Thursday, November 6, 2014

I don't think Impostor Syndrome ever goes away

This past week, Beth Haas posted on Impostor Syndrome and how she felt a little odd about being at her new workplace:
I realized I was asking everyone around me for permission to be there, and that was undermining my confidence. I don't need anyone's permission to do my job. I'm the real deal, not an impostor. 
Like the spy movie cliché, people tend to assume you belong and you know where you're going. You just have to act like it. Do it long enough, and you might just fool yourself. 
So when I feel uncertain now, I just act. I pretend confidence, and the confidence becomes real.
I didn't know about Impostor Syndrome until late after I left graduate school; by that point, I had passed through huge swaths of it, to the point where I spent days at my hood at my new institution, wondering when my supervisor would come to escort me out of the building and when my badge would stop working.

Of course, in the 5+ years since, I've realized that impostor syndrome is incredibly common and even happens for people who have been well-established in their careers for years and years. To an extent, I actually wonder if lack of it is a sign that you've gotten into a rut. I dunno, but I still feel like one now and again. (I've managed to fool all of you. No you haven't. - ed.)


  1. I was extremely fortunate that within the first month of grad school at Champaign-Urbana, the local paper had an article about the syndrome.Wow. Was I ever lucky. It really helped change my head, and I've mentioned the article to friends, colleagues and reports ever since.

  2. Imposter syndrome (and concomitant periods of poor R&D progress due to the natural difficulty of science) can make it hard to summon up the verve to fight for solid raises.

  3. Stewie Griffin:
    Most of the real good chemists I've worked with have had bouts of this, definitely including myself. The frighteningly bad chemists that I've worked with, some with PhD's, never displayed the tiniest of symptoms of Imposter Syndrom but were instead fully confident in their abilities (Dunning-Kruger effect)

  4. Welcome to the club. The impostor syndrome mess cost me a job since I didn't recognize it in time to get help. I had gone through a large change in my job. My response to the job stress combined with stress at home sent me spiraling down.

    It has been a tough road from the bottom. The key to recovery was learning about myself and a lot of support. I think I came out of it stronger and more open minded, but this was an expensive lesson. I am just now looking to get back to a job.

  5. Welcome to the club, I've been working in this field for with a PhD and I still feel like an idiot sometimes. Being unemployed for over a year didn't help at all either. Now it feels strange when equally qualified people ask me synthesis questions or grad students look up to me. I try not to let it get to me because I know some people who are waaaayyyy smarter than me and they struggle with it too, so that gives me the feeling that I'm not alone.

  6. Thing is there are a lot of imposters!!! Thousands of people who contributed to marketed products have been laid off and discarded by the industry. Industry managers and HR folk think chemists are interchangeable and lobbies for more visa and student programs. It is quite frustrating to be an experienced chemist who knows many excellent chemists whose careers were destroyed to see "PhD interns" cycle through the lab on student visas. Most of these "PhD interns" could not identify a compound properly if their life depended on it (or write up a procedure in English). What's worse is that the new PhD full time idiots who chose to hire the PhD interns could not do much better. Newbie PhDs suck knowledge from them old timers without giving proper credit and pretend to be superior because they have a magic piece of paper with three letters on it instead of two. But without newbie PhDs and their interns HR would not feel like they are special in trying to get engagement or external marketing of how just how wonderful it is to work at a company which discards its best employees!

  7. Professional StraphangerDecember 29, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    I'm late to the party here but I wanted to comment on this topic. As an undergrad I worked in a materials testing lab. One day I was venting to the lab manager that maybe I had reached my level of incompetence because everywhere I went, I felt like the dumbest person in the room. She told me something I have remembered fifteen years later: "Fake it till you make it."
    That seemed like a sure recipe for being found out as the fraud I thought I was, until she explained: Fake your *confidence,* even if you don't feel it. You were chosen for a reason; don't let your insecurities get the best of you.
    I got a refresher lesson in grad school when my advisor gave me the same talk after my research hit a rough patch, and I needed it even more the second time around. Now I have the feeling (mostly) in check and I have had the opportunity to give the same advice to younger scientists. I hope it has helped them.