“I struggle with seeing myself as an impostor a lot of the time – like, who let this girl do science? But you know, I think a lot of us are just faking it until we make it, and that’s okay.”
The first time I heard about impostor syndrome was when a Facebook friend shared this BuzzFeed article entitled “13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense to People with Impostor Syndrome”. After skimming through the figures, my first thought was “But my Facebook friend is so talented and successful and cool! How can she feel like she’s not actually good at anything?”. My second thought: “I totally have this too.”
For those who don’t know, impostor syndrome refers to the inability of high-achieving individuals to internalize their accomplishments along with the persistent feeling of being a fraud. The term was first used by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, clinical psychologists, in their 1978 paper that documented the prevalence of the syndrome among high-achieving women. Since Clance and Imes’ initial work, it has been widely studied and is now believed to to occur equally in men, while young scientists of any gender are particularly prone. Neither a mental disorder nor a distinct personality trait, impostor syndrome is instead a reaction to certain events or stimuli- a response that some people, for whatever reason, exhibit more than others.
Impostor syndrome manifests itself in my mind as a little voice that says, “I don’t know enough about this topic”, “Everyone else is smarter than me”, “I tricked them into thinking I’m qualified”, “Soon they’ll find out the truth”, and “I’m not good enough to be here.” It’s am undermining whisper telling tales of inadequacy and cover-ups. I’m a senior undergraduate student grappling with big ecological ideas for my honours thesis, and this doubting voice is only likely to get worse as I head to grad school in the fall.
Having a name to put to these feelings is somehow freeing, as is knowing that I’m not alone. Maybe it’s lingering shock from realizing when I came to McGill that I am just another special snowflake in a blizzard of special snowflakes, maybe it’s related to my perfectionism, but knowing objectively under this sea of emotions that I am good at what I do is made easier. Throughout my degree I have realized some things about being in science: there will always be someone who is smarter than me, there will always be more to learn, and these are in fact good things. When I really think about it, I don’t want to be the most intelligent person in the room, because then who would push me to be better? The day when science, a field built around the pursuit of knowledge, has nothing more to discover would be a sad day indeed.
In the end, maybe it’s not about getting rid of my impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s about recognizing these feelings for what they are and succeeding anyway- faking it until I make it. As Chris Woolston says in this Nature article about impostor syndrome in science, “In a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career.”