Could imposter syndrome learn from sports?

Apr 04 2012 Published by under Academia

Lately I've been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people can't seem to feel that they are good at something, that they deserve to have their job or that promotion or what have you. It may sound really minor at first, but imposter syndrome can be insidious, pernicious, and prevent you from trying to get ahead and promoted, and even make you think you should leave your job.

I suffer terribly from imposter syndrome. It tends to strike suddenly and linger for days, or weeks, or months. One moment I'll be riding pretty high, I might have got some nice new data, be excited over a new project, I might have submitted a paper or won an award. But then, something will strike, and down I go. The things that strike are sometimes small: someone senior implying I don't know what I'm talking about, not being able to remember that Smith et al, 2008 regarding the highly specific administration of drug into a highly specific nucleus is the one that people mean when they mention "that group in Sweden", making a careless mistake, having a procedure go badly and wasting time and money. Maybe it's a bigger thing like a grant rejection or paper rejection (often more than one in a row), or a really BIG procedure going wrong.

No matter what it is, the thought cycle is always the same. "I'm too careless, I don't remember enough, I'm not detailed enough, I don't publish/get funded enough. I was never good enough to be here in the first place. I should go do something else where I don't feel so STUPID, but I'd probably suck at THAT, too. Why won't they just FIRE me already so everyone will know what a crappy scientist I am!??!"

In my more sane moments, this is patently ridiculous. I have a PhD from a more than decent institution, and I'm in a post-doc at a better one. I win awards, get published. Sure, there are setbacks, good data days and bad ones. I know intellectually that the perfect CV doesn't exist. I know that persistence is what's most important, no one just up and gets published. But during my times of imposter syndrome, my accomplishments are never enough. I remember that they'll give anyone a PhD as long as they are "passable" and it doesn't count for anything, I'll remember that these days, you need a K or R award and a high brow paper or three to get a job. I feel I'm doomed because I didn't pick the right mentor, the right lab, the right field. I feel like no weakness is tolerated. Even the fact that I am UPSET is a sign that I am too sensitive for science, I can't take the heat, I clearly can't take any kind of criticism, and I should get out now before I'm forced out with everyone sighing and saying they knew all along that I would fail.

Of course, during these times I try to tell myself I'm being silly. I am working as hard as I can. I am accomplishing good things! But usually the only cure for bouts of imposter syndrome is to...achieve something good again. Something better. Get a grant funded, a paper published. Impress people. Unfortunately, the further you get up the ranks, and the bigger the unis for which you work, the harder this gets to achieve.

The more I thought about ways to combat imposter syndrome, either by myself or in academia in general...the more I came up with nothing. Until today, when I was working out.

I'm doing circuit training, and as I worked my way through squat thrusts, Arnold presses and kettlebell lunges, I was thinking about how great I feel when I'm training and running and racing. Sure, I have as many bad days training and racing as I do in the lab, and I'm probably competing against WAY more people, but then, failure in running just doesn't seem to hurt as much, there's always the feeling in running that you can pick yourself up, work a little harder, come back a little stronger, and try again. Of course, there's the fact that this isn't my career, but still, even so, a bad race just doesn't mess with my head. It rolls right off, I feel bad for a day, and then I get back up driven to do better at my next one.

And then I realized why. It's because running, and sports in general, LOVE underdogs. We love to hear heroic tales of people who overcame great odds, who suffered staggering defeat, and then who worked hard, pushed themselves, and made it. You never read a profile of a great runner without reading about the hard times in their lives, the difficulties they had in training, the mental blocks, the personal troubles, whatever it was. The glory is in watching them overcome, and come back, and win, against the odds. Seeing people succeed after having worked so hard and dealt with so much is inspiring. We can believe that we can do it, too. We can come back, fight another day.

