Dealing with the notorious imposter syndrome

A while back I was preparing for my thesis committee when an all-too-familiar thought struck:

“I have exactly zero data to show. My committee will finally realize how lazy/stupid/incompetent I am (insert your favorite derogative term here) that it was mistake to hire me and how on Earth could honest taxpayers be giving away their hard-earned cash so that this little girl can play around with expensive microscopes all day”.

And when, somehow, my committee meeting managed to pass without any major blunders, I reasoned that surely that must have happened since they were all still in their post-lunch slump during my presentation, otherwise how could they have totally overlooked my ignorance?

If you’re a PhD student, you’re probably familiar with these types of thoughts. Imposter syndrome runs thick in the veins of academics. In fact, it was originally termed the imposter phenomenon since it’s surprisingly widespread, especially among high achievers like ourselves.

So if you’ve ever felt incompetent and out-of-place, you should know that nearly everyone around you has felt this way at some point during their academic career. Granted, different people experience it to a different extent and some people don’t even experience it at all (though in my experience, the latter really are stupid and deserve a swift punch to the face) but I can guarantee that you are not alone in this.

While it’s true that imposter syndrome can keep us modest and grounded, more often than not it prevents us from being creative and trusting our hypotheses, and as a result it ends up hindering the progression of our PhD. That’s why it’s important to find ways of quashing these thoughts (or at least minimizing them) whenever they come up.

These are a few techniques that I find helpful for curbing my imposter syndrome:

Take a look at your academic friends

A smart friend of mine once told me “believe in me that I believe in you”. It might sound cheesy, but there’s some logic to it. If you’re in academia, it’s likely that your friends are of somewhat ‘above-average’ intelligence. If they accept you as one of their own, and if you trust their judgement, there’s a chance you’re not a complete airhead.

Also, while you might be able to wow a thesis committee three times in three years, it’s incredibly difficult to continuously trick your closest friends who are regularly privy to your drunken alter-ego. And if you did manage to fool them for years and years, you might want to consider leaving your job in academia to pursue a career in espionage.

You can also try opening up the topic for discussion. Share some of your worries with your friends (e.g. “I have no data) and then they can share some of their own concerns in return (e.g. I have no data). The conclusion will probably be that you’re all still optimising your protocols or that you’re all exaggerating to a certain extent (or that nobody really does have any data and all of science is doomed).

It’s important to note that this ‘openness’ should be done in moderation. It can be a slippery slope from getting some much-needed perspective to having a full blown pity-party.

Learn to accept compliments

Compliments aren’t handed out so easily, and academia is notorious for its lack of consistent personal feedback (both good and bad). So when someone says you’ve done a good job, just take it without second guessing.

Make a special effort to consciously turn off your imposter thoughts whenever anyone says anything positive. It’s not a given that your figures are nice or that you asked a smart question.

You can even take people asking you for advice or assistance as a compliment to your skills. The added bonus is that now when people ask you to give notes on their abstract or fix the microscope, you can take these as an ego boost rather than being irritated by the extra work.   

Teach

You probably have teaching credits you need to accumulate anyhow.

Teaching or tutoring a course in your field of expertise can be a nice reminder of just how much knowledge you’ve accumulated throughout your PhD. The same goes for supervising a rotation or Masters student. When you’re instructing new students, you’ll realize that a lot of the concepts you thought were entirely basic didn’t actually exist in your head a few years ago.

Now your imposter brain might jump up and say that it isn’t too hard to BS and impress a young, green student. As a former young student myself, I don’t really believe that this is true.

However, if you still aren’t convinced, then you could try teaching a PhD-level methods course for a technique you’re particularly proficient with. To this day, I am still in awe of anyone who can patch a neuron on their first try.

Take a break from criticizing yourself to critique others

We have a charming little tradition in my lab where we choose a nice-enough-looking paper for journal club and then spend the better part an afternoon tearing it to shreds.

If you read critically and scrutinize papers closely enough (yes, even Nature ones), you’ll realize that nobody knows everything, nobody thinks of every control, nobody uses the most correct statistical test for every experiment, nobody is typo-proof, and everybody chooses that buffer because they have a huge stock sitting around in the lab.

Reading critically doesn’t mean that you should find fault in every paper you look at. It just means that you shouldn’t accept everything you read at face value, regardless of the names and institutes of the authors.

Regularly practicing critical reading will make you feel like an expert and help you realize that even the Big Names aren’t too different to you.   

Look at yourself from a non-academic’s perspective

This often happens to me when I travel back home. Whenever I meet friends or family (and once I’m done being jealous of their comfortable bourgeoise lives with their ‘real’ stable jobs) and get around to talking about my own work, I get the rare chance to hear myself from an outsider’s perspective. If I take the look on their faces to mean awe rather than complete and utter confusion (go away imposter syndrome, not now…) – I realize that I’m doing something that society deems impressive.

Even more so, when I explain my work to non-academics, I realize how much I really do know, not only about neuroscience but also about biology in general (building blocks of life and stuff) – maybe all of that tuition didn’t really go to waste. In fact, if you ask my grandmother I’m a downright genius. She’s already picked out her dress for Stockholm.

Talking about your work with outsiders has a similar effect to teaching (read above), but in my opinion it can often sway your ego much more potently since it’s a lot less likely to be shut down by the imposter thoughts that make you anxious around your academic peers.

So every once in a while, venture outside of the academic bubble and talk about your work with one of the ‘normals’.

And if nobody is interested, maybe write a short description of your work in laymans terms, e.g. for a student blog (max 1500 words).

If all else fails – embrace it

In all honesty, if you really are an imposter and less intelligent than everyone around you, it’s unlikely that you’ve managed to fool them for so long. In that case there’s no point in trying to hide your imposition any further.

Provided that you have a solid contract, go ahead and surf that wave! Now you can feel free to ask all the stupid questions that come to mind, experiment with crazy ideas and put quirky cartoons in your PowerPoint slides. At least there won’t be any risk of your colleagues judging you since they probably already have.

And if we’re being truthful, embracing your inner imposter and throwing caution to the wind might just be the best thing all of us can do. After all, science should be completely unrestricted, inventive and overflowing with stupid cartoons in presentations.  

So, what techniques do you use to deal with your own imposter syndrome?

Tal Dankovich

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG)

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