They say that everyone feels it at one point or another. That feeling that you are a fraud; that you are just pretending to do your job; that anytime soon people will realise and you’ll be swiftly given the boot. These feelings are especially prevalent amongst researchers (Kaplan, Nature 459, pp.468-469 (2009)). But you are not alone! It’s time to understand the Imposter Phenomenon, and learn how to deal with it.
“As I come to the end of this short term contract, I get that familiar feeling – is this the end of the road? Will I finally be found out as the fraud I often feel like I am in research? Will I manage to find more work in research? If I do, I will probably feel lucky to have gotten the job.” – PDRA, MHS.
Imposter Phenomenon (or Imposter Anomaly/ Syndrome) is a buzz-term for feelings of inadequacy that can have a damaging impact on people’s careers. It can manifest itself in many different ways, such as generally feeling like a fraud, thinking that your successes were purely down to luck, or thinking that any positive feedback you get is down to people feeling sorry for you. If you have ever downplayed an achievement (“I won, but only because the other entries were terrible.”) or undermined your own knowledge (“I believe this is the case… but maybe I haven’t read enough of the literature, it might be completely wrong.”) then you know what it’s like to feel like an imposter. In order to conquer these feelings, first be aware that everyone has felt like this at one time or another (or many!). From students to PDRAs to lecturers and professors, no-one is safe from feeling this way at some point.
“Even though I’ve been a researcher for almost eight years now, with a number of single-authored and co-authored papers, I still can’t shake the feeling that I will be found out soon. I am almost too aware of my own failings to the extent that it permeates all that I do. Every time I get an interview or am asked to partake in a new research project, my immediate reaction is: ‘They must be desperate!’” – PDRA, Humanities.
So how can we conquer these negative thoughts? Here we outline some top strategies.
1. Realise that nobody’s perfect. Imposter thinking often accompanies perfectionism.
2. Realise that everybody – especially those in the scientific community – feels the same way at some point.
3. Own your achievements. No more excuses: recognise that you’ve earned your successes and that you deserve them.
4. Logically look at the evidence. Don’t just count the results that fit your hypothesis (e.g. if you think you’re stupid, remembering only the one bad grade you ever had). We’re researchers: take a step back and assess things logically.
5. Put things into context. Imposter thinking will turn one piece of criticism or bad news into a thesis for how terrible you are. Put critical comments or failings into context, e.g. missing out on one grant doesn’t mean the next application is futile.
6. Become aware of your negative thinking. Some people keep a journal: it’ll show you how useless this type of thinking is.
7. Start setting realistic goals. Don’t set yourself up for a fall. Break down dauntingly long tasks into manageable smaller ones.