One of the bloggers I follow (scicurious) is hosting a blogging event this month as part of the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival. I’ve never taken part in anything like this and am quite new to blogging so thought I would give it a go as the theme this month (Imposter Syndrome) is a good one.
I’ve only recently started making my first small steps in academia after an attempt of doing some post-undergrad community work, but I can already tell that the pressure to excel in my new chosen career path can be terrifying. The need to keep on top of all the new literature coming out every day, come up with your own original and exciting ideas, execute them and then publish top class papers, while working on creating collaborative links, doing teaching, public engagement and a host of admin work seems like a lot all at once. However, my responsibilities and day-to-day life pale in comparison to what I see my supervisors doing – rushing from meeting to meeting and contributing to ten different projects at once, writing books and reviews, supervising thesis vivas etc. etc. The pressure to do well and be of value to others is immense.
However, the thing that is possibly the most stressful for me is the fact that other people are relying on me. Even though a PhD is generally a fairly solitary undertaking, my previous position as a research assistant on a big project means that I am one of the few people around who know a lot about said project. Mostly, this isn’t an overwhelming responsibility and I am happy to share what I do know and even share data for specific purposes (which obviously don’t overlap with my own interests too much). However, I occasionally mess up and that’s when the feelings behind imposter syndrome really come out. I manage a number of databases with over 1000 children in them, with very thorough phenotypic and whole genome data. Creating these databases was a terrifying task and working on any one of the files with so many numbers can be daunting and dizzying. It really is quite easy to make mistakes after staring at the computer for several hours in a row. But still, that sudden realisation that somebody you sent a file to has been working on the wrong dataset or the wrong variables for the last couple of months and that the numbers in the paper they are about to submit are actually wrong, is pretty horrifying. No matter how small the mistake (a few cases that accidentally got included which shouldn’t have been, a tiny change in the calculation of a variable etc.), it really is quite easy to feel like you have let people down, you are an imposter and as soon as you admit it, you will be branded as such and your reputation will be destroyed forever. Perhaps it’s just easier to cut your losses and find an alternative career path? Personally, I can’t stand knowing that something is not correct so I will always strive to fix it. How can we publish something even slightly incorrect? It’s anathema to scientific rigour.
Fortunately, after working yourself up about all this, once you find the courage to tell people, you quickly realise that it’s all ok and you made a mountain out of a mole hill. Mistakes happen. People are generally glad to fix them. In fact, I’m lucky that people where I work genuinely value honesty in such situations and don’t appear to judge you for making mistakes. I think the pressure to do well and keep up a good reputation is so strong in academia that these situations are not easy to deal with. But having a supportive bunch of people who are also human and make mistakes really helps to be practical and tackle the consequences and hopefully stop feeling like an imposter.