Wednesday, August 23, 2017

I have the Imposter Syndrome.

At a recent meeting, I had a long discussion with a student about their struggles with the imposter syndrome - not just having it, but even admitting they had it. I was moved and inspired. I asked the student if they wanted to post their story on my blog, anonymously if they chose. So here it is. I hope you find it as helpful, honest, and - indeed - inspiring as I did. (Andrew).

A few months back I was chatting with a friend and collaborator about my post-doc plans and options. He kept throwing what I felt were outrageous suggestions at me, funding that I wasn’t competitive for at all. I brushed the suggestions off. I told him that I would look into it, but needed to think more realistically, that I wasn’t in that league. He cut me off and said, “you need to get over this imposter syndrome thing.” To which I laughed and responded, “imposter syndrome? I think I have anti-imposter syndrome.”

I know anti-imposter syndrome is not a thing. But I really did not identify with the way that I heard imposter syndrome described. I had heard young PhD students talk about it as though it was an inevitable consequence of their genius. It was almost like humble bragging – “Oh of course I have imposter syndrome, I’m at _______“ (insert ivy-league institution of your choice here). I’ve never heard someone from a lesser esteemed school make such a claim. No, we know we are the academic scraps, having been rejected from far better schools for various reasons. Or at least that’s the mindset many of us have. I felt like people routinely under-estimated me. I don’t have imposter syndrome, I told myself. Quite the opposite, I was trying really hard to be accepted into a world I had longed to be a part of for so long. I knew that I would prove myself worthy if given the chance. I had so much confidence in myself and my abilities. I had an “I’ll show you who I am” kind of attitude, and it worked for me.

Actually, it worked really well for me. Doors opened. Connections were made. Suddenly I was receiving awards and praise from some well-known people. People not only accepted me once they saw what I was capable of, but for the first time in my academic career, people had expectations of me! Overnight it went from “who are you” and “you’ll probably fail but go ahead and try” (yes that was actually said to me), to “you always give such great talks” and “I can’t wait to see the results from your next project.”

And with that my friend’s words came storming back into my mind. Maybe I did have this imposter thing after all? For so long I believed in myself when few others did. I had felt like I belonged somewhere that I wasn’t being accepted into. I felt a need to prove myself. And now that things were finally falling into place and I was accepted, I couldn’t shake the thought that “maybe they were right all along, I don’t belong here.” I felt myself spiraling into an anxiety induced despair as I stressed over not having published enough. This was fueled by comments from mentors like “you know your reputation exceeds your publication record” and “you have so many publications on this topic, oh wait, you only have 2?” And the chasm between my metrics of success and people’s opinion of me seemed to grow at an ever-quickening pace.

But I was still not willing to accept that I had imposter syndrome. Things came to a head over a 72 hour period at a recent conference. Expectations were high, reinforced by nearly every conversation I had. “Please expect less of me” I found myself timidly asking people. This was not me. I am not timid. My self-confidence was shattered and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I ignored it. I tried to psych myself up. But my usual mantra of “I’ll show them” was no longer valid. Instead I was grappling with an internal monologue along the lines of “I have to show them again. And again. And again. And if I don’t, they’ll know they were right before, that I don’t belong here.” I was one talk away from people realizing I was a one-trick pony, one conversation away from people losing their confidence in my abilities, one failure away from the confirmation of “you don’t actually belong here.” I felt like I was caught in a storm of expectation and praise that was wholly unwarranted and that I couldn’t possibly live up to.  I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t give a good talk. I know I give good talks, it’s one of my strengths. But I was paralyzed with fear that silently people would be thinking “oh this is crappy science” and “her previous work was so much better, what’s this nonsense?”. And maybe this is where the root of my imposter syndrome comes from. I perform well, but that doesn’t mean my ideas are good – maybe people are just blinded by the well-thought out presentation and pretty slides and not impressed by the science itself.

The night before my talk I sent a couple of text messages to trusted friends admitting that my confidence was gone and that I was struggling with expectations. The next morning I woke up to a flurry of messages reassuring me. Before my talk I spoke with a friend about what I was feeling in person and she reassured me that she often felt that way too, and that I had no reason to doubt myself. My confidence temporarily bolstered, I stood up and delivered a great talk that was well received. And I realized then that I could never let myself get that worked up about expectations again. More importantly, I realized I needed to talk to people about this. And so, the rest of the conference I talked to some of my conference buddies about this “imposter” feeling I’d been having. I was shocked at how many people responded by telling me that they were dealing with it too. People who I admire, consider successful and confident, and who I wouldn’t have guessed experience this. Sharing our experiences was cathartic for me. 

