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“I can’t believe they’re letting me write this blog”: Imposter Syndrome, Science, and the Rest of the World

“I can’t believe they’re letting me write this blog”: Imposter Syndrome, Science, and the Rest of the World
By Brittany Berdy, The Rowland Institute at Harvard, USA 6 months ago 12446 Views No comments

By Brittany Berdy

I found the following message in my inbox: “Hi Brittany, …I was wondering whether you'd be interested in writing a guest article for us about something life science-industry related that you're really passionate about?”

My immediately reply: “Oh my god, yes I would love to!”

My brain two minutes later: “Oh my god, I’m not qualified to be doing this, what will I write about, what will I say, and more importantly who am I to give anyone advice on anything!?”

I had to overcome all these thoughts. However, my insecurity did in fact lead me to the perfect topic: imposter syndrome. Before I even go any further, let’s define this… because if you’re in academia, or science, or a human of some kind, you’ve most likely experienced these feelings at some point in your life.

Imposter Syndrome: an inescapable or pervasive feeling that you are not good enough, not smart enough, and don’t belong. Feeling as if you are a fake, a phony. Feeling insecure and doubting yourself, often despite evidence to the contrary. Feeling that you “got lucky” getting a job or into a school, not that you actually deserved it.

I could go on and on about this topic for days, because I have felt every single feeling described above, and then some. In fact, I felt them all today. For the purpose of not boring you to death, I will try to keep it brief and just give you some of the facts, intertwined with a bit of my own experience, then address some ways to supposedly overcome it.

I am saying supposedly overcome because clearly, I haven’t gotten there yet – but the interwebs have given me some hope. If you simply google “imposter syndrome” you’ll find many articles from many different people discussing their own experiences and how they recommend overcoming it. I’ll summarize some of what I found here… but the main point you should know is that you are not alone in this. And to me, just knowing I wasn’t alone was enough to help me feel a bit better.

It was actually known as the “imposter phenomenon” first

“Imposter syndrome” is actually called the “imposter phenomenon”, and it was first recognized in the 1970s by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Working at Oberlin College, they noticed many of the women who were seeking counseling tended to feel unaccomplished and as if they didn’t deserve their successes, despite evidence to the contrary and their great track records.

This phenomenon resulted in an article: “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women” where Clance and Imes discussed how women were predisposed to this phenomenon, partially because success for women doesn’t always align with societal expectations.

This phenomenon has been embraced over time by some people, and some feminists, suggesting this may be why women have a harder time in the workforce (i.e. moving up the ranks). Well, that’s a topic for a whole other blog, but figured I’d point it out.

While imposter phenomenon was women-centric for a bit, it turns out this isn’t unique to women at all. By the early 1990s, it became clear that men are just as likely as women to experience the same types of thoughts associated with the imposter phenomenon. It was simply that men just didn’t talk about it as openly. And as a newly married woman, I can say that this doesn’t surprise me.

No one is immune to self-doubt, the fuel that feeds the fire of Imposter Syndrome

Turns out – feeling this way is pretty normal, which actually made me feel a lot less crazy!

To get a better sense of how this impacted people, I asked a group of my friends and colleagues to take a test quantifying how often they experience these feelings and the extent it causes suffering (with higher scores indicating experiences/suffering more often).

First, I asked if people knew the term imposter syndrome, and almost everyone did (ok, one person didn’t know the term). The important part? Once defined, every person reported experiencing it. The people interviewed ranged from undergraduates just turning 21, to professionals in their 40s. No one scored below a 50, and most were in the 75-90 range (out of 100). The good news? Most were did not feel it interfered with their life regularly, or they actively tried not to let it. However, most reported imposter-like feelings during life changes or times when they were embarking on something new, like seeking new jobs or starting school.

The takeaway here is that everyone has it. It doesn’t matter your age, your demographic, your career or field of interest. But when does it happen? And what can you do?

When Imposter Syndrome Strikes

Imposter syndrome seems to really strike just when you’re about to face new challenges or new environments. A promotion, or starting a college, grad school, medical school, etc. I know personally, this kicked into high gear in graduate school. I spent most of high school excelling in science programs and then I went to a small college where I worked my butt off to kick butt at all science-related things. Some feelings of insecurity appeared in college, but it was a small school with lots of positivity and support. You know, the whole “be you, be creative” and “you are smart and special” kind of vibe.

