With the holiday season rapidly approaching and with the stress of year-end work diminishing everyone’s immune systems, it’s time to be on the lookout for any signs of impending sickness in you and your colleagues. In addition to the cold or flu, the stress of finishing the year while reflecting on your work in the lab can bring about an ailment known as ‘imposter syndrome’, a common condition among academics and researchers ranging from graduate students to full professors. While there is no complete cure for this ailment, with this guide you can recognize the symptoms and prevent any unnecessary flare-ups that may cripple your productivity and/or your Christmas spirit.
What is Imposter syndrome?
A sufferer of imposter syndrome feels that they are unable to fulfill their career goals, that any accomplishments they have achieved are due to dumb luck and not to skill or level of expertise, and that they are simply not cut out for a career in research because they are not as smart/skilled/outgoing as their colleagues.
The holiday season offers a time to reflect on the year behind and a chance to prepare for the year ahead. It also entails finishing up lab work, writing up end-of-the-years reports for projects, and having to place orders and spend grant money before the financial office closes, which can compound the normal stresses already surrounding the holidays. Scrambling to get things done before heading home for the holidays can leave anyone with the feeling of ‘Why am I doing this all NOW?’ and ‘What exactly have I been doing all year?’. These questions then create a prime target for imposter syndrome and its counter-productive symptoms.
What are the symptoms of imposter syndrome?
In addition to the rushed and hurried lead-up to the end of the end of the year, time spent reflecting back can lead you to feeling like you didn’t do anything productive all year long. Maybe the year didn’t bring you as many results or papers as you’d hoped for. Maybe a crucial experiment for your thesis didn’t work the way you thought and you had to go back to the drawing board. Maybe you just went to a lab mate’s graduation party and realized how far away you still are from finishing your PhD project. These thoughts, coupled with the already high stresses of the holiday season, can lead to making one feel more like an imposter or a failure than during the rest of the year.
It’s easy to look back at our own year of work and compare it to the work of other students, post-docs, or professors, and see theirs as being much more worthy than our own. But the comparisons aren’t always even, and depending on the field you’re in or the type of work you’re doing, there might be a lot of depth to your year’s worth of work that can’t be seen as easily by anyone but yourself. Think of an iceberg, where the part above water may look unimpressive but the real bulk of it lies beneath the surface. When you feel stressed about what you’ve accomplished in a year and feeling like you’re not worthy of this type of career, take a closer look under the surface. Maybe you don’t have all the manuscripts done that you’d planned, but you made nice figures for a recent conference poster and can use those and a few tables as the bulk of a manuscript. Maybe a big experiment didn’t work the way you thought it would, but it led you to a new direction that no one else has been down before. Maybe this wasn’t your year to graduate, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do meaningful things in the lab that can give you strong momentum for the next year: optimizing assays, writing code, running simulations, going to a conference and hearing great talks and getting new ideas, doing a literature review for your thesis that helped give you a bigger picture perspective on your work. Not all of these things will have a tangible, surface-level impact, but they will provide the necessary depth of knowledge and support for you to start off the next year of studies and work with the tools you need to succeed.
Graduate students and early career researchers are especially prone to getting imposter syndrome, as we’re in the point of our lives where we’re doing the day-to-day lab work required but at the same time thinking about possibilities for our future careers. When you struggle with trying to get PCR to work or spend an afternoon trying to understand one paper, it can be hard to look at a professor’s life and see yourself as able to do something similar. But take a closer look at the people we feel imposter syndrome about: They’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to where they are by doing the type of work that you’re doing right now, by running into problems and figuring out how to solve them, and now teaching you and your colleagues how to do the same (with some professors being able to pass on their lessons better than others). The work you’re doing now is not meant to tell you if you’re cut out to be an academic or a researcher or not, it’s meant to show you how the process of research works in practice and to provide you with your own depth of knowledge and support as you work and progress to the next stage of your career. You don’t have to be perfect the first time around to become a great researcher-very few of them got it right the first time, either, they just got good at not being wrong quite as often.
In academia you work with the cream of the crop, researchers on the top of their game who are pioneering work at the very edge of technology and understanding. Academics have to sell their research and to conduct themselves in a very confident way, making them attractive for collaborators and funding agencies: Anyone looking into this field without that same level of self-confidence is likely to feel like they don’t belong.
How can you treat imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has no cure, but you can take prophylactic measures to prevent flare-up using the following measures:
Academics and researchers suffering from Imposter Syndrome tend to recover rapidly with treatment, although many will experience remission before retirement. Prognosis is generally good for those who prescribe to self-esteem building activities, personal development, peer interactions, and an optimistic outlook on the future.
Best of luck to everyone finishing out the year. We’ll have one more post to close off 2015 and are excited for what’s ahead for Science with Style in 2016!