around to reading DK’s book!

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  10. cromercrox says:

    Turns out, we are really bizarre creatures

    Speak for yersself, sunshine.

  11. Fred says:

    Well. Imposter syndrome aside, I had a look on the vacancies page of our favourite Stonewall Top 100 University, and I saw an opening that (reading between the lines of the person spec.) asks for

    * “demonstrated a proven ability in oral and written communication skills ” and “have a growing track record in high quality publications and conference presentations” – are these distinct qualities?
    Very much so, for a published fiction author who also writes peer-reviewed science.

    The job description spends 90% of the available space describing the Lecturer post and has one sentence describing the extra requirements for Senior Lecturer/Readership… so one might read that as evidence that should an applicant be successful in getting their proposal(s) funded, a built-in bargaining chip exists for said applicant to secure promotion in a year or two’s time.

    This all screams out “DR ROHN” in capital letters, as I read it. I wish you the very best of luck :)

  12. Fred, the problem is that I am already at the senior lecturer equivalent level, so I’m competing with bigger fish.

  13. xykademiqz says:

    What cromercrox said — it’s really useful to have someone else do the fine polish on your raw materials. It’s amazing how good things look when one removes unnecessary self-deprecation.

  14. Mark Field says:

    I know what you mean, I have actually not applied for positions that initially looked like a really good fit because the more I read the job description the more I convinced myself I wasn’t what they were looking for. One of the problems during an economic downturn and the aftermath is that job descriptions become very focused and demand a list of expectations so long that exactly fit what the employers think they need. The honest among us then don’t apply as we feel we can’t do it all (or we have the suspicion the description is so detailed so they can hire someone they know about already)

    Having someone else read and edit the CV/resume was a big eye opener as they put in lots of active descriptions of what I had done rather than my somewhat ‘shy and dry’ version of the story.

    The bottom line is to apply for the position and put in the suggested edits to the CV – you know you can do the job and would be a great choice. They are going to give the job to someone, so they might as well get someone who would be good at it. The stuff you can’t do immediately you can pick up quickly. As for competing with bigger fish, go for it – you are a bigger fish than you know.

    Another useful thing is to give referees a list of useful things they might like to include any support letter – this saves them time trying to remember exactly what you’ve done if they don’t have first hand knowledge of it.

    Good luck, maybe I should try to apply for a few new jobs myself.

  15. chall says:

    I went to a talk in the fall at my institute where this scientist presented research about power posing and also (which I thought was remarkable) what posture in front of a screen does to you. THey had measured the response time (as in when people rose from a chair and asked how much longer they were going to wait) for people watching a big computer screen, small laptop, ipad(tablet) and hand held phone. The smaller room you took (i.e. looking at the phone) the longer time (i.e. less confidence) it took for them to interrupt the silly social experiment (they were never going to fetch them).

    She also told us about (and showed references, I’ll look for them at work tomorrow) about the Xpose. She suggested to take a min in the bath room stall or in the lift before an interview or talk and strech into an X i.e. taking as much space as possible :) same thing, when measuring stress and confidence, people who has been in poses before seem less nervous and more confident. I thought itr was very interesting. I know for me, it’s a lot to do with what kind of shoes (and how I walk) to do with how confident I feel. I will never forget walking around in my thesis defense suit and shoes for days to feel comfortable and excuuding (sp?) “I know this. I am confident. I am great”

    as for your story Jenny, since I’m babbling about my stuff on yuor very good blog post, I wish you the best! I’m sure things will work out for you, academia and grants or something else. From where I’m standing, you’ve done some quite remarkable things with your life and research. It’s always easier to see from the outside I guess?

  16. cromercrox says:

    I forgot – and how could I? – that in your list of accomplishments you can number ‘political activist who has changed government policy through the power of reasoned argument.’ That’s a very rare thing indeed.

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