Impostor Syndrome and Feeling Stupid

For me, one of the hardest things about making the transition into a research degree is coming to the realization that although the knowledge and skills I worked so hard to accumulate in high school and college are helpful, the set of skills I need in order to be successful in research have very little overlap with the ones I’d been developing up to that point.  Of course, time management and self-discipline are helpful to have as a PhD student, but I’m talking more of the nitty-gritty academic.  Skill at memorizing, which is a necessity in introductory biology and organic chemistry courses, factors in very little to success in a PhD program.  Thinking creatively and synthetically about varied topics may sometimes be asked for in an undergraduate science program, but one can almost certainly earn a B.S. with only a brief skirting of these. To earn a research degree, one might spend the better part of a year just synthesizing information and thinking creatively to generate questions, without taking a single quiz or exam. At the risk of hugely oversimplifying: Through an undergraduate degree, the import lies in coming up with the right answers. In a PhD (and the rest of a career in scientific research), your task is to come up with the right questions.

If learning to ask interesting, tenable, and new questions weren’t enough, then you have to try to design the study that will discern against alternative hypotheses that may serve as answers to them.  This, of course, is a process that takes years and, unless you’re incredibly lucky, a few failures. The process is something that has made me feel way out of my depth, and trying to balance classes, fellowship applications, and starting a PhD definitely stresses me out sometimes.  Suddenly being asked to think in new ways and have your ideas and questions scrutinized by a committee of people who tend to not mince words is a hard transition.  I realize more and more that I am asked (by myself or others) questions that to which I just don’t know the answers.  Sometimes, it makes me feel positively stupid.

Feeling stupid and stressed out has, at times, made me question if I indeed actually belong in graduate school at all. In the worst of these times, I feel that I’m not smart or skilled enough to make it in the PhD program, and that somehow, I’ve fooled the admissions board into letting me into the program.  I’ve felt that I’m just faking it until someone finally realizes that I’m not smart enough and kicks me to the curb.

A brief Google search of the term “imposter syndrome,” though, will demonstrate that this is a pretty common feeling, and reveal that it is particularly prevalent in high-achieving women (like those working as scientists, medical doctors, or business executives). Imposter syndrome can be debilitating, as discussed by Female Science Professor and the Washington Post. Feeling incompetent and unconfident about oneself can hinder communication and others’ opinions, in addition to making one’s own work suffer. But a 2008 article in the New York Times contends that imposter syndrome isn’t ALL bad; their discussion suggests that sometimes, feelings of inadequacy associated with imposter syndrome can motivate women to work harder and do better (notably, however, the article didn’t discuss how feelings of low self-worth affect the subjects in the long term…). Kate Clancy, assistant professor at the University of Illinois and blogger for Nature Publishing Group, writes about her own experiences with impostor syndrome as an early career scientist, and discusses how it drove her to pursue a different path that may be recommended for early career tenure track faculty, but one that she feels is important and fulfilling.

So is there any way to go from feeling fraudulent, incompetent, and like an impostor to putting aside these worries, and being able to confidently fill out potential without worrying about being found out as a fraud? Amy Cuddy, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, gives an interesting and beautiful TED talk about how our posture can help to make us feel powerful rather than weak, and about her own struggle with and overcoming of imposter syndrome. (Thanks, Meredith, for pointing me toward this!)

Although I sometimes feel incapable and fraudulent, after reading these articles, I realize that it’s a feeling that probably won’t be going away any time soon.  Usually, I can work through it, but when feelings of impostor syndrome are particularly hampering me, there are two places I turn.  When I’m feeling too stupid to possibly earn a PhD, I reread an article I was assigned in the first semester of my Master’s program.  Martin Schwartz, professor of medicine and cell biology at Yale, published a 2008 essay in the Journal of Cell Science entitled “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.”  He suggests that not only is it okay to feel stupid as a researcher, but that it is, indeed, necessary.  If you already know the answer, there’s no way you are asking an interesting question! It’s a great (open-access) essay and a fantastic pick-me-up for a new graduate student. When I’m feeling that I don’t belong here, won’t ever be able to earn my PhD, and am just waiting to be “found out,” I repeat sometime my advisor told me when I came up to interview for the Duke PhD program in March of 2012.  To paraphrase, he told me: Don’t worry about whether you belong here or not.  It was someone else’s job to decide that, and the decision is not for you to worry about.  Your job is to be here, and to do the best work you can.

6 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome and Feeling Stupid

  1. Excellent post Megan! and very opportune for one like me in the middle of the difficult task of writing a thesis, and preparing applications for graduate schools. I will read the article you mentioned.

  2. Megan, this is indeed an excellent post! I guess we have all felt like you at one point or another… and yes, if you already know the answer then you definitely aren’t asking an interesting question! I too am applying to PhDs right now, and questioning my own adequacy as a candidate. Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  3. Thank you for tackling this subject, Megan! I dealt with imposter syndrome all through undergrad (how did they let me in here?! everyone else is so much smarter than me!) and never knew there was a name for it until afterward. It’s a relief to realize you’re not the only one wondering whether you deserve to be “here,” wherever that is.

    …and kudos to your advisor for the great advice!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. As a first year graduate student I am feeling very behind the curve because I actually wasn’t taught to memorize in most of my classes. We were taught to think critically but that doesn’t help you if you don’t know the “in’s and out’s”of the system. I haven’t even gotten to the point where I really need to be thinking about asking the right questions and I am already worried about it! Luckily I have good people in my life to support me and keep me going. I think that is very important to have in grad school.

  5. 🙂 Word. I feel that impostor syndrome exists in many a sphere. Good to talk about! Now on to pretending to know anything about flow cytometry…

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