Impostor Syndrome: The psychological inability to internalize one’s accomplishments. Those experiencing this phenomenon go through their days, careers, programs convinced that they are frauds on the verge of exposure. This phenomenon is far more common than I ever could have expected - so common, in fact, that faculty at top-tier universities (*ahem* Cornell) hold meetings and seminars to discuss its impact. I had a conversation on this topic, quite unexpectedly last night, with a friend who is a solid scientist, avid birder, and fantastic teacher. I am sure I am not alone in admitting that “impostor syndrome” is something that has plagued me from day one of my PhD program. Who am I to contribute to a field saturated by scientists who have devoted decades to solving problems I only just realized in the past few years? I have hardly published. Everything I know is the result of reading others’ publications. A friend of mine once told me, long before I even dreamed of applying to graduate programs, that “you will feel like you are bullshitting everyone, the entire time you are working towards your PhD”. Sure enough, I frequently find myself wondering when I will be outed. But as a faculty member many years my senior (and literally hundreds of publications beyond me) put it “The university hired me; if I am not good enough, it is their problem."
So where does that leave us?
I can only offer my own perspective, and my assumption is that if passion and perseverance can eclipse your self doubt, even just for a moment, you are probably on the right path. I have met many people my age, most on very different life trajectories, who clearly fear their own perceived inadequacy, despite being incredibly intellectually gifted (yes, all of you). All I can say is….stop it. We all feel this way, at one point or another…or at ALL THE POINTS. Just stop. Unless your sole objective is to impress people, my guess is that you have nothing to fear.
At the end of the day, I think that this “impostor syndrome” phenomenon is actually a very good thing. It helps us (at least it helps me) maintain a sense of humility, and reminds us that as we strive to contribute to our chosen topic(s) of study, we do so by standing on some very tall shoulders. But beyond that, maybe think a bit more about encouraging your peers - especially students from cohorts younger than yours. Be supportive of their ideas, ***foster an environment of open discussion and idea-sharing*** . Often I think younger students are hesitant to share their ideas because they are worried they aren’t good (I know that is how I felt)…but how can anyone know unless we talk about them? If we are truly in pursuit of truth, then the more we talk the better. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not gearing up for a career in academia. I am also not naive about competition in job markets. I am simply saying that - and this is just my guess - helping your peers brainstorm and hone their ideas can only be a good thing for humanity, writ large. If you are interested in good, solid research, and if you care about the truth, then put competition aside…and put your own feelings of incompetence aside…and talk about your work. Talk to others about their work. Get the conversations flowing.
I have found that my fellow grad students know a lot about a lot, and that they, like everyone else, doubt their own knowledge and inferences…not to the extent that they don’t pursue research and publish, but definitely to the extent that they don’t openly go about discussing their work. “I mean, why expose yourself?” I don’t know…because you are probably right? And offering new perspectives and knowledge?
You love what you do, and you are probably pretty damn good at it, or you wouldn’t be here.
In the words of E. O. Wilson:
“I thought early in my career of older scientists, ‘If he could do it, so can I, and maybe better.’"
I guess it makes sense…be humble, respect your predecessors, and let’s move our fields forward! Be confident in yourself, and don't hesitate to share your insecurities - we all have them to some degree. It does the world zero good to hold them...letting them fester, embitter, and inhibit us. Don't fear criticism. Handle it with grace. Let it empower you.
The Creative Process
"So much of good science - and perhaps all of great science - has it's roots in fantasy, I suggest that you engage yourself in a bit right now. Where would you like to be, what would you most like to be dong professionally ten years from now, twenty years, fifty? Next, imagine that you are much older and looking back on a successful career. What kind of great discovery, and in what field of science, would you savor most having made?
I recommend making scenarios that end with goals, then choosing ones you might wish to pursue. Make it a practice to indulge in fantasy about science. Make it more than just an occasional exercise. Daydream a lot. Make talking to yourself silently an important pastime. Give lectures to yourself about important topics that you need to understand. Talk with others of like mind. By their dreams you shall know them...
To bring the end safely home is the goal of the creative mind. Whatever that might be, wherever located, however expressed, it begins as a phantom that rises, gains detail, then at the last moment either fades to be replaced, or, like the mythical giant Antaeus touching Mother Earth, gains strength. Inexpressible thoughts throughout flit along the edges. As the best fragments solidify, they are put in place and moved about, and the story grows until it reaches an inspired end."
~ E. O. Wilson