Friday, October 5, 2007


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.

Damn it.


hgg said...

The feeling is dreadful and in most cases completely unnecessary. In my case, however, it clearly reflects reality. As a matter of fact, I think "they" aready found out I'm a fake and they are either laughing evilly behind my back because they know that they know, or despairing since they hired the wrong person and cannot get rid of me till my contract ends. Arrgh.

ScienceMama said...

This smacks of exactly what I was talking about!!

The bean-mom said...

Sciencemama and hypoglycemiagirl,

I know exactly how both of you feel. When I was working at the bench, I always took experiments personally; if one failed, it was always an indication of my personal failure. And no, I've met a guy who suffered from "imposter syndrome" like this (at least, not one who would admit it).

I'm glad so many women in science are blogging these days. It makes me feel less alone.

hgg said...

I actually have a former colleague that once said he felt that way. It just came out of thin air walking with a third colleague from UCLA campus to Westwood Village during a conference in february. I was totally taken by surprise since the setting should provoke a totally different mood (hey, Scandinavians in LA for the first time!)than impostor thoughts. Stupid me said something about that being a bit "girly" trait. And I got "good thing that you're so macho then" back in the face. Guess I deserved it.

Unknown said...

It isn't only true of scientists...
I am a low-level manager in the public sector and I continually wonder when they are going to find out that I don't know what I an doing.

Heidi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

as a female ph.d. scientist/engineer, I felt like this through out my grad career and still feel this way as i am publishing my thesis work. I have this theory that girls assume they are wrong unless told otherwise and guy that assume they are right unless told otherwise.

I found this to be generally true of the guys and girls in my graduate program. I think this is why the lack of feedback in graduate science/engineering programs drove me crazy.

(p.s. i clicked on over from minnow's mom's blog. in addition to being a female ph.d., I am on maternity leave with a two month old.)

EcoGeoFemme said...

I know how you feel too. But it's not just women. My boyfriend really suffers from this.

A-M said...

I realize I am a little late to this topic but I really felt like this post hit home. My undergrad work was published in Science (as second author of course but still) and I felt like I got lucky. In grad school I was funded on my first round for an NRSA and again chalked it up to being lucky (I should have three pubs from grad school by the time I am done with my dissertation work). I still feel like one day NIH will show up and want it back when they figure out who I am. And now I am about to finish my PhD I am also struggling with the family/science problem. My husband and I very much want children but I am so worried about doing two things badly, maybe it's better to just be good at one at a time. Will keep reading to see what you have to say. I especially like the Science and motherhood posts.

Unknown said...

Are intelligent women really so rare that we can't possibly be among them?

As near as I can tell, that is the perception that is drilled into us with everybody's reaction as soon as we show an interest in any "difficult" subject.

"Oh, that's such a complicated subject, you must be very smart to be able to do that!"

"How wonderful, you're so smart, I could never do anything as hard as that."

No, I'm not among the top minds in engineering - stop reacting with awe when you find out I'm an engineer! Sure, I'm smarter than the average bear, but so are my male colleagues and nobody reacts like they're a leading light unless they actually are.

They're intended as compliments, and they come primarily from other females. Male reactions, I've found, don't have the same negative effect in general.

That, I find, is the worst part. Women are doing this to themselves.

Kristi said...

How interesting to come across this post -- I am a stay at home mother to 2 young children and I feel like an imposter as a mother.

I didn't feel it as much if at all when I was practicing law (very successfully) because, I think, I was told from childhood on that I was very smart. So smart, in fact, that I shouldn't waste my gifts on motherhood.

I'm very glad to be a mother -- but I find it much more challenging than anything else I've ever done. And I'm always afraid I'm not doing it right. At least in practicing law I found out soon enough if my work was successful.

Anonymous said...

Also men can feel like imposters. I am a "successful" assistant professor of law with only months to go before I get a full professorship (if, that is, the reviews are favourable).

I especially would like to point out some things typical for my affliction.

First of all, I never ever send my articles/books to collegues, which is kind of the norm in my line of business: you send your publications in order to show others "look what wonderful and smart things I wrote in this article/book". Since I don't feel smart at all I tend to keep all(!) free copies myself.

Second, I avoid challenging tasks in fear of failing but get annoyed if I am not regarded as the "man for the job".... Sick? You bet!

Third, I hate giving talks at conferences. I kind of like teaching. The difference? The students won't notice I'm faking it. At a conference every does notice my inferiority.