Impostor syndrome: The enemy within

And what project are you working on?”

With these seven words, I knew the gig was up; this was the day they finally saw me for the fraud I am. I wiped my suddenly clammy hands on my shirt as my brain raced to find the words that should come so easily. In the absence of intelligent words, my mouth engaged with nonsense and excuses. As a newly minted PhD candidate, the details of my project should be fresh in my mind, ready to disseminate clearly and concisely. Instead, I could only regurgitate generic “sciency” jargon. My stomach sank as I realised that the subject of my conversational bamboozle would soon come to their senses and simply dismiss me as just another swindler who managed to trick their way into academia… Does this scene sound familiar? Then you may have fallen victim to “Impostor syndrome”.

Image source: xkcd.com/1954

Impostor syndrome[1] is a pattern of (unfounded) negative emotions and thoughts that a person has when they dismiss their own achievements and feel they aren’t good enough for the position they are in. They chalk their success up to luck, charisma, or someone else’s overestimation of them. While I’ve met syndrome sufferers from all walks of life, it seems to be especially prevalent in academia. In academia, co-workers may automatically assume that you have an omnipotent level of expertise in your field, and undergraduate students can often place you on a pseudo-parental pedestal of authority. When put in these positions, syndrome sufferers feel that they are the fraud who has managed to fall through the cracks of due process. Though they are regarded as knowledgeable by those around them, they have simply pulled the wool over everyone else’s eyes and are actually – in fact – an impostor. A certain degree of self-doubt is not to be unexpected (it can help to keep oneself grounded in reality[2]), but when that doubt convinces you that you are utterly unqualified and prevents you from even trying for that promotion or applying for that research grant, then the syndrome has truly ensnared you.

These days, the syndrome can more easily hijack our thoughts as our world view is biased by an ever-present filter of mostly seeing only the positive side of other people’s lives[3]. Through the “rose-tinted” media glasses many of us wear, we see classmates posting acceptance letters to prestigious schools, or former colleagues boasting of their new positions. You rarely see the dozens of rejection letters or failed applications that come beforehand. Without fully realising it, you form an implicit opinion that everyone else around you has their life together, and the decisions they face are confidently dealt with as trivial tasks. And while those dealing with Impostor syndrome often feel altogether powerless, they must remember that they can regain control of their thoughts.

As Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power”; simply being aware of Impostor syndrome can help you recognize and neutralise its self-sabotaging effects. By practising mindfulness and internal reflection[4], you can train yourself for these moments of doubt, while still pushing yourself to your full potential. It can be very satisfying to step outside your comfort zone, though staying realistic is an important part of setting yourself up for success. So, the next time someone asks you about your work and you feel the panic setting in, take a deep breath and remember your most important project: yourself.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect

[3] https://www.verywellmind.com/social-network-use-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4117143

[4] https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

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Andrew Seidl

I'm currently a PhD student in stable water isotope meteorology and the Bergen Group manager of SciSnack.

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  • Thomas Spengler

    Very well written, Andrew, and a very important topic! Thanks for raising this and writing so openly about it.

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