I’m an Impostor… and it’s OK

Today’s guest blogger is a biochemist by training and an oddball by profession.  After receiving her PhD in 2010, she went on to a faculty position at a medical library (she does not sush people, nor does she own a cat, although she does knit).  Recently she established a professional development center at her institution and serves as its director.  She has a bad, bad case of impostor syndrome. 

My mental self-image is stuck somewhere in the awkward pre-teen years.  Think braces and head gear paired with a horrifying ability to wear plaid and stripes in a way that in no way shape or form counts as “print mixing”. But first and foremost, I was a devout lover of math and science.  Learning was fun — the type of fun that could devour hours and make me run to school in the mornings.

Fast forward a few years and we have now entered my over-confident teenage years.  The braces are gone.  Sadly the clothing situation has not improved, but I was (incorrectly) confident that it somehow looked good.  I’d started doing research in virology and I even managed to perform my first immuno-histochemistry experiments successfully.  Western blots didn’t work consistently, but the science moved forward – hey, this science thing could be a career!

A few more years later and I am deep in the scientific doldrums of graduate school.  No experiment worked and the pointed questions of “when exactly are you going to graduate” were sadly more likely to induce tears than anger.  My mental image didn’t even include a physical manifestation of myself, instead it is a big box of Kimwipes that I use as a very scratchy Kleenex substitute.  Turns out this science thing is hard.  Really hard.

Somewhere along the way my psychological sense of self went from over-inflated to severely self-doubting.  When I first started graduate school, a good friend and successful academic scientist sat me down and told me that graduate school was less about learning science, it was learning about yourself.  He told me that I would be torn down intellectually, but that I would build myself back up.  The resulting mental toughness would be the real value of my PhD.

You know what?  He was right.  From the doldrums I managed to pull together a cohesive project out of years of relentless failure.  I published, I was funded, I defended and I even managed to secure a good job outside of bench science immediately after graduation.

But…

The mental toughness.  Was it real?  Sometimes I really felt like the hard earned progress was something I truly owned; at other times, I worried that my string of weird luck and the illusion of intelligence were wearing thin.  While I was more than free sharing my overt frustrations and failures during the majority of graduate school, I keep these nagging doubts quietly and closely to myself.

As a cohort, my graduate class had all experienced and witnessed each other’s intellectual tear down as a visible byproduct of our early years.  We also clearly witnessed the rebuilding of our confidence and the strengthening of our scientific skills. While we were all terrified of our formal seminars and the notorious “make the student squirm” questions from curmudgeonly faculty, nobody seemed to share my deep worry that my fully correct and well-received answer was, in fact, complete BS.  And I kept these worries to myself for years, even as the scientific pieces fell into place and my next phase as a real professional started.

I decided to leave the bench mothership and move into an alternative career – being a research specialist at a medical library. Slightly removed from the pipetting pipeline, I started to gain an understanding of my skills and abilities a bit more. My mental image was slowly shifting from the box of Kimwipes to… something else.

But what?

As my professional trajectory in academic support began to come in focus, I started spending a lot of time talking to people about their careers and their paths.  A conversation with my Dean for Education about the importance of these conversations and their impact opened up the opportunity to create and run a professional development center for our graduate programs.  Suddenly, my career involved advancing the career of others.  I was excited, I was exhilarated, and I was 100% sure that I’d be thrown out of the job in a month after they realized I have no idea what I’m doing.

So in a moment of horrifying confession, I talked to my boss about my deep worries that I was not able to lead the center. She looked me intently and said, “I have impostor syndrome…”  For your reference, my boss is a consummate professional, a mentor of mine and a truly inspirational leader in academia.  I was floored at her candor, and was even more astonished when she added, “all the best leaders do!”

Could this really be true?  I had, of course, heard of impostor syndrome, but for some reason I had relegated it to the feeling of not belonging in graduate school.  The idea that it tracked with you beyond graduation was a bit of a revelation.  That amazing professionals still had it was a shock…

Following that discussion, I’ve made a point of asking people I encounter, whether student or senior professor, about their feelings on impostor syndrome.  This not scientific yet so-relevant-to-science study has demonstrated the following: every amazing person I’ve encountered suffers from impostor syndrome*.  From billion dollar biotech company presidents to up and coming super star scientists, many of us experience nagging self-doubt and flagging self-confidence now and again.

It takes vulnerability to be this open about your fears and concerns, and I am truly humbled to have engaged in the impostor syndrome conversation with so many amazing individuals.  One thread I’ve encountered is that the most inspirational leaders use their impostor syndrome to help them make better decisions, to give perspective and to keep them grounded.  Importantly, by understanding and acknowledging impostor syndrome, you can take a step back and better learn when you should fully embrace your successes.  I’ve realized that a little impostor syndrome can be a healthy characteristic of not only a successful professional, but also a strong leader.

From the obliviously geeky child I’ve wavered between the extreme ends of over-confident youth to the deeply insecure graduate student.  Impostor syndrome is something that I now feels helps strike a proper balance between over-confidence and crippling insecurities.  When I think of what my self-image is like today, I don’t see the extreme ends of myself.  I see the obliviously geeky child, a little more grown up and freely ready to admit that I’m humbled and astonished to have accomplished much – and that I’ve got a case of impostor syndrome, as well.

I feel that we will all help ourselves become stronger individuals by sharing this information freely.  I want to create an expectation in our communities that this emotional vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it is a strength of a well-trained and educated mind.  I hope to always have a healthy dose of self-doubt, but one that is used to balance all aspects of my personality.  I want to use my impostor syndrome as a self-diagnostic and a tool to help me become a better professional.

I want, more than anything else, to run to school every morning, ready for more.

*OK, not 100% of respondents professed a touch of impostor syndrome – a very small proportion of those interviewed did not profess any impostor syndrome symptoms; however, these individuals can only be described as jerks.

p.s. sorry this post was so long!  Thanks for reading.

p.p.s. I still wear plaid and stripes, but now I just call it “print mixing”  and hope nobody notices it isn’t any more fashionable now than when I was 11.

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