Monday, February 18, 2008

Impostor Syndrome

Science isn't always as glamourous as it's made out to be. It can be gruelling or frustrating. I know my share of people who have thought about quitting, or are thinking about other options when their degree is finished. One of the reasons for this is 'Impostor Syndrome'.

Impostor Syndrome is feeling like a fraud. It's the idea that your successes are a fluke, while those of your peers are because of intelligence and ability. It's the feeling that you're in over your head and the fear of being found out. And it can be tough to shake. Because publications and scholarships - evidence against being an fraud - are dismissed as luck, the victims can be difficult to convince of their abilities. The problem is magnified during dry spells - periods when things aren't working and results are hard to come by (which are frustrating enough on their own). Sound familiar? Apparantly it's quite common. Science Careers has an article about the phenomenon:
"Impostor feelings have a way of festering silently for a long time, thanks to the difficulty of accurate self-assessment and the social stigma of asking for help. Connecting with peers anonymously can be a first step toward realising that great scientists are made, not born, and that even some of the best of them faced on-the-job doubts along the way."
Impostor Syndrome is by no means limited to science, and it can lead to other behaviours such as procrastination that can compound the problem. Of course there's no quick fix either, other than a more realistic assessment of one's abilities and the knowledge that some of your peers are probably feeling the same way.

Have you suffered from Impostor Syndrome? Have suggestions how to overcome it? Share your stories.


Anonymous Coward said...

What do you call it when you feel that your failures are flukes... I'm just on a streak!

Bayman said...

I think can relate to the general phenomenon that's at work here, but I can't say I've experienced it exactly as an "impostor syndrome". I've heard others describe something similar as the post-PhD depression or some such thing, and I relate more to this type of idea.

Whatever you call it, for me probably one of the most difficult things to come to grips with during graduate training is learning about the limitations of science. I think it's natural for students with a keen interest in science to start out their careers with high expectations about what they can achieve. In particular I think the idea of seeking objective truths about the world attracts many to science - at least it did for me. I had no idea how elusive truth would turn out to be - particularly in a field like biology that often relies on particularly fuzzy experimental tools. Determining anything with a reasonable degree of certainty such that you feel comfortable passing it off to others is just damn hard - that's lesson 1. Lesson 2 is that reasonable certainty is as good as it gets. There's no final answers, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The realization of this fact can certainly be depressing. If science can't give us answers with certainty than how can a scientist contribute to the world? If there's no big answers or cure for cancer, why am I throwing my life away working in a lab?

But if you're willing to throw away your expectations and ride out the periods of depression I think it's possible to come to a deeper appreciation of the value of the scientific process. Your model of reality may never be perfect, but it gets better and better with each well-designed experiment. Indeed after really confronting uncertainty, one realizes it's a miracle that human beings can do anything at all to learn about our world in a useful, progressive way. Science is far from perfect, but it's one of the best tools we humans have developed.

I would speculate that impostor syndrome arises when scientists fail to acknowledge or even understand the uncertainty and limitations in their science. It is a pitfall that many scientists fall into. They feel pressure to produce answers, what they think their colleagues, their supervisor, reviewers or grant panels want to hear. So they start faking it, and become trapped within the aura of false certainty they are working so hard to project.

I do, however, agree with the sentiment that rare successes in the lab have to do with luck and persistence. Finding the quickest route of fewest failures to make these successful events happen as frequently as possible has to do with intelligence and ability but mainly experience. Personally, I don't feel guilty or fraudulent when an experiment works out. I usually feel relieved that it's over and I can move on to the next experiment. I feel satisfied with a conclusive result that gets me one step closer to trying to figure something out.

Just my random thoughts. I'm interested to hear about other experiences...

Admar_505 said...

It was interesting reading the article, and seeing all the symptoms being described were exactly what I have gone through. Although, this was not the first time I had become aware that this might be common across the human experience. I first heard of it during the Olympics in Spain, a decathlete described the same feeling of fraud and exposure I have always felt.

I was fortunate to get into an area that was pretty hot, and scored some good authorships, 3 science, 4 nature, nature biotech. to name a few. this is without a Phd, by the way, and the entire time I felt (and often still feel) like a complete fraud.

Now that I am finally in a Phd. program it has subsided somewhat, and my 8 years of research experience has given some peace of mind that it is not a fluke, except for 2 areas: writing, and sometimes speaking. I am still wracked by fear of the blank page, and will rewrite without stop, if I can bring myself to get to it. I notice that many of the graduate students I know have a similar problem writing is the hardest part, and the least we are prepared for. In the article, it states that the impostor syndrome can lead to procrastination, this is what I go through, every manuscript, and cannot seem to get over it.

I think that in all, what has helped is simply experience. I wonder if others feel that I.S. is more acute during writing and communication. If so, I would like to know some ideas about how we can prevent this? Scientific writing classes?

kamel said...

I've certainly felt some of the feelings described above as well, mostly when things aren't working out and then it's a mix of "am I wasting my time in science" and "maybe I'm not cut out for this".

