Many young scientists complain about feeling stupid compared with their peers, and even more suffer in silence. This phenomenon, called Impostor Syndrome, can be quite crippling and even cause people to quit their research careers. It’s frequently discussed these days, particularly in the context of gender balance in science, as women appear to be affected by it more than men. Perhaps it’s yet another reason why women disproportionately opt out of a career in science? I’m not sure I sign up to that idea, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless.
I was reminded of Impostor Syndrome today by an honest post by fellow astronomy postdoc Rita about her own feelings of inadequacy, and I’ve had similar discussions with many friends over the years. In my first few years as a postdoc I suffered massively from Impostor Syndrome in the same way that is described by so many others: fear, anxiety, insecurity, frustration.
Clearly, no one wants to live like this, and the associated anxiety that Rita talks about is common and completely understandable. In the last year or two I’ve thought a lot about these feelings, and I’ve figured out ways of dealing with them.
Perhaps the most helpful things to realise is that you don’t have to overcome feeling like an impostor: you can acknowledge it and work with it. David Foster Wallace had some great words about it in his famous “This is Water” speech:
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.[...]
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
There are all kinds of things to take from this, but the way I interpret it is: your Impostor Syndrome is a feature, not a bug. The fact that we feel stupid and hate it is the reason we become researchers in the first place: throughout our entire education an career we seek to associate ourselves with those who know more than we do, so we can learn. We literally chase after the stuff we don’t know, obsessively and to the point where we feel emotionally crushed by weight of the knowledge we don’t have. When you think about it, that’s insane. Most people are clueless about many aspects of life, but they don’t lose sleep over it or make it their life’s calling to figure it out.
I realised this once again at SciFoo last summer, where we were given the following advice on day 1: “To get the most out of SciFoo, get used to feeling like the most stupid person in the room”. It’s a great way to open a conference.
And by the way, those who think they are really smart and have figured the world out are idiots. Stay away from them, as they will teach you nothing.
Impostor Syndrome also comes with a weird paradox: we feel that everyone else in our field is much smarter than we are, but we fail to acknowledge that these very smart people have hired us to work with them. They hired us to further their own career (no one hires you to do you a favour!). If you’ve ever been involved in the hiring of a PhD student or a postdoc, you’ll know that these positions are massively oversubscribed. Yet if you are in one, someone you consider to be much smarter than you picked you from this huge batch of applications as the best candidate for the job. Why aren’t we better at trusting that judgment?
Finally, it helps to realise that many senior people too suffer from Impostor Syndrome. One scientist, who comes across as supremely smart and competent, once told me this, after delivering a keynote speech to a thousand-plus audience. They still feel like they’re on the verge of being uncovered as a fraud, and the audiences only get bigger. This may be a depressing thought to some, but it can be liberating as well. Fraudster feelings aren’t something we have to beat into submission to “make it” in science. Think about those scientists you consider to be not just smart, but terrifyingly smart: in my experience, these are the people who are quickest to say: “I don’t know”.
The bottom line is that learning new things is really hard and slow work. If you’re the kind of person who gets their kicks from figuring out the immense complexities of the Universe or the planet or the human mind, it’s inevitable that there will be times when you feel overwhelmed by everything you don’t know. If you accept that it’s normal to feel this way, you can let this drive you to new ideas. Feeling stupid doesn’t have to hurt: your Impostor Syndrome is not a flaw, it’s a symptom of the fact that you’re smart, inquisitive and challenged by the unknown. That’s not something to feel bad about.