A very critical issue for many (most) early career scientists is “impostor syndrome” (IS), which is defined as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness despite external indications of success” (Clance P, Imes S. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 1978;15:241-247). PSU Astronomy professor, Jason T. Wright, is speaking about impostor syndrome, how it applies to you, and the effects and symptoms of IS.
We asked Jason to give this talk, and at first he seemed a bit surprised, and perhaps felt unqualified to give this talk. But, perhaps, this is the hallmark of IS. Jason agreed, however, did a bunch of research, and now feels ready to give this talk to us all.
Who is this IS talk for? Those who suffer from IS are often unaware that they do, and so those people need to be educated so that they can overcome it. If you have students, you should also know about this, since your students and advisees may have IS.
IS was first quantified in 1978 as “impostor phenomenon” and only applied it to successful women, those who, despite numerous accomplishments in their field, persisted in thinking that they weren’t skilled enough for the job that they have and were only fooling their peers into thinking that they belonged.
Jason anonymously surveyed ERES participants about their own thoughts and experiences with IS before the conference. His results show that most participants believed that around 70% of their peers have been affected, at least mildly, by IS (they included themselves in that percentage). This is a persistent and widespread phenomenon, and we need to educated ourselves about this more.
- a mismatch between external evidence of accomplishments and self-image
- feeling fraudulent or phony, having achieved success not though general ability
- a distorted, unrealistic, unsustainable definition of competence
- a fear of being “discovered” not to be worthy of position or honors
- feeling of having deceived others to achieve position
All people, regardless of their accomplishments in life (like Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep) can be susceptible to IS. But, this can apply even to the “Meryls” of science. Or the supporting actors of science. Jason gives a poignant example in the form of John Asher Johnson (with Dr. Johnson’s permission of course), quoting Dr. Johnson’s own talks and feelings of IS.
What are some of the misconceptions that contribute to IS?
- success is primarily dye to extreme amounts of narrow technical competence (“The Cult of Smart”)
- competence is a fixed trait that some people have others do not
- the most successful, competent people are perfectionists who never make a mistake and who never take on a problem without the necessary preparation
Well…none of these are actually true statements! Academic and research success is not based on any one quality, but rather exists in multiple dimensions. These include: the ability to identify important and answerable questions, the adeptness at basic complex problem solving, the ability to persevere on a problem, the possession of knowledge and skills, curiosity, luck (whether random or manufactured), and communication. This list comes from Ed Turner and Scott Tremaine, and is expounded upon by John Johnson on his own blog post.
The point of this is that success in academia is a constantly evolving process, and it acquired from this set of skills that improve and evolve with practice. No one gets everything right the first try (or even the hundredth!). Most academics work on problems that are outside their area of expertise, and take that risk of mistake in order to work on something interesting or valuable.
How can you begin to overcome IS? It’s something that you can do something about, both for yourself and for others. Talk about it! Normalize it! It happens to everyone, so there is no shame in feeling it. Try to emulate the the personality traits of people you look up to (“fake it until you make it” or “try to live the dream”). Find supportive people to talk to and to discuss the problem. Make note of the nice and complementary things that people say about you: make a file, save them, refer to them, and BELIEVE IT!
IS contains within it some inherent double-standards. You think that your own successes are due to luck or deceptions, but everyone else’s successes are due to skills. You respect your peers’ and superiors’ judgments and knowledge – except when it’s about you. Also…you think so highly of yourself that you can deceive everyone you meet, but you don’t have enough skill to do what you’re trained to do. Acknowledge these logical flaws and use them to combat IS.
IS is not a recognized mental disorder, but happens to everyone. This phenomenon occurs across all demographics, no one is immune. If someone comes to you to talk about this, don’t brush it off, don’t shame it, be supportive and have an open discussion. Learning to combat IS, both in yourself and in others, is something that can only benefit this community at large.