“Only Because I Was at the Right Place at the Right Time” – Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Even after years, I remember very well my first mathematical analysis class at university. Our professor prepared a small test to check what fresh undergrads actually knew about ‘calculus’. I looked at the sheet of paper full of exercises, and started working on them. At the end, I solved half of the problems, and that was all I could do. During the break, I asked my new classmates about the test, and what was their response? “Well, it was trivial, don’t you think?”. This was one of those moments when my internal critic started challenging me: “Trivial? TRIVIAL!? Everyone knows already how to solve differential equations, so what are you doing here?”. There were hundreds of situations like this through my path in academia. I felt like a fraud among geniuses from prestigious big-city high schools. They saw everything as easy, and they were always nodding in understanding during the most difficult quantum mechanics lectures. My scholarships and awards were a matter of luck. My mistakes, the dead ends in my work, my failures, the crazy working hours, and all the stupid jokes about women in physics were convincing me that, indeed, I was just a lucky, hard-working girl in the crazy world of academia.

It was about one year ago when I received an email: “Dear Dr. Żurek, We are happy to offer you a postdoctoral position at Berkeley Lab”. And what was my first reaction? “They probably think I’m nice, so they didn’t realise I’m inadequate”. Yes, this was my first thought, even if I had objectively good research experience, even if I was very well prepared for the application, even if I was fully aware that what I had been dealing with was the monster called impostor syndrome.

Understanding Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon of questioning your accomplishments and associating your success with luck, good timing, or tricking others into believing that you are smarter than you feel you are. It is connected to the fear that someone will finally ‘find out‘ that you are a ‘fraud’.

The syndrome often results in a characteristic cycle. You have to prepare an abstract for a conference. You start being bothered by anxiety-related symptoms and/or stress connected with low self esteem. You are sure your results are not good enough and compare yourself with colleagues. You either fall into the path of over-preparation: working insanely hard, staying late at the office, losing any trace of work-life balance; or you start procrastinating until the panic-fueled burst of last-minute motivation finally kicks in. Eventually, you submit the abstract, which gives you a feeling of relief and accomplishment, but it doesn’t last long. Even if your supervisor is complimenting your work, even if the abstract has been accepted, you see your success either as the result of mere hard work which doesn’t come from any real ability or skill, or as pure, dumb luck. In the end, the net outcome is to reinforce the impostor inside you, until you start preparing your presentation for the conference and the cycle starts again.

There Are Many of Us

Recent studies from 2018 show that about 62% of adults in the UK (n=3000) have experienced impostor syndrome at work. Initially the phenomenon was associated mostly with highly achieving women. Subsequent research has shown that the feeling is widely experienced, and actually affects a wide range of people.

Are you a perfectionist? Does your validation come only from working? Are you one of those ‘natural geniuses‘? Do you always have to accomplish tasks on your own? All these traits of character are associated with a high risk of impostor syndrome. The phenomenon is also related to family conditions, e.g., being constantly compared to other family members, or having achievements being belittled within your environment.

Impostor syndrome arises in any environment where your merit is being judged. The highly competitive and stressful world of academia, where being a workaholic is frequently encouraged presents, unfortunately, a natural high risk of impostor feelings. This is especially true for minorities and other individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, who are constantly forced to prove their worth in an academic setting, with the result that, in spite of all their accomplishments, they still feel like they do not belong.

How to Fight With This Monster?

There is no single universal advice which solves all problems caused by the impostor inside you. What I find out works in my case is:

  • First of all, understanding when impostor feelings can hit me: starting a new part of a project, during ‘learning‘ periods in my work when I do not have lots of fresh results, giving presentations during external meetings, and working on my future career.
  • In times of doubt, openly chatting with my mentors in work and everyday life. Honest discussions with colleagues I admire showed me that I am not the only one fighting my internal impostor.
  • Concentrating on solving tasks by setting a reasonable plan of action, and discussing this plan with my supervisors. This realistic assignment of goals is for me the key to break the impostor cycle.
  • Learning how to be better both at taking criticism, and giving negative feedback. I teach myself how to think more rationally, without giving in to anxiety. It requires time, and often the support of a therapist, but one can learn how to reduce the black and white thinking and be more realistic about themselves.
  • Actively searching for self-validation outside of my work. I’ve found that supporting my peers in the postdoc community and sharing my passion for science through outreach brings me strength, and helps me to see myself not only through the narrow scope of my research.

The problem of mental health in academia is real. What is essential and often neglected is the discussion on how to make our environment healthier for research and teaching future generations of scientists. We need communication with our institutions to increase awareness about this issue and advocacy for positive change. We need serious actions to fight against this problem which affects our whole scientific community.

About Maria Żurek

#LINO19 young scientist Maria is a postdoctoral scholar in nuclear physics at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA, who tries to understand why our Universe exists as it is. In her research, she studies the structure of matter we are all made of at the most fundamental level. Maria received her M.Sc. degree from Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, where she is originally from. She received her PhD from the University of Cologne, Germany. She is a supporter of the postdoc community in her role of co-chair of the Berkeley Lab Postdoc Association and an enthusiast of outreach and science communication.

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