You worked hard on your GCSEs in order to do your A-Levels. Your A-Level grades got you into university and you were even accepted to do a master’s degree. Your work as a master’s student got you noticed by an academic and you managed to secure funding for a PhD. You’ve spent your academic life working on being a good scientist and it’s paid off, so why do you feel so out of place?
Imposter syndrome is the state of believing that your achievements are a result of luck and fraud whilst your colleague’s are because of their skill and intelligence. It’s certainly rife around here – and not just with the students. It’s common for people in academia to feel like they should know all the answers, we forget that our careers are a learning process and feel like a fraud if we know anything less than everything.
Before Christmas I was growing some cells up for a quick experiment. I had to scrap the cultures three consecutive times because of a fungal infection that always appeared around the five day mark. My previous years of successful tissue culture must have been a fluke, I was clearly incompetent. Even after I’d eliminated the usual causes of cell culture infections, re-autoclaved everything and started with fresh reagents, I still believed that I must be doing something very obviously wrong. Not only was I making this huge mistake, but I was too stupid to figure out what it was. Worst of all, everyone must be realising how bad I am at this. My supervisor must know now what a huge mistake he made in hiring me. Eventually, an academic offered to grow some up for me using his reagents, in a different culture room at the opposite end of the building. My bad practice surely couldn’t transcend that barrier. Except it wasn’t my bad practice because the same fungal infection appeared at the same time point. I was so worried that I was demonstrating how awful a scientist I was that I hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility that the stocks were contaminated.
The fear that we don’t know everything is what keeps science moving forward but imposter syndrome can hold you back. How many opportunities have you missed because you believed you weren’t good enough? How many open discussions about your work have you avoided for the fear of being exposed as a fake? Science is all about laying it bare on the table for all to critique so it’s no wonder we’re all petrified of being torn to pieces.
So, what to do about the plague of imposter syndrome? Supervisors: foster a nurturing environment. Let your students know that you don’t expect them to know everything. Instead of asking ‘you know what X does, don’t you?’ ask ‘do you know what X does?’. After all, students who aren’t trying to mask their perceived inadequacies will be more productive and innovative with their work. Students: make a conscious effort to face up to the fact that you don’t know everything and learn to be okay with it. I’m going to ask more questions instead of making a note to Google it later so that no one knows I’m not sure. I’m going to calm down, accept that I will never know everything and just be thankful I don’t suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Karly first joined BJS Biotechnologies as an undergraduate placement student in 2007. A bachelor’s and master’s degree later and Karly is back working with BJS but this time as a PhD student in conjunction with her alma mater, Brunel University. Her research looks at the mTOR signalling pathway in endometriosis and ovarian cancer.
In her spare time, Karly is learning to play the guitar and drinks a lot of tea.
You can follow Karly on twitter @KarlyBroadway