27 and a PhD

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Imposter syndrome

My submission to the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival on Imposter Syndrome brought to my attention by Scicurious.

Imposter syndrome

I can’t do it. I’m too dumb. I’m like the dumbest person ever. I’m not good enough, capable enough. Soon, my boss will discover what a big failure I am. I will be fired. I can’t read, write or analyze papers …. I should do something else.

Ever heard those before? Ever said them before? To you? To someone else? Yes, that’s the battle I face every day. I feel like no matter what I do, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve things enough, I will never be good enough and that as soon as people discover the true, incapable me, they will call my bluff and send me packing. I can’t be a good scientist, my thesis committee gave me the PhD (out of the goodness and mercy of their hearts, or because they were tired of seeing me in the lab and wanted me out once and for all).

I was always a good student; I got medals and prizes to prove it. My teachers and my family doted on me. I was always the model student and I was very aware of it. Some of my friends held me as the smartest cookie at school, because I excelled academically and seemed to do it effortlessly (at least that’s how it looked to them, reality was different). In 7th grade, one of the smartest students I’ve ever met transferred to my school. I was in awe of her, I wanted to be like her … in fact, I wanted to be her, because she was smart, capable, thoughtful, pretty and friendly … everything I wanted to be.

We graduated and she did a test to enter engineering school, which she passed with flying colours. I wasn’t terribly great at math, though I did like science, which is why I chose to study biology rather than physics, chemistry or engineering. Those were disciplines that only bona fide smart people would excel in. Biology was easy. I wouldn’t excel in the tough disciplines, because I had convinced myself that I couldn’t do it.

You could say that I’ve always had this feeling that I am less capable, deserving and achieving than everyone else. Even when I proved every single person who wished me ill, as I started in my freshmen year in college in one of the toughest schools in my neck of the woods, wrong. Even when I understood what professors taught, I still felt less.

Then came the two summer internships I did, one in which I failed miserably, one in which I excelled. They key to my success (and also to my failure), in my mind, was the mentor’s level of involvement in my success. In the first program my PI was an assistant prof, with a huge lab, and tons of equipment, but he was always buried in grant applications and writing papers. In my second lab my PI was an honorary this and that, who’d been tenured since before I was born. His lab was also small, they did very basic research, but they did it with passion and wanted to teach me every little detail of why sucrose gradients were important, what a peristaltic pump did, and how to craft a solid scientific paper word by word.

In grad school I looked for a mentor like that, and found her. My boss had a small lab, spent tons of time with her students, and oversaw every detail. Sure, she was a control freak, but no one ever complained about our papers, posters or presentations … in fact, people wanted to be like us, they wanted to present and do things as carefully and detail-oriented as we did.

My postdoc boss was a tenured prof, with a successful track record, but again, he spent a lot of time on his desk, writing apps and papers and going on trips. And while I should have been able to do things on my own, I desperately wanted his approval and insight. I couldn’t take it anymore, so due to this, and other reasons, I bailed out, less than two years after joining my postdoc lab.

I barely see my current boss, but I have extremely capable labbies to lean on, and an immediate supervisor who’s not afraid of teaching and showing and has time to walk me through the ropes of some of the most intricate details of our branch of structural biology which I had no clue existed. I strive to be like him whenever I’m teaching someone, and I can teach, that I can do. I am needy, I know it. It’s not healthy and I don’t know how to overcome it. My insecurities take the best of me, and even in a job I like, in a place I like, with extremely talented and gifted people, I still feel less, I am afraid that I’ll make a mistake that puts millions of dollars at risk, and people’s projects on the line. I’m always asking questions, always looking for reassurance, because I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to look like a stupid, clueless idiot that can’t do.

So, what can institutions do?

I think a first step would be to raise awareness that it exists. To give cold, hard facts about how imposter syndrome manifests itself, and how many of us have these feelings and fears. PIs and other personnel should be aware of it, and know that the signs to look for and should be able to offer some guidance, whether it’s by their own experience, or by referring their students to a psychological centre at school. A second step could be to form support groups to discuss issues and feelings and give a sense of community, of “I’ve been there, and it can be overcome, or at least minimized to a manageable level.” When I posted my story on how I failed (and then passed) my qualifying exam, I got many emails and comments on people looking for guidance and sharing their stories. It was incredibly inspiring (and also heartbreaking) to read those experiences. Blogging has helped a lot … but I know I have ways to go still. Third, there should be institutional support, whether by career counselors, or psychologist to help manage and overcome (if possible) the feelings of inadequacy. Those are my two cents.