Dear Researchista friend, allow me to introduce you to Laurien, our ‘intern’ (is unusual to call a PhD, an intern), whom I had the pleasure to meet through Maastricht University’s Alumni Office (thanks to Guido Vanderbroeck). In the light of Researchista’s strong encouragement for Researchers to get creative, please welcome this PhD post. This is Laurien’s first creative-writing-with-academic-flavour post, support and enjoy!
‘I just had a whole lot of luck’
Whilst I am sitting here writing this first post for Researchista, various dark thoughts run through my mind. Did I bite off a bigger piece than I can chew? Are people going to think this is a dull piece of text? Can I combine blogging with my PhD work? Self-doubt and critique are a pretty common phenomenon that many of you are familiar with. These feelings are quite normal and adaptive because they make us go the extra mile. They urge us to practice that presentation one more time before getting on stage or to repeat those materials a last time before the test.
A far worse feeling is feeling like a real fraud, feeling like you do not deserve the job/title you currently hold. People afflicted with the ‘imposter syndrome’ are truly convinced that they are frauds in their job and that they just had a lot of luck. These anxious individuals worry that their boss and/or peers will soon discover they are not capable or intelligent after all. Once discovered there will be a fall from grace and complete humiliation. There are plenty famous figures that suffer from the imposter syndrome. One of them is UN Women Goodwill ambassador Emma Watson. She admitted feeling like an imposter and stated that she could never meet the expectations the public has from her.
When digging into the plenty of popular science articles and YouTube videos on imposter syndrome, I came across a video lecture from Chris Lema. His definition of imposter syndrome speaks to me: imposter syndrome is the inability to internalize success. It is the inability to respond to an accomplishment with the feeling ‘I did that’. It is the person immediately diminishing his/her efforts when receiving a compliment: ‘Oh that was just luck’ and ‘Oh I have great colleagues’. I like Lema’s definition a lot because it accounts for the paradox that is the imposter syndrome: the ones feeling like a fraud are often immensely successful at the same time. I would dare to say that having success but not internalizing it, not owning it, is the same as not experiencing success at all …. ?
Many blogs and opinion articles claim that imposter syndrome is rampant throughout academia. When looking in my personal circle of academic colleagues, I tend to agree with such statements. Of course the syndrome is not exclusive to academia, but what makes academia such a fertile ground for the development of fraudulent feelings? Here are a few potential reasons:
Academia is a competitive There is a limited amount of grants, tenure positions, etc. You are competing with peers for the same position. Comparing yourself to peers is thus inevitable, especially when you know that admission committees will compare you directly either way. When we observe our peers, we see a ‘filtered picture’. Just like on Instagram, we see our peers publishing articles, shining on a stage when presenting, etc. What we do not see is the behind- the-scenes grind of last minute work, procrastination, failure and emotional turmoil. No wonder we feel like an imposter when we experience all the flaws that we do not see in our peers.
1. Academia has a clear hierarchical structure with the tenured professor on top, followed by non-tenured assistant professors, postdocs and graduate students. Because of the clear division between positions, it somehow seems that you need to be ‘a lot smarter’ to move one step up. The process can be perceived as non-gradual and therefore employees might feel like an imposter when taking on a new position.
2. In addition there is also a ‘timing issue’ because of expectations from our environment (and also from ourselves) arise: A PhD should finish in 3/4 years. A postdoc should roll out a few first-author papers a year. Certain grants can only be attained in a certain time frame (x years after getting the PhD). Whenever we fail to meet a ‘deadline’, we feel inadequate and somehow less capable than our colleagues finishing ‘in time’.
3. Academia is a personal strive. Even though researchers are embedded in research labs/ groups, at the end of the day only your work counts. Only the papers that proudly carry your name count. Your teaching evaluation is looked at and your progress is looked at. You cannot hide behind a team. This much responsibility might be too overwhelming to handle for some of us. There is no way that you can handle all of that responsibility.
4. Academia has an ‘elite’ feel to it. Academia still is a bit of an ‘ivory tower’, there is no reality check. I am comparing myself with genius people, and therefore feel stupid. I think it is good to get out of the academic bubble now and then to realize that you have many strengths. It is good to distinguish your personal worth from your researcher’s worth. One has nothing to do with the other, even though it might feel like it.
5. ‘Universitas’ means broadening your knowledge, yet more often universities enable specialization in one field. Because of the specialization, you might feel inadequate when a colleague talks about his research and you do not understand a single word of what he/she is saying. You might feel like an imposter: ‘How did I come so far without studying more biology?! .. what a fraud I am!’. I myself often suffer from the ‘knowing more is knowing less’ phenomenon. When I delve into an undiscovered neuroscience topic I often feel confused and overwhelmed. There are so many articles and studies out there that a seemingly simple paradigm turns into a three-headed dragon.
6. Academia attracts high achievers, and in turn it is known that high-achievers are more prone to the imposter syndrome. These high-achievers might have certain personality traits that predispose them such as perfectionism, anxiety, etc.
Even though imposter syndrome is not an officially recognized disorder in the DSM, there are some real consequences. A study from Gent University found that employees identifying themselves with the imposter syndrome, report to be less likely to volunteer for tasks that are beyond their job description. This adds another layer to the riddle of imposter syndrome: suffering from it doesn’t make you work harder, but perhaps even less hard. So, dear readers, we have to combat the imposter syndrome. The first step, as always, is recognizing one has a problem. Step two is talking about it to a colleague or a friend. Especially friends outside academia might give you some perspective. A small tip that I am practicing daily is this one: Next time you get a compliment, own it. Stop yourself when you feel ‘I had a whole lot of luck’ rolling out of your mouth. Celebrate even the smallest accomplishment. You are pretty awesome 😉
Here you go dear readers, my first-ever blog post for Researchista. Imperfect as it is, it is real, tangible and a proof that I am not a ‘blog imposter’, I just sometimes feel like one.
This text was written on my personal title.
by Laurien Nagels-Coune, PhD student in Cognitive Neuroscience at FPN, Maastricht University
With love for Researchers,