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Academic life as an Impostor (Syndrome)

By Roberta Rigo

The image is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1576995

Have you ever felt like having to justify yourself for your achievement? When I was at high school, I had good grades because teachers always asked me the “good questions”; when I was accepted to the university of my dreams, I was lucky that the committee shared my same point of view. When I heard my voice saying that I had my PhD scholarship because recruiters found me funny, I thought that there was a problem. How was it possible that I had spent so much time studying, travelling and trying to develop new skills and I couldn’t even find the value my efforts? I assumed I was just lucky.

That same night I did some research on internet and I found a video of a girl talking about the “Impostor syndrome”.

The impostor syndrome is a concept introduced by two psychologists in the late seventies [1]. It defines the psychological pattern that leads people to think that they have a role, not because of their competences, but because of lucky conditions. If you ever experienced this, it is possible that you felt like an impostor, acting in a role that does not belong to you, that you don’t reserve.

Looking at that video was a relief to me, now I knew that there was an explanation to my very unlikely ways to justify my successes. I started to talk about it with people around me, and I found that most of them, no matter if they are men, women, PhD or post-doctoral students, felt the same way.

The impostor syndrome is widely spread in highly specialized environments independently from gender and career advances [2], but having open discussions about it is not a common practice in academic life [3]. It’s clearly not easy to talk about our own insecurities. Not when the value of a researcher is based on peer recognition and when the highly competitive environment pushes us to present ourselves as experts who know what they are doing and that deserve funding and recognition. No matter if it doesn’t reflect the private image, we have of ourselves. To talk about insecurities can spoil the image we believe others should have of us.

So often, for fear of been perceived as illegitimate, we don’t ask the question we had in mind; for fear of failure, we don’t go for that super idea we had; for fear of doing an imperfect job, we don’t assume any unnecessary responsibilities, or we do not say to anyone that we published a paper.

Our ITN is made up of people coming from different academic background and my colleagues and I are living in countries that are different from our hometowns. These are incredible opportunities of personal and academic growth, but they can also worsen the feeling of being an impostor. In the first meeting we had in the Netherlands, someone was talking about the use of fire in the Eemian period. It seemed such a clear topic for everyone that I didn’t dare to ask, but in my mind I was repeating to myself: “what the hell is this Eemian”, until I googled it.  The same thing happens regularly in my everyday life in France where people have different cultural references. Not having the same cultural and academic background of my colleagues is one of the most enriching part of my project, the thing that nourish the most my need of discover. At the same time, it often makes me feel that I know less than the others do and less than I should.

In an academic culture that expects excellence, normalizing the fact that perfection is not what is asked to an early-stage researcher, is essential to fight against the paralyzing feeling of not being enough for the role we have. Only in an environment that does not look for perfection, but improvement, and that normalize the failure, the rejections and the struggle I would feel comfortable and legitimate. I can train my brain to recognize my strength, but no way I’m going to believe I’m perfect, or that my work is.

Recognize that the feeling of not being legitimate is largely due to the environment we are surrounded by, and not as individual issue, can be an important step to overcome this syndrome [4]. It’s not by chance that this syndrome was initially called the phenomenon of the impostor.

So, what should we do if we don’t believe that living with the feeling of not being enough is the solution?

To acknowledge this phenomenon as a collective issue, my colleagues and I organized a moment to share our thoughts about this subject. Here are some of the strategies we use to overcome our feeling of being impostors:

  • Developing emotional tools to deal with challenges such as learn how to ask for help. You can start from little things: instead of asking a colleague to help you doing a graph, you can ask if she/he likes the colors or the style. You will probably get a lot of good tips to do a better graph;
  • Enable conversation on this topic: you are not alone and, probably the most unsuspected people share the same feelings;
  • Train your brain to rephrase your own sentences: instead of thinking “Everyone knows it. I must be in the wrong place”, try to say to yourself “There is something I don’t know, I should look for the meaning so I can have better conversations with my colleagues”;
  • Take a stock of the things you have learned during your PhD. Focus of some concrete indicators of your advancing (i.e. I learned how to use new functions in R), not general improvements (i.e. I’m getting better in coding). General beliefs are easy to interpret, and you could always say to yourself that is not true.

Here is a list of sources we use to shut up our inner voices and recognize our strengths and progress. Spread the word and keep in mind that we are geographers, economists, archeologists and natural scientists. These are just our personal tips and they don’t replace the help of an expert when needed.

Podcasts:

UnF*ck your brain

The CUT – we are all burned-out

Science of happiness

Blog:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-24/emma-serisier-stempower-heywire-trailblazer-stem-women-impostor/100077232

Comic strip (in French)

http://socio-bd.blogspot.com/2018/11/la-recherche-cest-aussi-avoir-le.html?m=1

Web page to recognize the skills you developed during your PhD:

http://www.mydocpro.org/fr


Thank you to my colleagues that shared with me their impostor thoughts and to the ones that encourages me to share mines.

Bibliography

[1]P. Calance and S. Imes, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 241–7., 1978.
[2]D. M. Bravata, S. A. Watts, A. L. Keefer, D. K. Madhusudhan , K. T. Taylor , D. M. Clark , R. S. Nelson , K. O. Cokley and H. K. Hagg , “Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review,” J Gen Intern Med, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 1252-1275, 2019.
[3]L. M. Jaremka, J. M. Ackerman, B. Gawronski, N. O. Rule, L. R. Tropp, M. A. Metz, L. Molina, W. S. Ryan and B. S. Vick, “Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About: Repeated Rejection, Impostor Syndrome, and Burnout. Perspectives on Psychological Science,” vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 519-543, 2020.
[4]S. Feenstra, C. T. Begeny, M. K. Ryan, F. A. Rink, J. I. Stoker and J. Jordan, “Contextualizing the Impostor “Syndrome”,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, p. 3206, 2020.

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