As Bayman points out, it's easy to be 'trapped within the aura of false certainty' and with so many people projecting that aura of certainty it's easy to start to doubt your own abilities. You're "faking it" but what if not everybody else is?

Admar_505 brings up writing and presenting. Writing classes may help make young scientists without much paper/grant writing experience more comfortable with the process, but with regards to impostor induced procrastination I'm not sure it would help. My guess is that that sort of procrastination stems from the fact that writing and presentation are the forums where your work is exposed for critique, so - in the case of Impostor Syndrome - procrastination stems more from a fear of being "found out".

Science may be particularly bad for I.S. because it is so firmly grounded in skepticism and critical thinking. Any work you do gets put under the microscope and examined for flaws so even successes can look like failures. From a student perspective it means not taking these crticisms personally and understanding *why* they're being made. From a PI point of view, perhaps it requires more focus on the good as well as the critique and from both sides a more explicit (and realistic) assessment of expectations and abilities.

Bayman said...

Kamel said,
it's easy to be 'trapped within the aura of false certainty' and with so many people projecting that aura of certainty it's easy to start to doubt your own abilities.

That's a good point and a great illustration of one of the pitfalls of trying to learn how to do science by mimicking one's peers. This is a bad idea firstly, because the vast majority of other graduate students around you are not cut out to be scientists, so it's impossible to even know who's doing things right. Second, even if you could pick out the ones destined for "success", they're still figuring things out, just like every one else, largely through their failures. You're not going to learn anything by copying someone else's failure, even someone who's destined to be successful.

And the worst possible thing one can do, as Kamel alludes to, is to strive to emulate someone because they always have the "right" answers, are supremely confident, or are above criticism. These people are full of it, so if they are your role models you're going to end up either feeling like an underachieving failure or you will become a fraud yourself.

Personally I think I'll adopt Admar_505 as my role model. I'm dropping out of graduate school and going after those 3 Science and 4 Nature papers.
Any tips Admar? What type of pipette tips should I use? How many papers should I read per day? How many hours of lab work should I be doing per day? What hours should I keep at the lab? Most importantly, what word processing software do you use to churn out those manuscripts?

ADMar505 said...

Admar_505 as my role model. I'm dropping out of graduate school and going after those 3 Science and 4 Nature papers. Any tips Admar?

I met Richard Roberts this summer, and asked him a similar question, "How did you find the intron??" (He one the Nobel prize in Medicine for this in '93) He told me "I got incredibly lucky." That is exactly how it happened.

also, I miss spoke, it is 3 science 2 nature, 2 nature biotech (paper is in the second review phase). But it is really just luck. Also I use only LINUX!


Bayman said...

Ah yes LINUX. Of course. I should have known.

I'm curious what field you're working in if you don't mind sharing?

ADMar505 said...

No problem Bayman, I am in Genomics, the sequence side, so you can see how luck was the key factor. This also means that I am in a sea of authors, but on some of the publications I am very high/ very low in the list. I do only computational analysis, so perhaps it is somewhat faster to get a publication out. So I am fortunate, but I don't think I am particularly special.

Doctor David said...

I'm not sure I know of a serious scientist who has NOT experienced these feelings... at least, not if he/she is honest with himself. This is especially bad when you start to write for grants, and the funding line is falling and falling and falling.... the "coin of the realm", the "gold standard" of success is an R01, right? But if only 9% of R01s are funded...

Anonymous Coward said...

I have a gripping fear that I'll never graduate, and that even if I do, I won't get the kinds of jobs I want because I don't have 2 nature, 2 science and 2 nature biotech papers. I'm afraid I'll never find a phenotype in my KO, just because I picked the wrong gene.

Guillaume said...

This quote actually seems very relevant (Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan J. Watts):

But there is another deeper reason, one that has to do with the telling of science. The science of textbooks is typically a dry and intimidating affair. Unfolding in a relentless march of logic from apparently impossible questions to seemingly indisputable conclusions, textbook science is hard enough to follow, let alone emulate. And even when science is presented as an act of discovery, an achievement of humans, the process by which they actually figured it out remains cloaked in mystery. My dominant memory from years of physics and math courses is the depressing sense that no normal person could actually do this stuff.

But real science doesn't work that way. As I eventually learned, real science occurs in the same messy ambiguous world that scientists struggle to clarify, and is done by real people who suffer the same kind of limitations and confusions as anybody else. The characters in this story are, one and all, talented people who have worked hard throughout their lives to succeedas scientists. But they are also entirely human. I know that because I know them and I know that we have struggled and often failed together, only to pick ourselves up and try again. Our papers get rejected, our ideas don't work out, we misunderstand things that later seem obvious, and most of the time we feel frustrated or just plain stupid. But we struggle on, the journey being every bit as much the point as the destination.

Doing science is really a lot like doing anything else, but by the time it gets out into the larger word and everyone reads about it in books, it has been so reworked and refined that it takes on an aura of inevitability it never had in the making. This story is about science in the making.

I should really finish that book :)