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.