Imposter Syndrome

I was asked to give a talk about imposter syndrome at the Emerging Researchers in Exoplanets Symposium at Penn State last week.  [Update: Video is up. My slidedeck is here.]

The Astronomers Facebook group was a great source of material and inspiration for putting together my talk, especially Jessica Kirkpatrick, Johanna Teske, Loïc Le Tiran (from whose presentations I took LOTS of slides), and Renée Hložek.  I also had useful input from Julia Kregenow and the members of my group.  Below is my presentation in blog form:

Photo by Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson

Photo by Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson.

Who needs to know about imposter syndrome?  Who is this talk for?

  1. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome, especially those that are unaware of what it is, or that it is common and fixable
  2. Their colleagues, teachers, mentors, supervisors (i.e. those covered by #1, and everybody else!)

Imposter syndrome is so common in our profession, we will all be better off if it is widely understood and appreciated, both because those with it can deal with it and those that support them can do so better.

Imposter syndrome (IS) was originally identified in high-achieving women in a 1978 paper by Clance and Imes, who found women who, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments… persist[] in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.  Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object[ive] evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the imposter belief.”  Since then, IS has been shown to be pervasive across all demographics, although some are more susceptible than others.

Note that this isn’t about modesty or lack of confidence — it’s about a mismatch between objective and subjective perceptions of intellectual competence.  It includes an inability to objectively evaluate evidence of one’s own competence.

I anonymously polled the participants ahead of time with this Google Poll.  It includes the questions along the lines of “have you experienced imposter syndrome?” and “what fraction of your professional community do you think experience imposter syndrome?”.  The results were high and consistent with other, similar polls at other institutions: most people underestimated the number of people answering “yes” to the first question, with only about 1/4 guessing at least the correct answer (which was ~75%).  IS is a widespread phenomenon.

Some symptoms characterizing IS are:

  • Feeling of fraudulence or phoniness, having achieved success not through genuine ability
  • Feeling of having deceived others to achieve success
  • Fear of being “discovered” to be unworthy of success
  • A distorted, unrealistic, unsustainable definition of competence

The last one is important.  We often promulgate a rare and usually false narrative of success, something like Jodie Foster’s career arc: congenital genius, child prodigy, precocious Ivy Leaguer, lifetime of awards and accolades.  We revere and idolize this profile in the likes of Einstein and Feynman.

But interestingly, after winning her first Oscar Jodie Foster herself said:

Jodie Foster, winner of 2 Oscars

Jodie Foster, on winning her first Oscar

Perhaps even more interestingly, even Meryl Streep, the greatest actor of her generation, whose first name is synonymous with acting perfection, said this:

Meryl Streep, winner of 3 Oscars (not counting the one they didn't actually take from Jodie Foster.)

Meryl Streep, winner of 3 Oscars (not counting the one they didn’t actually take from Jodie Foster.)

OK, so maybe actors aren’t the best examples.  How about a world-renowened intellectual?

Nobel laureate Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

That’s right, even Maya Angelou was worried that at some point people would discover that she couldn’t actually plumb the human soul and reveal the complexity of the human condition in superlatively beautiful language, after all!

JohnJohnOK, OK, but we should really be talking about scientists, right?  Objectivity!  Meet John Johnson, circa 2009.  His CV at this point read: PhD at Berkeley, Sagan Fellow, brand-new Caltech assistant professor.  Basically, the dream CV for any astronomer aspiring to be tenured faculty at a major research university.  Surely he is the standard those with IS compare themselves to, and not one to suffer from it himself?  As he wrote on his blog:

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night in early 2010, about six months after I joined the faculty at Caltech. I woke up to the terrifying realization that I didn’t have a contingency plan for my family for when I would inevitably be either let go or denied tenure. Erin woke up wondering what was wrong with me and I told her that I was sorry, but it was only a matter of time before my colleagues discovered how little I know about astronomy. They were going to discover that they made a mistake in hiring me as a professor.

Of course, this was not true.  John’s CV was actually an excellent predictor of his abilities. He would go on to win the Pierce Prize, a Sloan Fellowship, and become a FULL professor at Harvard (at age 36, but who’s counting?).

