the impostors amongst us

I’ve been debating about whether or not to write this post. It’s about the so called Impostor’s Syndrome. If you’re an academic, especially a PhD student, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s not something that happens only in academia, but something which I think academia exacerbates.

I’m not an expert, but I would describe it as a state of mind in which one does not attribute their own success to their own ability, but rather to luck, chance or clever trickery. It can result in severe feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, stemming from a constant fear of being ‘found out’ and it can lead to more serious clinical conditions, such as depression. After all, luck never lasts, and there’s only so much we can do to fool our peers into thinking we know what we’re talking about.

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because I identify with these symptoms, and they have recently become so severe I’ve actively started pursuing a career outside of academic research. Because I love research so much, being driven out by these feelings only increased my anxiety to the point I could no longer function as a normal person.

Until very recently I had never confessed the extent of the problem to anyone, and things got very bad indeed. It’s not only mentally draining to feel this inadequate – and fearful – all the time but it’s also had a significant impact on my mental and physical health. Also importantly, it’s bad for my career because I sabotage myself by actively discouraging interactions that put me on the spot (networking in conferences, talks, taking on high-profile projects, etc).

So why write this now? If I’m honest, mainly out of desperation. I’m very tired of feeling so stupid all the time, and on top of that putting on a very brave and confident face because that’s what is expected of a young post-doc working in cutting-edge science. But as I started opening up about this, I’ve learned that I’m far from being alone. I’ve learned that people I have in very high regard feel the same and, from what is now personal experience, I learned that it helps to know that. I also learned that these depressive feelings are not normal, and that seeking professional help is perfectly justified.

Most of all, I’ve started to realise that these feelings are probably decoupled from scientific ability, and that they can be helped. I don’t think I’ll ever be a very confident scientist but I now hope that, with help, I can get myself in a position where I can rationalise myself out a depressive episode induced by these feelings. That is something worth fighting for.

It took a number of dear dear friends to spell these things out for me, because even the obvious stops being plausible when things get rough. For that I’m so very thankful. In the meantime, maybe spelling this out for other people out there will help them – I don’t know. I do know that being open about it can only be a good thing, and that being a happier person can only result in a better scientist.

I may post updates on how this battle progresses. They’ll be for my own benefit more than anything else but perhaps they’ll offer some insight and relief to others too, and that would be no bad thing.

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14 thoughts on “the impostors amongst us

  1. I’m not sure what to write here, but feel I have to say something. I stumbled across this when my boyfriend sent it to me as something I could be suffering with. I have never heard of this problem but have to say it’s true in every way.

    I am currently coming to the end of a PhD in physics, and have to say its been one of the most frightening and exhausting experiences of my life. I genuinely love the physics I do but am now finding I can’t imagine trying to get through a post-doc interview, the thought of someone “finding out” what I have managed to cover up for the last 3 years is driving me away. I am actively looking for other paths too.

    I would also like to point out that while I completely agree with you that knowing other people feel like this helps immensely, on the other side knowing people (for me very close friends) who are completely confident in their own abilities and show no doubt in this being what they want to do makes it worse (especially as I would never wish these feelings on anybody, so try to feel glad for them). I find that because I am not certain this is for me I believe there must be something wrong with me, or that I must be wrong for academia.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I may not continue in science but at least I know I am not alone. :)

    1. Thanks :) I live in awe of my confident friends, so I can relate to what you say. I can’t really offer any advice, other than saying to you what others have said to me – that perhaps these feelings are decoupled from ability, and that if they start affecting your life and your health in any serious way then you shouldn’t think they are something you have to live with. It took other people to tell me what ‘serious’ is, because it’s easy to loose all track of reality when things get really rough.

      I’m happy you found some comfort in this post, and I hope that if you do leave academia that it is for the right reasons – good luck whatever you do! xx

      1. [sorry, just a random postdoc stranger here] “I live in awe of my confident friends” – perhaps all they are doing is also “putting on a very brave and confident face”, just like you, and are just as uncertain. And just because people are more confident doesn’t mean they are better in their job. I doubt there is much correlation between the two. I’ve seen much nonsense presented with much confidence! :) I think some uncertainty about your work is healthy and makes you a better scientist, because you see your inadequacies and look critically at your own work. Work-related inadequacies can be relatively easily solved by keeping an open mind and keep learning. It shouldn’t become so bad as you describe of course!

  2. Like many people I totally relate to this syndrome. Always good to read that I’m not alone in this.

    However I have a question for you: what if you left science? It could be very well possible that you will suffer from the syndrome doing any job. And then doing a job you don’t really like and not believing in it seems worse to me than doing a job you like and suffering from it.

    Good luck with all this anyway :)

    1. Touché! I’ve been thinking about this, especially as I know a number of people who suffered from this and have since left academia. The consensus is that these feelings don’t go away, but tend to be more easily managed. There’s a perverse combination of factors in academia that make this a lot worse, it would seem. And in any case, mine was far from being a rational decision – more out of blind desperation or something. I think I’m giving research another go, but I’m keeping an eye out for jobs outside as well. As you say, at least it’s a job I know I like, so that should count for something!

      –r

  3. Hi Rita,

    I somehow reached a similar status while doing my PhD (still ongoing). A book by Robert Kelsey entitled ‘What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can’ covers the point you make quite well, and might be worth reading, I found it very interesting :-)

  4. I’m a very average scientist, I think (and that’s probably an over-estimate) and I’ve thought that I’m an imposter at many points during my career (I’m a “senior” postdoc, I guess, now)… but I just wanted to reassure you that you probably know your little niche of your subject better than 99% of the rest of the astronomical community. I still get people coming up to me today to ask me about the work I did for my PhD thesis… not because it was particularly wonderful, but because I’m one of the few people that has looked into exactly what I looked into. And that’s probably the case for you, too. By nature, a PhD is meant to break some fresh ground, and that little bit of new knowledge makes you an expert. You may not be able to answer questions on the wider impact of your work, or on the intricacies of the underlying physics, or the interactions of your research with some other researcher’s pet project that they’ve been working on for umpteen years… but what you’ve done and what you do is valuable, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time!

    (Please also see my comment on Sarah K’s blog, with the trackback above)

  5. I really hope you don’t leave science. Let me try to say why…Ok so yes, there is undoubtedly some luck in research, but also other important factors such as which projects you are allocated to work on, who your advisors and collaborators are. But there’s no way you would have got to where you are now if you weren’t good at what you do. Have you considered you might be both lucky AND deserving. I am speaking as someone who would have liked a career in science but whose PhD just went so badly wrong (I won’t go into why) that I didn’t feel it would be ever possible to “catch up” the lost time, that I decided to leave research. I was right to leave, I think, but you have no reason to give up. I still feel that a little bit of me died during those years as a student, and I feel envious of those whose PhD projects were better supported. I wish I was in your position of having had some good luck, and I truly hope your so-called “good luck” continues! X

  6. Hi Samia,

    Thanks for writing – It was nice to read! You’re right, I’m lucky (in a good sense) to be here and I shouldn’t throw it all away lightly. I’m feeling a little better about science in general at the moment, so it’s not a decision that will need to be made in the near future. Sorry to hear about your PhD – unfortunately I know a bunch of other examples that turned sour for no other reason than bad luck with supervision and/or projects… it’s never pleasant and I’m very *very* thankful for having hit pot luck there.

    Hope all’s well! xx

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