The benefits of feeling like an imposter

A guest blog by Tye Kindinger, Ph.D.

“Do you believe others are more intelligent than you?”  “Are you afraid others will discover how little you know?” “Do you feel your success is due to luck?” “Does the fear of failure sometimes paralyze you?” “Do you feel you have to work harder than others?”

It was like one of those pharmaceutical commercials where the voice-over asks if you’re suffering from a long list of various symptoms in order to reveal a new magical drug that may be able to solve all of your problems. But for the first time, I actually found myself nodding in response to every single question.

“If you’re sitting there and are able to relate to these questions, then you likely are experiencing the imposter syndrome.” 

Imposter syndrome: the marked ability of high-achieving individuals to remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved, despite evidence of their competence. It is a state of mind that is commonly widespread amongst academics, but its existence is rarely acknowledged or openly discussed for fear of convincing others that you are a true fraud.

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I was lucky enough to learn about the imposter syndrome at a student workshop held towards the end of my first year of graduate school. The speaker  had the entire room affirmatively nodding along as he posed each symptom as a question to his audience. Prior to this workshop, I had experienced a lot of those “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore” types of moments where my naivety towards knowing what to expect in graduate school became abundantly clear. At first, taking classes felt familiar enough, but I quickly realized I was surrounded entirely by people who were brilliant and accomplished. Before I knew it, I found myself feeling intimidated by my peers. Any time I wanted to speak up in class my arm remained glued to the table and refused to be raised for fear of saying something incorrect in my shaky, unconfident voice. But suddenly, this workshop gave me a new sense of understanding and comfort as I realized that what I had been feeling not only had a name, but was very common in academia.   

Fast forward a couple of years to me banging my head against my desk trying to figure out the appropriate statistical analysis for an undergraduate student’s thesis. Having already devoted what felt like too much of my time to this conundrum, I found myself at a crossroads where I could either (1) continue to delude myself into believing that the answer was just one more Google search away, or (2) admit to myself that I wasn’t the leading expert in statistics and ask for help. So, I swallowed my pride and turned to the free statistical consulting services provided by my university’s statistical department, and a couple weeks later I had my answer.

A few of the many roles that make up a scientist, any of which could be an entire profession on its own.

A few of the many roles that make up a scientist, any of which could be an entire profession on its own.

That experience lead to an epiphany that has remained crucial for not only progressing in my career, but also for maintaining my enjoyment in this profession. As a scientist, my ability to succeed hinges on a strong knowledge base across a broad range of fields and an unlimited array of skills. However, this essentially boils down to expectations of being able to wear numerous hats, including that of a writer and editor, project manager, statistician, computer programmer, graphic designer, public speaker, accountant, project promoter, etc. Each of these components that makes up a scientist could be an entire profession on its own. So, why is it then that I was holding myself to expectations of being an expert in every single one of these areas? These expectations clearly were not feasible. And, that’s when I realized the value of embracing the imposter syndrome.

By acknowledging those moments when I felt like a fraud and facing my weaknesses rather than opting to pretend they didn’t exist (or turn to the “fake it ‘till you make it” mentality), I gradually learned the advantages gained from reaching out for help. I started sharing far-from-perfect drafts of manuscripts with my fellow lab members as a quick fix for writer’s block. Then, I sought help from a computer programmer who worked with me to write flawless R code (without ever having to look up any code) and accomplish in a single lunch break what had only brought me endless frustration for two weeks. And, the possible questions that could be addressed in a collaborative project grew with the addition of a member with expertise in ArcGIS.

Today, facing my fears of being an imposter whenever I venture outside of my comfort zone has brought even more than increased productivity. On a personal level, this has included recently accepting a postdoctoral position that initially intimidated me by the lack of overlap with my dissertation research in the focal drivers, study system, and methods. However, viewing this experience as an opportunity to learn and incorporate new ideas and perspectives into my work with guidance from experts in these new fields will ultimately take my research so much further by enhancing my range of possibility than if I had chosen to remain in my comfort zone and simply expanded upon my dissertation.

Some of the experts and peers that have contributed to my progression as a scientist.  Photos courtesy of Emily Donham (left) and Lillian Tuttle (right).

Some of the experts and peers that have contributed to my progression as a scientist.  Photos courtesy of Emily Donham (left) and Lillian Tuttle (right).

At a much larger level, given the environmental changes that are currently underway at global scales, the types of questions that we (as a society) pose are necessarily becoming more interdisciplinary in nature as the answers increasingly rely on the blurring of boundaries among various fields (e.g., ecology, socioeconomics, conservation, engineering, public health, etc.). While collaboration is not a novel concept in science, the ability to initiate and assemble collaborations (particularly those consisting of fields that typically have not worked together in the past) stems from recognizing when we have reached our individual limits. More than ever, we need to embrace these limits and resourcefully find ways to push past them to arrive at solutions that we may not have considered possible in solitude. 

Dr. Tye Kindinger is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCSC.