Thursday, December 26, 2019

Impostor syndrome: Own your abilities


I’m super excited to now be sharing thoughts and advice on navigating academia via my monthly Office Hours column in Chemical & Engineering News! I’ll be posting unedited versions of my columns on delay here on my blog, and you can catch the best and latest versions (and contribute your questions!) at my C&EN Office Hours site. As always, comments welcome – these topics impact us all, and we should all be part of the dialogue!

How do you combat imposter syndrome during big transitions (undergrad to grad school, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to faculty, etc) and how do you prevent imposter syndrome from affecting your success? -Sara Dubbury

Our own thoughts can be our best friend and our worst enemy. They fuel the thrill of creativity and discovery, they encourage us to learn and grow, and they form the foundation for our connection to others. But, they are also the source of cruel insecurities that can discourage us from taking on a challenge or prevent us from being able to give it our best. Two types of insecurities that frequently plague us as scientists are self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Self-doubt is thinking that you’re not good enough to get somewhere that you want to be or achieve something that you want to do. Impostor syndrome is when you do get to that place or achieve that goal, and then your thoughts tell you that you don’t deserve it. Worse, they tell you that everyone around you knows that you don’t deserve it. Ouch.

So, are these thoughts accurate? Probably not. Our insecurities are usually based upon fallacies – deceptive thought patterns that our mind casts upon reality.  In the case of impostor syndrome, I’ve seen two main fallacies. The first is a “subjective” belief that you don’t belong where you are – you can’t quite put your finger on a specific way in which everyone is better than you, but you sense that they are perfect and you know that you are not. This is especially common during the transitions that you mention – you are joining a new lab or workplace with new people, and while you are struggling to get your bearings and figure out how to be successful there, everyone else seems to have it mastered.  The second type of fallacy is a seemingly “objective” one – it’s based on data, and as scientists, we all love data, right? This happens when you look around and recognize that you are an outlier compared to everyone else around you.  This happened to me recently at a symposium in which I was invited to participate. As I surveyed the list of speakers, it quickly became apparent that by all metrics – seniority, job title, awards – “one of these people was not like the others,” and that person was me.

How do we counter each of these? I often hear the advice to do something that builds up your confidence and helps you to convince yourself that you deserve to be there. But, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this advice. First, that’s just a really challenging thing to do, especially in the face of data that might seem to suggest otherwise, such as the case with my symposium invite. Second, this creates a slippery slope toward entitlement – if I convince myself that I deserve to be somewhere, then I might think that I no longer have to work hard to excel. I might also convince myself that the people who didn’t make it to that place don’t in fact deserve to be there. That’s not a thought pattern that I want to spend time in.

My approach is to instead recognize that it really doesn’t matter where I deserve to be or not be, because I am there and I’m thankful for that and I want to make the most of it. It also helps to take a step back and change my perspective on the situation. In the case of starting out in a new lab or stage of your career, recognize that the people around you seem to know what they’re doing because they’ve been there for a while, and that they were once just like you – the new person feeling lost and struggling to figure everything out. They developed their knowledge and skills by working hard and improving each day, and you can do the same. In the case of an “objective” set of metrics that suggest you don’t belong, consider that you might be looking at the wrong metrics. Our thoughts can make us downplay the importance of areas where we excel, while magnifying the importance of areas where we struggle.

Importantly, fighting impostor syndrome is something that you don’t have to do alone. Enlist the help of friends, colleagues, and mentors to remind you that you’ve developed expertise and thrived in new situations before and can do that again, or to point out the unique set of skills and accomplishments that you have but might not recognize.  Finally, if all else fails, when your thoughts tell you that everyone around you has it all figured out, recognize that they probably also got it right when they chose to hire you or invite you.

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