the road to somewhere better

I find myself with a quiet moment, with all my MacBook’s 4 cores purring away and a whole bunch of drafts submitted. This brings a sense of accomplishment that puts me in the right frame of mind to return to the issue of impostors syndrome.

First let me start by saying that I wasn’t expecting the response I got. The number of hits went through the roof and, through coincidence or not, a series of posts from fellow bloggers on the same issue rapidly followed, leading to a wider discussion of the subject than I’d ever anticipated. If I’m honest it scared me, and I stopped reading and replying to blog comments and posts. It seemed like everyone I knew was pulling me to the side, calling or emailing me, comforting me and sharing similar feelings to those I had shared online. There were good and bad things about it. The good is that I did feel comforted. The bad is that I felt truly exposed, and I simply wanted no more part of the public debate. In time that feeling subsided somewhat, and as I promised an update – here I am.

At the moment, I’m feeling a little more confident. I deliberately took on higher profile roles, I invited myself to a couple of institutions to visit (they said yes!), and I’ve been more openly discussing my work with other people. These are things I traditionally go out of my way to avoid, so trust me – it did not come easily. Nobody is hailing me as the next big thing after sliced bread, but nobody has shouted to the wind that I am a waste of public money either. Given my natural expectations this has come as good news, and lifted my spirits.

I’ve also came to appreciate that yes, being self-critical is a good thing in science. I never thought it wasn’t, but I’m starting to appreciate that it is in fact vital. And luckily, I’m proficient at being self-critical. Of course, it’s just as vital to keep it under control. Self-sabotage is a nasty thing, and probably the most damaging way to leave an academic career. So when I criticize some aspect of my own work I actively try to put it under perspective. Would I be as critical if it was being presented to me by a peer? Almost always the answer is no. In practice I suspect I don’t do this exercise often enough – it’s not always easy to pin-point these moments of self-doubt on the fly! Especially when they come as naturally as breathing. But a start is always a start.

One of the good things about gaining a little more self-confidence is that even though I’m still considering careers outside of academia, I’m doing so less bitterly. I can cope with a career outside of academia just as long as I feel it’s truly my choice, and not a consequence of the way academia makes me feel.

Finally I’ll add that I still have horrible days, when I feel like the smallest being on this planet and utterly incapable of adding any shred of dust whatsoever to the great wall of human knowledge. I don’t think those days will ever truly go away. But they have been days, rather than weeks or months.

And that is progress worth writing about.


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