Then, all of a sudden I was in graduate school. I was surrounded by 16 people who had worked just as hard (or harder) for just as long (or longer) as I had to get there. They had the same interest in science, in many cases more experience, and what felt like much more expertise. Each and every one of them was smart, high achieving, and desiring a PhD. I didn’t stand out anymore.

All of sudden, I wasn’t even sure I belonged. It took a few years of grad school for me to realize that other people felt this way too. By the time I became a postdoc I realized this feeling is pretty common. For me though, getting through the beginning of graduate school was one of the hardest things I had to do. It was a constant battle, every day, to remind myself I was worthy of being there. There are ways to combat these feelings though, and hopefully just knowing it’s normal helps. There is hope!

Ways to tackle imposter syndrome

  1. Know you are not alone – really. This doesn’t mean your experience is any less valid. It sucks, totally. At times the fear of being found out, the fear of failure, the fear you don’t belong – it can be absolutely devastating. But knowing you aren’t alone, and that many people have gotten through this, may provide you with a bit of comfort
  2. Talk to someone – tell a friend or family member or even a mentor. They can probably relate, and if not, they can give you some encouragement and words of wisdom about how awesome you are
  3. Remind yourself of your accomplishments – write down a few things you’re good at and read it from time to time. Check out your resume and look over some of your achievements. Have an on-going list that you can refer back to when you’re feeling down.
  4. Find a mentor – this one is particularly important for graduate school. Sometimes your mentor in this case may not be your advisor, and I want to stress that that is ok. Sometimes you pick an advisor and you just don’t mesh, but you choose to stick it out. Find yourself a mentor, someone who you trust and admire. Talk to your mentor about your feelings, they can help you focus on personal progress and help you to recognize it
  5. Teach – sometimes teaching others can help you recognize your own knowledge and how far you’ve actually come
  6. Change your thinking – odds are what you are feeling isn’t actually based in reality. The feelings of inadequacy are in your head. Try changing your thoughts and making a negative into a positive… cognitive reframing as they call it in therapy. Instead of: “I have no idea what I am doing, I know nothing, I can’t do this experiment.” Think: “Well, I don’t know everything, but I’m still learning and new to this, and this will be a great learning experience to help me for the next time.” Find coping mechanisms and use them when you experience these feelings
  7. Recognize it is ok to not know what you are doing – you’re learning! There is no way you can know it all. Just be enthusiastic about learning. Most jobs and professors don’t expect you to know it all, they just want you to be eager to learn it
  8. Keep imposter syndrome around a little – it’s ok to not think you’re the best thing ever… you don’t want to get too cocky!


If it gets to be too much, it’s ok to ask for help

Despite originally described as a phenomenon, over the years this experience has become known as imposter syndrome. I want to point out, it technically doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a syndrome because that would require it being a group of symptoms that interfere with your daily life and causes extreme distress. Personally, I think there is a spectrum.

I know plenty of people who experience these feelings and it doesn’t interfere with their life. That is actually the majority of the population. However, if you have other conditions, feelings of imposter syndrome may compound them to a point you feel it’s unmanageable. I fall into the latter category. I am someone who suffers from anxiety and OCD (a whole other blog post may be needed for surviving these through grad school). With all of these factors, you can imagine I am also type A and a perfectionist. Therefore, the feelings of doubting my abilities can sometimes be pretty debilitating and make me feel hopeless.

However, I have learned to power through, and it has made me stronger. This is because I willingly ask for help when I need it. If you relate to a lot of what I'm writing about, and feel this is interfering with your daily life, you may want to speak to a professional, because it may be more complicated than simple imposter syndrome – and that is perfectly fine too.

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More information about Imposter Syndrome information found on the following sites:

Imposter Phenomena Test:

Finding a therapist (in the US)

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Brittany Berdy is originally from Franklin Lakes / Wyckoff in New Jersey, USA. She received her BA from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY where she researched oxidative stress and its role in sexual selection in the Common Yellowthroat. After that, Brittany went on to study microbiology and received her PhD from Northeastern University with a specialization in microbial cultivation techniques.

After spending years working on the ichip and other in situ cultivation devices with Slava Epstein, Brittany is now delving into the microbiome world; studying honey bees and their microbiome, and how the microbiome is impacted by external factors such as pesticides, and how this impacts the host itself.