A few years ago I was talking to a dear friend of mine about how I didn't think I could be successful as a scientist. "I'm not smart enough," I whined. "I just fake it, and hope no one notices how stupid I am. I could never fake it well enough to be a PI."
The voices in my head tell me that I only got into grad school because I'm good at taking standardized tests. And I only got good grades as an undergraduate because my college wasn't rigorous. I only got internships because I got lucky. I only did well in my undergraduate research lab because I had good people training me. I only passed my general exam in grad school because my committee decided to go easy on me.
My friend, a fellow graduate student, shook me with the sterness of her response. "You're being ridiculous. Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome?" I had not (more evidence that I am dumb?).
Imposter syndrome, identified in 1978, is a destructive mode of thinking, afflicting primarily high-acheiving women. Women with imposter syndrome have the persistent belief that they are phonies, or fakes, despite high-level academic and professional accomplishements. These women believe that they are not bright and think that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. They often experience generalized anxiety and depression because they are afraid that one day they will be "found out" or that they can never live up to the expectations they have tricked others into having.
While the imposter phenomenon has not been exhaustively studied, there has been considerable work looking at the differences between men and women when it comes to the differential attribution of success between the sexes. While men tend to attribute successes to their ability, women tend to attribute successes to external or temporary factors (such as luck or extreme effort) which mitigate their inherent inability. When it comes to failures, men tend to attribute their failures to such temporary factors ("I didn't study for this exam") or task difficulty, while women tend to attribute failures to their lack of ability. This type of thinking is thought to play heavily into the imposter phenomenon.
When I first read about the imposter phenomenon, it actually made me feel a little better that I wasn't the only person who couldn't seem to feel good about any of her accomplishments. Of course, like anyone I get some temporary joy when I perform well, but mostly that feeling isn't one of pride... more a feeling of relief... I dodged another bullet, pulled off another trick.
The voice of doubt is there pretty much constantly. It's there when I'm interpreting my data... I never seem to feel like my data is trustworthy. I repeat experiments over and over again because I don't believe they will be reproducible. My grad work is published, but I don't speak about it with pride because I seem to be waiting for someone to disprove it.
When an experiment fails, I often try to avoid seeing my boss. I'm afraid that if I have to tell her something didn't work, it's because I'm a horrible scientist and I should be ashamed (because, apparently I am the ONLY scientist in the world whose experiments sometimes fail). That's the main reason I'm often unhappy working at the bench. I can not take a failed experiment or a negative result in stride... it's always further evidence of my incompetence.
When I recently got funded, I celebrated out of relief that I wouldn't have to write again, not because I felt like I had done well. And I started to tell myself that the reason I got funded was because I look good on paper, not because I am competent.
Talking to other female grad students and postdocs, I hear the same thing from women that I would give my left nut to be like. What is it about academia that women can't seem to be confident in their successes? Have we internalized the societal bias that women aren't smart enough to be academics? Are intelligent women really so rare that we can't possibly be among them?
I can believe someone if they tell me I'm a good cook. I can believe someone if they tell me I'm a good mother. I can even believe someone if they tell me I'm fun to be around. But I can't ever seem to quiet the negative backtalk when it comes to my intelligence.
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