Ride It Like You Stole It

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.




  1. Some thoughts:
    1. I know so much about -isms in academia that it’s pretty much impossible for a woman or a minority (even an Asian minority) to actually be an imposter. Just the fact of their being there means that they’re slightly better than the average white man where they are. Even though they don’t usually get credit for it.
    2. It is better to appear to brag too much than to be down on your work, *even* though women and minorities get some disadvantage from bragging that white men do not. Still, if you talk down yourself and your work, everyone will believe you, and that is far worse than people thinking you’re full of yourself in terms of your career.
    3. Even if you are an imposter (which you aren’t), then if you work hard, you’ll still do good work. This fits well with just being a woman/minority because you have to work harder to get to the same place as the white guys. (Not saying that you have to make academia your life, but if that’s a goal and your only worry is that you’re not good enough, well, with work you will be good enough or better.)
    4. Almost being scooped means you should work harder and faster. It also means that your project is interesting and important. It’s also true that it is difficult to be scooped exactly– most likely you and your competitors are going to both be contributing something new and different to a hot field. If you are indeed doing the exact same thing with the same data etc., then think about how you can differentiate what you’re doing. In the worst case scenario, maybe you’ll end up with a comment. But more likely you’ll have a different published paper.
    5. Love the focus on giving to the next generation. Because research shows that works really well for motivating insecure women too! Women negotiate better for others than for themselves. When other people brag about women, that’s taken seriously even if self-bragging is discounted. And so on.

  2. Agreed that a very effective way to brag about the work in your lab is to make it about your students and post-docs: “Today I’m going to tell you about the amazing work of my incredibly talented student, Jane Jeenius, which is a game-changer in the field!”

  3. I was convinced that my school must be incredibly dumb if they would hire me over the other great postdocs out there. One thing that helped is that the guy hired after me is a golden child, beloved of big players, yet I outperform him on some key measures. Then I felt better.

  4. I think imposter syndrome is pretty common among very driven people, including lots of academics. I certainly felt it for the first couple years of the tenure track. I used the ‘fake it till you make it’ strategy – just keep doing professor/scientist stuff until you begin to feel like a professor/scientist (easier said than done, I know). Tenure goes a long way to alleviating the worst of it, but I expect it might always be there, lurking in the background.

    Love the drawings!

  5. Your comics make me happy

    Re: “And for them I act as if I have my shit together” – I completely agree with this sentiment. One piece of advice that someone gave me once upon a time was that if you feel nervous before a talk, just act like you don’t. I have taken that advice to heart for pretty much everything I do. Act like the person you want to be…and as it turns out, some of that acting becomes your new reality.

  6. I’m an imposter but I’m not one of those driven, Type-A people who get all kinds of awards and then pretends like they’re dumb sometimes to level the playing field. I would at least probably be more driven if I weren’t paralyzed by fear that I’m constantly screwing up and that there’s so much judgment out there and everyone knows what a moron I am. The fake-it, be overconfident routine is probably not a bad idea though… but if you already feel like an idiot, it’s tough to make that seem realistic. What’s funny is that the most confident people, at least in my field, are rarely thought of as stupid — jerks maybe, but not stupid. So maybe there’s something to be said about delusions of grandeur 🙂

  7. Great post! Very inspiring. 🙂

    “What’s funny is that the most confident people, at least in my field, are rarely thought of as stupid — jerks maybe, but not stupid. So maybe there’s something to be said about delusions of grandeur”

    I do think that a lot of people who are generally perceived as confident actually are the “fake it until you make it”-ers. Based on what peers have told me, I apparently appear very confident and put together but I feel like as much of an imposter as the next person. I am often paralyzed with fear that someone will “FIND OUT THE TRUTH” that I’m just faking it. In fact I rationally know am doing good work, but it’s really hard to fully internalize that.

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