A guide to surviving imposter syndrome in science
I sat there, completely intimidated, terrified. I stared at them, zipping through experiments with ease; laughing and arguing fluently in scientific language I wasn’t yet familiar with. Surely he had made a mistake in inviting me to do a PhD? Everyone in the lab had impressive CVs and an incredible knowledge base. The post-docs were extraordinarily experienced, the PhD students seemed like young post-docs, and the PI was (literally) referred to as the rock-star of neuroscience. I was so scared I wouldn’t be good enough to be part of the group. They would surely figure me out eventually and then would come a chase with pitch forks and fire. Or maybe a Bunsen burner and scalpel as we are talking about a 21st century laboratory.
Before joining the lab, after I first received an offer, I had all of these thoughts. Was I good enough to join this group? Or would I just continuously fail, feel awful and drop out? In the end I committed myself and jumped in. What was a PhD anyway if not the chance to challenge myself? I mean, maybe my insecurities were unfounded and with time I would become more confident?
It’s now been 15 months and I still sit in meetings and panic. Actually, despite being shocked by the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt about women in science, I have to shamefully admit that I have (in private) already shed a few tears of frustration in the past year. Why?
Well luckily for me it turns out that a lot of scientists feel the same way. In fact I discovered through several late nights at work that my colleagues who intimidated me originally, it turns out, are intimidated by me too. It’s a well-known phenomenon in academia called the “imposter syndrome”. So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I have learnt a couple of things that can help to battle this wee beastie:
- You are not alone in feeling like a fraud.
Every single academic I’ve met has said they have felt the same, from post docs in Buenos Aires to China, from the PhDs in the US to Italy. It’s a universal epidemic. If everyone feels the same that means even your role model is thinking this from time to time. That means that if you have particularly nice colleagues you can take solace in sharing your woes and giving each other a boost, or by reminding yourself from time to time that even the most smug, know-it-all will have this fear.
- Why did I feel intimidated?
Academia, by definition, is a work environment filled with incredibly talented people. No matter what subject you are in the fact is that you are never going to know everything. But the beauty of doing a PhD is the amazing opportunity you have to learn from the worlds brightest. Every day you are learning something new and it’s inspiring. Remind yourself why these people are intimidating to you, and then realise that someone saw the potential in you to at least become one of these people, if you aren’t already.
- Why did you start a PhD in the first place?
I guess you’re looking at this because you’re either on, or considering doing a PhD. That means you have some passion to learn about your subject. If you knew everything already then there would be no point in you undertaking a PhD in the first place. It’s a training program for a reason. Accepting that each time you don’t understand or don’t know the answer is an opportunity to learn is tough, but it comes with time.
Being honest, I used to research SO MUCH before a simple catch up meeting with my supervisor. I would freak out and get so anxious. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or to look stupid and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one day he said to me “It’s okay, you’re here to learn,” after I had made a particularly embarrassing mistake. Your supervisor and colleagues don’t expect you to know everything, just to try your best and be enthusiastic about your work.
- Embrace mistakes.
Make numerous mistakes, not failures. Why? Because mistakes are valuable lessons. Months of failed experiments (that’s not an over exaggeration) remind me that if my experiments all went smoothly I would probably make an utterly useless post doc. I’d never know how to trouble shoot or tweak experiments. I’d never know how to think outside the box. If everything was going 100% perfect you’re probably doing something wrong without realising it, which is worse if you think about it.
- Talk to non-academic or non-scientific loved ones. Seriously. Do it right now.
Two months ago my experiments weren’t going great and I was feeling a little un-enamoured with my research. I was in a funk. I met with an actor friend and when he asked what I was doing my research on, I bashfully shrugged it off as boring compared to his glamorous lifestyle. After his insistence, I explained and his eyes lit up and he shouted “that’s SO cool!”.
You forget how novel the idea of manipulating DNA in cells is when you’re amongst scientists, but to someone else it’s fantasy from a sci-fi movie involving ugly aliens and Tom cruise. My parents, enthusiastic little dears, hang my past conference posters in the house and from time to time I’ll let them come into the lab. It’s always a massive pick me up to remember why you fell in love with science in the first place and see it through a new pair of eyes.
- Look back at past reports.
It sounds ridiculous but if you see some of your past work from your undergraduate years you will see how far you have come in such a short space of time. Cut yourself some slack and remember that in three years time, during your post doc you will look back at your PhD self and feel the same way. It is a learning process that takes time, but you will get there.
Laura Cassels, Wellcome Trust PhD Student
(Prof. Yves Barde’s Group)
Cardiff School of Biosciences