I have had a very productive summer so far. Also, two very long papers, where I was dreading protracted battles with referees, came back with glowing reviews and requests for minor revisions, so I am feeling very positive about my job these days. For a change, I thought it might write about work when I am actually upbeat about it, as opposed to in my usual grouchy mood.
In a comment to one of my earlier posts, Anonymous PI discussed his/her battle with the impostor syndrome:
As a new PI, I’m feeling really sunk. I managed to land two grants this year but had only one pub, and I can’t get myself to move on my two really exciting projects because I’m paralyzed by fear that others are beating me to the results and that I’m not good enough to tackle the problems anyway. I don’t think I have the intellectual chops to be here. Where oh where can I get the courage? I’ve read Valerie Young, I’ve been trying in vain to get therapy, and meanwhile every day feels like an awkward performance where I pretend things are fine to my colleagues. I wish I could do research in a vacuum. Or be a confident guy.
My response, on which this post is based, is here.
Gasstationwithoutpumps also has a post on the same topic today, with links to some good posts from Medium and Slate, as well as some of my old posts (from Academic Jungle: Underachieving; Beer, Fries, and Impostors; The Sucky and Awesome of Academia; from Xykademiqz: Potential and Ambition; Tenure Denials; You Got Tenure, Now What?; The Tenure Track, Illustrated).
Briefly, the impostor syndrome refers to feeling like a fraud (despite objective evidence to the contrary), felling like you have no idea what you are doing and don’t deserve the job/award/promotion/congratulations/cookie, that you instead lucked out and stumbled/dropped/slipped on a banana peel then fell into the undeserved coveted “it”, that any minute now someone is going to discover your true “shouldn’t-be-there-anyway” colors and and take it all away.
The impostor syndrome seems to be quite common in highly competitive fields; in fields with drastic overrepresentation of a certain race and/or gender, people from underrepresented groups suffer from it virtually by default. I believe (based largely on blogosphere anecdata) that the impostor syndrome it is quite common among academics, and you can pretty much count on women and minority academics in STEM fields to suffer from it. This is not to say that white dudes (and, in some fields, also Asian dudes) are not susceptible to it, it just means that if there’s anyone who does not suffer from the impostor syndrome, or suffers from the opposite Dunning-Kruger effect (grossly overestimating own competence largely due to actual incompetence), your chances of finding those specimens are highest in the dominant cohort.
The point of today’s post is: You have impostor syndrome. It may lessen but it’s probably never going away, so instead of wishing you didn’t have it, it’s best to focus on finding ways to be productive nonetheless. How to go about it differs with career stage.
I have been a professor for a decade now. I feel less like an impostor now than I did while I was on the tenure track. The feeling was initially sort of justified, in that I really didn’t know how to do the job; nobody really does when they first start out. But that’s not being an impostor, that’s just being a baby academic. The tenure track at research institutions is brutal (I’m not saying it’s not at other types of institutions, I just have no first-hand experience) and the learning curve is pretty steep.
At some point I realized that I would never be rid of feeling like an impostor, but along the way I have learned to muffle the nagging voice and not let it block me, not let it prevent me from doing what I wanted to do for extended periods of time; I still have very down-in-the-dumps days, which are best dealt with by going home early. The impostor syndrome likely impedes my achievement somewhat; without it I’d likely do more or do better work or whatever, but the point is I don’t think it will ever go away, and I have accepted that. I think we spend a lot of time online discussing how it’s unfair that some people feel it and all the ways in which it hinders them. But I realized there is no point in lamenting what would happen if I didn’t feel like an impostor. I do feel like one, and that’s that, but with experience I have found ways to work around it and just get stuff done. We get hung up on this romantic ideal that a person should feel free and unencumbered by doubts while doing their academic work, otherwise they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something else instead. Yet, most adults do boring and uninspiring jobs for a living, and I would take my academic job, with big dollops of self-doubt, over pretty much any other job in the world any day of the week. So I just focus on getting stuff done, really hard. Feeling happy about myself is not a requirement for getting stuff done. I know how to do this job, so I can do it even when doubting myself. Doing leads to accomplishments, and then I feel good for a millisecond, or three. Then it’s on to the next thing anyway.
For me, working with students really helps with the impostor syndrome. Sometimes I get a really nasty paper or proposal review, then feel down and ask what the point is and who cares and whether I am really stupid or uninspired. And I feel like shit for a few days. But then I have students and I cannot be too down for them. They expect me to have my shit together and to know what we will do next and to tell them that we will revise and resubmit and that things will work out really well. And for them I act as if I have my shit together, I go through the motions, imitating someone who does have their shit together, and in going through the motions, in faking it, I actually do get things done and things do eventually work out.
However, this is me after years of experience. How do you fight feeling like a fraud while you are still new and relatively inexperienced, while you are on the tenure track?
So you fear you don’t have what it takes, that you shouldn’t be in your tenure-track position, that you have somehow managed to fool numerous astute people over many years about your abilities. (Of course, in reality, all the people who have been writing recommendation letters for you, and all the people who interviewed and hired you are not stupid. Nobody is into charitable hiring. If you don’t believe yourself, believe in their judgement. They would not have hired you if they didn’t think you had what it took.) But let’s say you did fool everyone, what’s the worst that could happen? What is it that you fear? That somebody, everybody, will discover you are a fraud? Well then, since you are headed for certain ruin and disrepute, you could curl up into a ball and not do any work and ensure that the doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or you could make the time before they inevitably find you out count, right?
Let’s say you don’t really deserve to be here. So what? That’s life, people get things they don’t deserve, good and bad, all the time. Are you going to give your job back? Of course not, don’t be stupid. You don’t actually owe it to anybody supposedly more meritorious to give up your position, no matter how many schmucks on the internet say that women or minorities have is soooo easy because they only have jobs owing to quotas and affirmative action. Even if what the schmucks are saying were true, that still doesn’t mean that any of them are in fact entitled to or even worthy of your job, no matter what they think and what they want you to think. This is your tenure track job now, you got it, end of story.
You have this amazing opportunity to be your own boss and do science with smart young people, pursuing any direction you like (for the definition of “like” being “can get extramural funding for”). Yet you feel unworthy, apparently believing that the job belongs to someone else, someone more worthy? So then ride that tenure track job like you stole it, because you sure feel like you did; hold onto it with both hands, scream loudly so everyone can hear you about how fuckin’ ecstatic you are to have it, and work as hard as you possibly can because it is such an amazing gift. Work with wild abandon, because if it’s true that you are not meant to be there, they will come and kick you out, so you might as well make what little time you have count.
And in working like there’s no tomorrow, you will accomplish things, and the accomplishments will slowly but surely loosen the grip that the little voice has on you, even if it never goes away.