Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The Impostor Syndrome is well-known in science, or in fact any intellectual field. The belief that you're not good enough, that you're just fooling everybody into thinking you're smart, and at any moment someone will call your bluff and out you as the faker and failure that you really are. Some people are more prone to it than others: people (like myself) who have a hard time "owning" successes and accomplishments.
It doesn't help when nobody congratulates or rewards you on those successes (or they do so rarely). I know scientists who will reward major achievements from their students or postdocs with dinners out, pizza parties, bottles of whiskey. I know others, however, who think success should be its own reward (and it's likely because that tactic works for them personally), and who will never say a word of thanks to a subordinate for accomplishing something important.
But in science as in everything else, sometimes we know we're right. Sometimes, I've accomplished something and I know it is a good result - a great result, even - and that it deserves recognition. That, by extension, I deserve recognition. Perhaps that is enough motivation to fight for recognition, to demand an appropriate "reward" for our work. But that's no guarantee we will actually receive recognition, and if we don't, we feel slighted, oppressed, wronged.
So the situation swings wildly from pole to pole, from feeling like an impostor to feeling like an underdog. Is it any surprise that scientists are depicted as cool, level-headed and unemotional? If we were depicted in a realistic way, we'd be raging, weeping, shouting caricatures of human beings. At least, that's how I feel I would appear.
Maybe the problem is internal. Each of us needs to learn that we don't need recognition for our achievements to mean something. We need to become detached from our efforts. We need to be that unemotional scientist.
But maybe the problem is more systemic. Two things come immediately to mind: first, I don't see why I should have to give up "ownership" of my accomplishments, and second, the academic science environment only rewards major accomplishments that have been suitably recognized. Someone who publishes regularly in Nature will get more grant money than someone who publishes in Il Nuovo Cimento, and someone at MIT will be more renowned for the same work than someone at New Mexico Tech. If we can't get funding to do our research unless the wider scientific audience recognizes our efforts and successes in that research, if we can't get a job unless we have the right number of publications in already-recognized journals, then the idea we should be willing to go without recognition is the same as saying we should be willing to not succeed. If we want the system - and those in it - to be mentally healthier, we should work to disconnect this link between recognition and success. Recognition should be the reward for success, not the other way around.
One last thought, though, and it's a mea culpa: perhaps it's all just me. Perhaps I personally desire recognition far more than other scientists, and so the error originates when my brain invents a reality which assumes I am the average and not the outlier. I'd still like to see a change for the better, one where there is enough funding for everyone and people are not judged based on how often they publish, but such pipe dreams are still long in coming.


  1. So there's a name for what I was feeling just two days ago! The thoughts that I might legitimately be called a mathematician, and that I actually really did earn a master's degree, feel surreal and wrong. Someone's going to find out that I don't really know that much!

    I'm not sure that it's entirely a good idea to have plenty of grant money for everyone...I think a little competition is good. But I do agree that the way the competition proceeds currently is faulty. And I'm sure the extremely tight squeeze for funding is disheartening, frustrating, and damaging.

    1. It does indeed have a name, and I know many people who suffer from it. Don't forget, it's ok to ask someone for reassurance every once in a while. I'm sure you're an awesome mathematician.
      I suppose you're right about funding, though - we do still have to have some way of weeding out the proposals that are obviously nonsense!

  2. Part of growing up is having to face the reality that you will not always get recognition for all the good work that you do. However, you should not be discouraged or feel unworthy of praise for your achievements. One simple way to counter the feeling of being an impostor is to reach out to those that are still working to get to your level in the profession. You will be amazed at the gratitude that most aspiring professionals will show if you help them with any challenges that they may have. Being a mentor can help you to realize that you are not an impostor and that some people out there actually admire you and they dream of one day getting to the level that you are today.

    1. Ocean11, that's an excellent suggestion! Make sure not to propagate the lack of recognition by being the mentor that you wished you had.


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