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Graduate School

How to combat impostor syndrome

Jen Heemstra on how to turn our negative thoughts into positive actions

by Jen Heemstra
May 8, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 19

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Impostor syndrome can make you feel alone.

How do you combat impostor syndrome during big transitions (undergrad to grad school, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to faculty, etc.), and how do you prevent impostor syndrome from affecting your success?—Sara Dubbury, postdoc, University of California San Diego

Our own thoughts can be our best friend and our worst enemy. They fuel the thrill of creativity and discovery, they encourage us to learn and grow, and they form the foundation of our connection to others. But they are also the source of cruel insecurities that can discourage us from taking on a challenge or prevent us from being able to give it our best. Two types of insecurities that frequently plague scientists are self-doubt and impostor syndrome.

Self-doubt is thinking that you’re not good enough to get somewhere that you want to be or achieve something that you want to do. Impostor syndrome is when you do get to that place or achieve that goal, and then your thoughts tell you that you don’t deserve it. Worse, they tell you that everyone around you might find out that you don’t deserve it. Ouch.

So, are these thoughts accurate? Probably not. Our insecurities are usually based on fallacies—deceptive thought patterns that our mind casts upon reality. In the case of impostor syndrome, I’ve seen two main fallacies. The first is a subjective belief that you don’t belong where you are; you can’t quite put your finger on a specific way in which everyone is better than you. This is especially common during the transitions that you mention: you are joining a new lab or workplace with new people, and while you are struggling to get your bearings and figure out how to be successful there, everyone else seems to have mastered the work.

The second type of fallacy is a seemingly objective one; it’s based on data, and as scientists, we all love data, right? This happens when you look around and recognize that you are an outlier compared with everyone else around you. This happened to me recently at a symposium I was invited to speak at. As I surveyed the list of speakers, it quickly became apparent that by many metrics—seniority, job title, awards—one of these people was not like the others. And that person was me.

How do we counter these insecurities? I often hear the advice to do something that builds up your confidence and helps convince yourself that you deserve to be there. But I’ve never found this advice helpful. First, that’s a really challenging thing to do, especially in the face of data that might seem to suggest otherwise, such as the case with my symposium invitation. Second, this task creates a slippery slope toward entitlement. If I convince myself that I deserve to be somewhere, then I might think that I no longer have to work hard to excel. I might also convince myself that the people who didn’t make it to that place don’t in fact deserve to be there. That’s not a thought pattern that I want to spend time in.

My approach is to instead recognize that it really doesn’t matter where I deserve to be because I am there, and I’m thankful for that. And I want to make the most of it. It also helps to take a step back and change my perspective on the situation. In the case of starting in a new lab or stage of your career, recognize that the people around you seem to know what they’re doing because they’ve been there for a while and that they were once just like you: the new person feeling lost and struggling to figure everything out. They developed their knowledge and skills by working hard and improving each day, and you can do the same. In the case of an objective set of metrics that suggests you don’t belong, consider that you might be looking at the wrong metrics. Our thoughts can make us downplay the importance of areas where we excel while magnifying the importance of areas where we struggle.

Importantly, fighting impostor syndrome is something that you don’t have to do alone. Enlist the help of friends, colleagues, and mentors to remind you that you’ve developed expertise and thrived in new situations before and can do it again, or to point out the unique set of skills and accomplishments that you have but might not recognize. Finally, if all else fails, when your thoughts tell you that everyone around you has it all figured out, recognize that they probably also got it right when they chose you.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at cenm.ag/officehours.


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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Comments
Chisom (May 8, 2019 11:43 AM)
Thanks for sharing your insights. Some tips that will definitely come in handy when those thoughts return in my head from their usual short breaks.
WASIU A LAWAL (May 8, 2019 11:55 PM)
Very well written. I suffered through this in graduate school and I am very pleased that C&EN has made this a focus over the past few years. The last part is very important because it touches on practical ways to deal with impostor syndrome and speaks to how I managed mine. For me, the free Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at my University was a lifesaver. In fact, I didn't even know there was a term for it until I had my first session and eventually, that's what got me through the last 3 years of graduate school. I believe every major university has a CAPS and I'd encourage those who are still students to take advantage of them.
Susan Savage (May 11, 2019 6:26 PM)
I have found my ‘imposter syndrome’ very helpful- although at first I didn’t know that what I was experiencing wasn’t real. At work I was the more qualified but felt inferior. That just made me work harder to make sure the work was the best I could do and now that I work for myself I have found this drive very useful. When I am in front of an audience and presenting my work, I go through all the old emotions of feeling that the work is not as good enough. But I present anyway and then afterwards do a critical analysis to see if I was up to standard. I was but could always find ways to improve. I figure that this is just part of my process and if it forces me to excel then I don’t wish to change.

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