I’m sharing this story because I’ve been told it’s a unique perspective on imposter syndrome. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. My story isn’t meant to teach you about imposter syndrome, or to describe what everyone feels. It’s my story, that is all. I agreed to post this because I didn’t think my experience fit with what I understood imposter syndrome to be. But when I was able to give a name to it and talk about it with others, then I could start moving past it. Who knows, maybe someone out there is reading this thinking “Hey, that’s my experience too!” And maybe this will help them begin to deal with it. I hope that someday I’ll move past this entirely, and that self-doubt will be fleeting and merely a check of my humility. Until then, I’ve found a few strategies that keep me grounded when I begin to doubt myself:

1.     I re-assess my self-worth. I now keep a list of the compliments I get and screenshots if they are in digital form. I look at them to remind myself that I do belong and that the people I trust believe in me.

2.     I remind myself that I’m on track and re-assess my metrics of success. When I stress about my pace of productivity, I look up the CV of a young career scientist. Nine times out of ten, I’m right on track when I look at the pace and number of publications. Keeping my expectations and comparisons realistic is important. I’m right where I should be at this career stage, and I’m on pace to be where I should be at the next. More importantly though, I remind myself that everyone progresses at a different pace and there is no universal standard of success.

3.     I reinforce my accomplishments. I made a list of all of my awards, grants, invited talks, etc. When I need a little extra boost I look at the list to remind myself that so many people couldn’t possibly be wrong about my potential and my abilities.

4.     I talk about it. Not to everyone, but I have talked about this with a few trusted people and have been surprised to learn that they had similar feelings. This issue is far more common than we think it is. It is comforting to know that people I look at as confident and successful are dealing with this too. I can’t help but think if people were more open about this topic, then maybe I would have talked it through with my mentors instead of having a near meltdown over it. 

One final note, I have chosen to post this anonymously for several reasons. Feeling like this is a mental health issue that I do not want to be associated with is not one of them. On the contrary, I will gladly talk / commiserate with you in person. However, I did not want to open myself to judgement, assumptions, or personal attacks from people I do not know. I also did not want to invite personal compliments – this was not a humble brag and I don’t want you to tell me I’m awesome because you think I need to hear it. Actually, I think that would be counterproductive. To my friends, you probably know I wrote this, so thanks for being awesome. To those who don’t know who wrote this, I’m probably your student, post-doc, colleague, collaborator, or conference buddy – think about that.


  1. I know how competitive and difficult this world can be, and there are tons of reasons to make people think you are great and productive and all.
    But if you change a little bit your perspective on this world, you may see that there are people of different values, different talents, different levels. They are not all that great in every departements.
    It is difficult maybe to accept that some of them will always be superior to you. But are they really ? It is equally difficult to accept that not all of them are great - meaning, you can judge that you outcompete some people that already got a nice position when you have not, maybe (that guy would be me ;-) ).
    But Science does not really need a bunch of glorified performers with incredibly long publications list. Science needs people to think about where they do their best, how, by working alone or in connexion.
    You are the best at talking and showing ? that's not given to everyone, how can you serve Science with that ?

    As you say: " everyone progresses at a different pace and there is no universal standard of success. "

    Also, because it seemed to me that you were really concerned with your record list, maybe you should read this paper by Geman and Geman published last year:

  2. Jacques, great link, thanks for that. I guess maybe there are different paths toward imposter syndrome, but it sounds like the endpoint the anonymous writer reached was similar to the endpoint reached by others with imposter syndrome, just sort of from the opposite direction. Yeah, it's a very difficult thing that I think many, even most, academics struggle with. Few academics who I've spoken to about imposter syndrome say they don't feel it. Perhaps the important thing is to learn to work through it – to just keep doing what you need to do despite the feelings of insecurity. I learned to do that, during my PhD, but the feelings never went away, and they undermined some of my enjoyment of the process. Imposter syndrome wasn't the reason why I decided to leave the academic rat race – I could and did work through it. But I sure don't miss feeling that way, now that I'm out of the rat race. In the end, I completely agree with you, Jacques: there needs to be more appreciation for individual strengths, for the ways in which different people are good at different things. Some people are good at talks, some aren't. Some publish a lot, some don't. Some collaborate, others are better solo. But hiring committees seem to often want a single archetype of the Ideal Scientist, who is good at all things, collaborates with everyone, publishes constantly in top journals, brings down huge grants, etc. That is not realistic, and besides giving everybody imposter syndrome, it also drives out a lot of people who don't resemble that archetype, but who would make important contributions to science in their own way. How many of the great scientists of the 20th century would have been rejected by a modern hiring committee? Personally, in the end, I have found a niche that leverages all of my unique abilities, and that I'm really good at, and that makes me happy, and that doesn't give me feelings of imposter syndrome – but I had to give up on the rat race in order to do it. There are not many niches out there like the one I found, and who knows how long mine will last. That is a bad state of affairs for science.


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