27 and a PhD

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Imposter syndrome

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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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.

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20 Comments

  1. David says:

    I think you call “imposter syndrome” plagues many people from all walks of life. As scientists, we are constantly comparing our intellects with those around us. It is no wonder that you run into many scientists who suffer from this syndrome. I learned quickly that it is all about perceived confidence. Even if you feel like an imposter, portray confidence, never know, it might actually be true confidence that you have always prevented yourself from expressing. Great topic again.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Oh compare we do, indeed. Which is what I used to do in school, and still do to some extent. Thanks for stopping by and for your words, they make total sense.

  2. Anthea says:

    I think that many people have this feeling and they just don’t admit it. Why? It takes courage to do so and people don’t want to.

  3. antisocialbutterflie says:

    I don’t know if you’ve gotten the chance to see the PhD comics movie, but this topic comes up in it. It was interesting to walk out of the screening and hear nearly every audience member bring up that moment and how it reflected exactly how they felt in grad school. It’s crazy how universal this is.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Yeah I did, back when I was a postdoc. You’re right, it does come up. I like that it at least brings in to the audience a bit, so like you say, the discussion can take place. It’s is SO importance. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  4. jsuix says:

    Incredible! I have always thought that only I felt these sorts of things. It’s very comforting to know that I’m not alone. Being a scientist is a source of pride for me, and I admit that I am a pretty prideful person that, even unintentionally, compares himself to the intellectual capability of other persons. That’s why I’m trying to convince myself that my research is actually good and not just some run-of-the-mill project that is purposed just for graduation.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      You’re right, you spend so much time convincing yourself (and others) that your research is awesome, relevant and so worth the investment. I hadn’t though of that. Indeed, you are not alone. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  5. Jessica says:

    I was reassured by two postdocs who expressed their feelings of imposter syndrome. One was a new postdoc convinced our boss would soon see through the facade and realize she wasn’t as amazing as she seemed. The other was seasoned postdoc on her way to a faculty position, saying, “Did they make a mistake for hiring ME?” I realized it happens TO EVERYONE at ALL levels, even the people WE look up to!

    Years into a PhD program, I still don’t identify as a “scientist,” more like a kid in a lab trying not to catch fire. 🙂

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hey Jessica! Thanks for stopping by. It does happen to a lot of people, to some it seems more than others. I wonder what the distribution is in terms of gender and step of the TT ladder. My official job title is Scientist, and weirdly enough, I feel really odd to say it. It’s kinda like, my job title should give me some sort of reassurance, and the constant flow of ‘thank yous’ and ‘you saved my day’, from users, and I still feel small and insignificant. But now that I can deal with some issues on my own with some newer instruments, it’s started to sink in. I can totally identify with the kid in the lab trying not to catch fire!

  6. shanta says:

    Hi Dr.27

    I almost cried when I read your blog entries because it is really what I am going through switching from completely different lab/ level of doing things and a different field to a top lab in cancer biology! Your blog gives me lots of hope that it’s not just me and I can find a way to deal with things!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Awwww, hi Shanta! Thank you for your kind words. Your comment captures exactly why I started posting. I thought I was alone, until I started talking to some of my classmates, and then fellow postdocs. Thanks for visiting and hope things get better soon. It is though, but it does get better. Big hug!

      • shanta says:

        Thanks!!!! Same to u!!!!! I did the long distancing before accepting this position and i do hope u get used to it again – never easy! My PI is the most cheerful person i have ever met although VERY busy and i am getting used to the new atmosphere where i am figuring things out every day about the dynamics of a highly competitive work environment! Thankfully my bay-mates are awesome and we have enough funding for now!

  7. […] program. Given how many people think real support groups can prevent imposter syndrome, having the support groups in place, as 27 and a PhD explains, could go a long way to decreasing feelings of […]

  8. […] the high stress sometimes felt by being alone at a conference (cue articles like this one on “Impostor Syndrome” in […]

  9. […] tough being bilingual, or trying to pass like one. In my case it amplifies my feelings of being an imposter. But I’ll be damned if I let a “well meaning” comment stop me from blogging. In […]

  10. Clinton Kerwin says:

    I think a lot of it is when even if you succeed at a course (or a job) it doesn’t even matter because that was expected of you. Success is irrelevant, but failure isn’t. Even when we succeed we still can’t give ourselves credit because it still just puts us at a certain competency level- and there are still people who do better.

  11. Chris Custer says:

    I was told by someone I care for deeply that she thinks she has this Impostors Syndrome. She is a highly successful academic at a leading ivy league university, is a leading figure in her field, and carries a huge amount of responsibility doing research. Though she is brilliant, she is extremely driven and has a hard time achieving and maintaining balances in her life.
    The roller-coaster confidence, the anxiety, the insecurity she experiences, pushing herself to the pint of exhaustion to meet deadlines, going on little sleep for days on end to get that report written and submitted – yeah, I think she does have it. Something is not right deep in her psyche. She feels that she is unlovable.
    I try to reassure her, to no avail, and I am frustrated. Seeing a therapist has had minimal effect. It does affect our relationship. What is the best way I can support her?

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Just keep reassuring her, and celebrate her accomplishments. That works for me when I do something, however small … helps me forget, if only for a moment, that I feel like an imposter 99% of the time

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