19 June 2013

Believing in imposters


A while ago, I was at a graduate program workshop that was geared towards recruiting under-represented minorities in science. One of the participants didn’t know what imposter syndrome was.

This surprised me. I’ve read a lot about this phenomenon, how it affects many people in academia, and how it is particularly hard on under-represented groups.

I explained what imposter syndrome was to the gentleman. “It’s when you think that you have lucked your way into a situation, and that you have no real talent or ability. You keep thinking that any second, people are going to find out, realize they made a terrible mistake, and take it all away from you.”

I saw a few heads nodding in recognition from a couple of other people in the room who had obviously heard of the term. Surprise turned to astonishment when this man refused to believe that doctoral students would ever suffer from imposter syndrome. He said something like, “When you’re a Ph.D. student, you have to have the confidence that you are going to make original and valuable contributions to science.”

He insisted that doctoral students must have healthy egos, kind of by definition. I think his view was that this was the only reason you would enter a doctoral program in the first place. (It was not surprising that this individual seemed to have a very healthy ego of his own. He was a very active speaker at the workshop.)

If anyone should know about imposter syndrome, I would have hoped that it would be someone in a workshop about recruiting minorities to grad school.

It was so disheartening to see him deny something that causes many people much stress. It was even more disheartening to hear such a dismissal in a forum devoted to improving recruitment and retention of students. And it was disappointing to hear it from a man, because “guys trivializing other peoples’ problems” is so clich├ęd.

If we are to ever improve academic careers, and get more diversity in our departments, the first step will have to be that we believe what people tell us. If someone tells you they have a problem, responding with, “You can’t actually have that problem” is not helpful.

Bonus! Me speaking at a recent graduate fair about the kind of program I help to run. I talk about 30 seconds in.


Hat tip to Scicurious for reminding me to finish this post with her own article on imposter syndrome!

External links

Imposter syndrome: beating the blue-eyed monster
Athene Donald: I still suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Photo by Erwin Verbruggen on flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Jen said...

People like that guy are the reason it's so hard for anyone to speak up about things like depression and anxiety, let alone impostor syndrome. "You can't be depressed, look how great your life is!"

Dismissing someone's real issues as imaginary is helpful to no-one.