Imposter Syndrome: Overcoming the Fear of Being a Fraud

 In Mental Health (blog), PhD/Postdoc Blog

Imposter Syndrome: Overcoming the Fear of Being a Fraud

When I’m not working in the lab or doing Crossfit, one of my other favorite past times is playing games. Whether it’s board games or video games, I like taking on the role of a character and solving puzzles or being part of a story. One of my favorite board games as a kid was Clue. The game takes place in a mansion where a murder has been committed. All of the characters are potential perpetrators. The goal is to figure out who the murderer is, the location of the murder, and the murder weapon. All of the characters seem to belong at the mansion, but one of them is an imposter. Everyone playing takes on the roles of one of the characters, and growing up my family and I always had fun trying to figure out who the fraud was.

What’s not as much fun is when you feel like a fraud in your daily life. No one likes to spend their day feeling like they don’t belong. While this may seem strange, it’s actually surprisingly common and is referred to as “imposter syndrome”. Harvard Business Review defined imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” I personally started experiencing this early in my grad school career. I felt as if I didn’t deserve to be there and that I was a fraud. These feelings seem to be particularly common among scientists, and I wanted to write a short blog post about how I deal with it in case it may help others.

Step 1: Know Thy Enemy

It may sound cliche, but the first step towards conquering imposter syndrome is admitting you suffer from imposter syndrome. This could start as simply as putting a name to your emotions. When I first started grad school, I felt like the university made a mistake admitting me. I felt as if my peers were more intelligent and more capable than I was and that I didn’t belong. Initially, I felt like I was alone in feeling this way. I was able to put a name to my feelings after I attended a seminar on imposter syndrome. Not only did this allow me to put a name to my feelings; it helped me realize that I was not alone.   

Step 2: Share the Struggle

Google Ngram Viewer showing the increased appearance of imposter syndrome in books

Imposter syndrome is not a random phenomenon that a small group of people suffer from.  Typing “imposter syndrome” into Google Scholar yields over 7,000 results. A standard Google search will give you even more. There have been so many books and articles written on this topic because it’s so common. My imposter syndrome started at the beginning of grad school, but it is not limited to those in science. Authors like Maya Angelou, actresses like Tina Fey, and athletes like Darren Lockyer have all been quoted talking about feeling like a fraud. It’s important to know that you’re not the only one who feels like this. Starting conversations about imposter syndrome may help you realize that many of your colleagues struggle with it too. Having open and honest conversations with trusted friends can do wonders to alleviate the struggle.

Step 3: Remind Yourself that Feelings and Facts Are Not the Same

This may vary with personality types, but for many people feelings are very powerful. They can make a good day seem bad, or vice versa. Personally, this becomes very true of me when experiments don’t work out the way I think they should have. Sometimes, I catch myself doubting my results because I feel like I am incapable of performing quality experiments. Early in grad school, I was working on a cell-based assay that I was able to get working quickly. The results from this have formed the foundation of my thesis. For a few years after, I was constantly doubting my results. There was no scientific reason I could come up with to justify the doubt. I was really doubting my own abilities.

Other times, I know an experiment didn’t work because I made a mistake. I often think that no self-respecting scientist would ever make such a silly mistake. I’ve spent an unfortunately long time working with Western blots; much of which has involved making mistakes. My favorite mistake seems to be adding in too much of a compound called TEMED. This compound helps the gel set, but when you add too much you get a gel that’s more similar to glass than a gel. The negative feelings I experience in moments like these are emotional responses to my failures and not facts. Taking a step back to separate out feelings from facts can help alleviate the pressure. It’s important to recognize that while we may feel like we are frauds, that feeling doesn’t make it true.

Step 4: Fake It Until You Make It

Despite working through the first few steps I outlined, my imposter syndrome is still strong and present. For many people, imposter syndrome is not something that goes away quickly. At the end of the day, our options are either give in to our feelings or keep going in spite of them. We may not feel like we’re qualified to do good science, but sometimes faking the feelings is enough to keep us going. In spite of my feelings, though, this mentality has helped me produce data and make progress. My fear may still be there, but it hasn’t paralyzed me. As you continue to make progress, you will be able to look back and see what you’ve accomplished. Those accomplishments will serve as additional proof that you are in no way an imposter.

Research in the biomedical sciences is difficult, and feeling like you’re a fraud makes it even harder. Imposter syndrome is a common and difficult problem, but it doesn’t have to make or break your career. As I mentioned earlier, there are a whole host of resources on the internet that talk about imposter syndrome. Below, I have some additional links to resources I’ve found useful. I would definitely encourage anyone dealing with these feelings to talk to some trusted friends and look into some additional resources. Leave the imposters for the board games.

A short list of additional resources I’ve found helpful:
https://www.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521
https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome
https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

 

Share in the comments what makes you feel like an imposter, but then include how your best friend would respond.

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