It’s that feeling you get when your PhD supervisor asks you to give your first conference presentation. Or, at a later career stage, when someone suggests you apply for a fellowship. That feeling they must have got it wrong, you’re not the right person, don’t have the right skillset and experience and they’ll very soon find you out as incompetent and undeserving. This is impostor syndrome. I reckon most academics suffer from it at least some of the time. It doesn’t go away with age and seniority either. Established academics may feel it about different situations – chairing a tricky committee, perhaps, or giving a major keynote presentation – but I can assure you professors most certainly can be just as vulnerable to that feeling of being an impostor, suspecting you’ve only been asked to do something by mistake, or at least by someone mistaken in your capabilities.
I’ve written about this before, stirring up a lot of comment. Notably the comments to that earlier post demonstrated that this wasn’t simply an issue for women; many men held up their hands and said that they recognized the symptoms all too well although perhaps they are afforded less opportunity to talk about it. I’m not sure if it’s getting to be a more widely appreciated phenomenon, more talked about, or simply that now I myself have learned about it I’m more prone to notice other people mention it than I was some years ago. Anyhow, if you want to hear a wide range of scientists talk about their own experiences of the phenomenon, Stuart Higgins has prepared a podcast specifically on the topic.
(Stuart Higgins himself is a postdoctoral researcher in Physics in Cambridge. He has created a series of podcasts, titled Scientists not the Science, in which he interviews scientists from around the UK, typically focussing on a specific subject relevant to the interviewee. It won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog to know that I was interviewed on the subject of women in science – plus much more – here if you want to listen to that particular interview.)
This most recent podcast covering Impostor Syndrome shows that many highly capable researchers suffer from these feelings whatever career stage they are at. The nervous individual who may feel just a little reassured to know that they are far from the only person to suffer from these feelings, should also note that those interviewed are quite clear that however frequently they feel this way they are not going to let it stop them in their tracks. This determination to recognize the emotion and move on seems to me essential if you are going to survive in academia. If someone offers you an opportunity don’t say no immediately as soon as that feeling of panic kicks in, that fear that you’re not capable and will be unmasked as an upstart impostor. Give yourself time for reflection or you may be going to turn down an awful lot of wonderful opportunities. Doing so would mean that you are only going to hold yourself back.
Taking time for a moment’s reflection may allow you to realise that it is just that familiar inner devil piping up again inopportunely to frighten you off and that you need to thrust it out of your way. Alternatively that moment’s pause may indeed convince you that you really would be completely out of your depth and well advised to turn the opportunity down. It is important not to accept everything willy-nilly, but without taking a moment to think things through you may be going to make a very bad call. Even after that reflection you may make a bad call of course; we do all make mistakes! Nevertheless, even if you accept the challenge and were right to do so, don’t suppose that as D-Day approaches the inner impostor won’t continue to bug you. I like to think of impostor syndrome as akin to stage fright; something that never goes away but keeps the adrenalin pumping to make sure you don’t get complacent but continue to give your all.
Someone else who has thought a lot about impostor syndrome is Hugh Kearns, who has written a book on the subject. The book discusses the phenomenon from the point of view of psychology and suggests some ways of coping. He also blogs regularly on the subject. So, if you feel you are being crippled by impostor syndrome you may want to dip into his writing to get some ideas for how to overcome your anxieties. Or of course read a selection of my own posts where I seem to return to the theme of doing things one feels unqualified to do rather regularly (e.g. here and here). Or listen to Stuart Higgins talk to a range of scientists about their feelings, their fears, and how they deal with them. Maybe doing this will reassure you both that you are far from alone from feeling like an impostor and that you should try to tread on such feelings to free you up to fulfil your potential. You’ll never know what you can do if you always assume you can’t do anything you haven’t done before.