The point is that IS is irrational.  It can’t just be reasoned away, like in the (fictional) John Nash reasons his way out of madness in A Beautiful Mind.  But where does it come from?  For one thing, it’s based on some misconceptions.  Here are three of them, and they are pervasive, even outside of those with IS:

  1. Success is primarily due to extreme amounts of narrow, technical competence (What John Johnson calls “The Cult of Smart”)
  2. Competence is a fixed trait that some people have and others do not
  3. The most successful, competent people are perfectionists, who never take on a problem without the necessary preparation

Let’s take these one by one.  The first is dismantled expertly in a series of blog posts by John Johnson, including this one.  John quotes Ed Turner and Scott Tremaine, who defined a seven-dimensional space of intelligence necessary for doing good work in astronomy:

  1. Taste: Ability to identify important, answerable questions
  2. Intelligence: adeptness at basic and complex problem solving
  3. Grit: Ability to persevere, maintain attention, finish tasks, slog through drudgery
  4. Knowledge: Possession of relevant facts and skills
  5. Curiosity: Alertness to relevant byways, anomalies
  6. Luck: including that manufactured by intuitive ability to expose oneself to, select for, and respond to constructive paths.
  7. Communication: Ability to advance ideas and generate needed input from peers

The point is twofold:  One is that you should not judge your ability by a single axis of intelligence along which your perceived competence is not as high as your peers/role models.

Second, those of us identifying and nurturing talent need to recognize the talents of those with an intelligence spectrum different from our own.

The second misconception is belied by appreciating that competence in academia follows from a broad set of acquired skills that improve with practice. Appreciating this means having a growth mindset that strives to improve one’s skills, rather than to prove one’s skills.  This has ramifications for how to deal with negative feedback: if one has a fixed mindset about one’s abilities, one will receive negative feedback as an indictment of one’s personal abilities.  If one has a growth mindset, one will see constructive negative feedback as a roadmap towards improvement.  The former mindset feeds IS, the latter helps avoid it.

The third misconception comes from the idea that the most successful scientists don’t make mistakes.  Part of this misconception is promoted whenever we present our research as a clear, understandable story from ignorance to knowledge, a straight line through inspiration to the correct answer.  We rarely talk about the projects that did not pan out, the errors, the embarrassing mistakes.  We should present a more truthful profile of research to our advisees.

In fact the most successful people regularly make mistakes. As John Wooden said,  “If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.”  They make mistakes because they’re human, they’re allowed, and they often work on problems outside their core areas of competence, and learn as they go.

In short, one needs to give oneself permission to not know something, to screw up, and to grow.  It’s what the most successful people do.

IS is irrational.  But there are things that have been shown to help:

  • Acknowledge that Imposter Syndrome is not an innate, immutable personality trait — more like a habit that can be kicked
  • Find supportive friends, family, and discuss imposter syndrome.  (As Sarah Ballard writes, “normalize it”.)
  • Find supportive mentors and learn the habits of successful people.  Contrast these habits with your own expectations for yourself.
  • Keep and review tangible evidence of success (published papers, invitations, citations, acceptance letters)
  • Keep a “happy” file or “nice” file to retain kudos for future reference (congratulatory, “good job”, or “thank you” emails)
  • Embrace imperfection

Also, acknowledge the irrationality and double-standards of imposter syndrome. For instance:

  • It involves respect for peers’ and superiors’ judgement— except for their judgement of you! (You must think you’re an amazing actor if you think you can deceive experts in their own specialty!)
  • It involves almost total disregard for you own, trained abilities — except for your own, untrained ability to deceive others, which are world-class!
  • It involves the conviction that everyone else’s success is due to competence — yet somehow yours is due to luck/deception!

Finally, a word about mental health.  Imposter Syndrome is not a recognized medical disorder, but is a very real and common phenomenon.  That said, IS can be greatly exacerbated by other mental health issues, like depression and anxiety disorders.

It would be absurd to try to “push through” a broken wrist1 while trying to do research. Many mental health issues are just as hampering and treatable. So get treatment if you need it.

After giving this advice, John Johnson decided to follow it himself.  His story of how he treated his anxiety and depression is also the story of how he overcame IS.  Read it here, but here’s an excerpt:

I was suddenly able to hear compliments and not assume I had fooled the person… I was finally able to hear praise. I could give a colloquium and not obsess about the slide transition I missed and I was actually able to hear it when people said, “That was a great talk!”… I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear someone say that and not have to brush it off. It wasn’t humility that caused me to do that before… I truly couldn’t hear it.

Finally, some resources.  All the links above.  Also:

1Caryl Gronwall tells me that she actually did this once! I admit that I also “pushed through” something like carpal tunnel / tendonitis when finishing my thesis. My point isn’t that it doesn’t happen, of course, it’s that such behavior is obviously absurd because the problem is physical, and that we have a weird aversion to treating mental issues in the same way.

[Update: I somehow thought that Angelou was a Nobel laureate, but she wasn’t. I don’t think that oversight by the Nobel Committee changes my argument, though.  Thanks to Rashod M. el-Rhashid for the correction.  I’ve fixed the Keynote slide deck, as well.]

2 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Podcast: The Tattooed Physicist, 2 - Casa Bouquet

  2. Loic Le Tiran

    Hey Jason,
    Thanks for putting this up! It’s a great source and sums up everything important about impostor thoughts. Definitely a must read for those who have not been to IS workshops, or want to be reminded what they have heard there. Congrats!

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