We love to hear about underdogs in sports, in media, in literature. But one place you'll never hear about them? Science. Academia. No one ever introduces a great speaker with "I've known so and so for a really long time, and they've always been a great scientist. Even in the dark days when the grants kept getting rejected and we had to play poker in the lab because we were out of money, they never lost their love of science!". No one ever eulogizes a scientist with stories of scientific hardship, unless they are the rare misunderstood genius. Instead we head nothing but success after success "Why yes, Dr. Jane Doe here has always been a wonderful scientist. Having received the Wellcome Trust Prize for "Scientific Tots" at the age of 3, she graduated with a bachelors in Chemistry and Physics from Cornell while simultaneously curing cancer, and obtained her PhD from Harvard when she was 17. Since then she has worked hard and discovered great things, publishing 50 times in Science, Nature, or Cell while serving as the ambassador to the United Nations, and is generally the most wonderous, most perfect person the world has ever seen. We can all worship her godlike splendor and admire the way she has brought us all world peace while she gives us this talk on atomic structure". Obviously I'm exaggerating, but I've certainly many heard introductions that leave the entire audience sitting in awe. It's stuff like this that makes us young'uns think we can never achieve what they have, very few of us are egotistical enough to believe we are the next Dr. Jane Doe.

And we don't see a lot of professional weakness from our personal bosses, either. We are often shielded from their disappointment at grant rejections (unless it's displayed as anger). We don't ever hear the tales of how they might have struggled in grad school, had a bad post-doc position, or suffered from issues with work-life balance. I've never heard a boss or mentor of mine say that they had ever doubted their path in life or wondered if they'd be successful. Academia makes you project confidence, in the face of all odds. Of COURSE you got it funded. Of COURSE you knew you were going to get a position. Of COURSE. To show lack of confidence is to be weak, to be unprofessional, even to be...unsuccessful.

And while these tales of achievement and shining sources of confidence may be inspiring, they are also intimidating. They make us think we can never live up to what the successful among us have done. That we will never be enough. From where we sit, it looks like these people never saw failure in their lives. Oh, we know intellectually that it must be there. But we never, ever see it.

So maybe it'd be good in academia, once in a while, if people showed a little weakness. If mentors told their trainees that they themselves had worried whether they were "good enough". If we heard about some of the research droughts, some of the difficulties. After all, how much of the arrogant confidence could be hide insecurity? How many people brush off problems in front of their subordinates so as not to seem weak? Maybe it's time we didn't. Maybe it's time we saw some of the failures. This may not be "professional", but it will let us see that no one is perfect, and it will also help prepare trainees for the many disappointments that they WILL suffer, the papers that will get rejected, the grants that won't get funded, the project that just won't get off the ground. Maybe seeing a little bit of failure, hearing about some of the struggle, would actually be inspiring. Sure, I fail sometimes, and it'd be nice to hear that other people do, too. Hearing about the success of the underdogs in science may take away the imposter syndrome. If they came back to submit another grant, to try again, and succeeded in spite of the odds, our position might not look so hopeless. They overcame, and maybe, so can we.

50 responses so far

  • arvind says:

    I wrote a very lengthy comment that I thought came out really well, but a bad internet connection ate it. *sigh*

    Shorter: Academia is a toxic, corrosive, unsympathetic cult. Y'all need to get out and let it corrode, collapse, and sink into oblivion. Fly, you fools!

  • mm says:

    Read Albert Ellis - Cobination of perfectism and seeking self esteem leads to downs that are not worth the benefits!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Perhaps mentors are not keen on discussing their every failure and setback b/c they don't want you to realize they are a huge imposter who is about to be found out and summarily tossed from science?

    Your sporting analogy is a good one but I think you've missed a key element. Most of us are not trying to make the Pros, make the Olympics or even to dice for the win within our age and/or ability graded amateur league. Our frame of reference is nearly entirely *internal*. We want to do better that we have ourselves done...but is it really distressing that we can maybe move from 15 to 10 in our age group in a local event bit will *never* be duking it out for the podium? The accomplishment is in finishing the race, setting a PR, not getting dropped by the group....Even people who work to qualify for Boston, most just want to run this historic event, they aren't thinking about mixing it up with the "real" competition, are they?

    • scicurious says:

      Yeah, I was thinking that sports are different because we aren't trying to make the pros. But I still think that we could learn something from people actually letting their trainees know about their previous failures. When a grant or paper gets rejected, I hear "oh well, happens to a lot of people", not "don't worry, that's happened to ME".

      • drugmonkey says:

        I think the lesson here is rather that we should focus on our own goals and not be so concerned with getting on the podium, Sci. Trying to respect the fact that we finished a Tri, Century or our first half-marathon instead of being depressed we weren't in the top five.

        • scicurious says:

          Dang, I think most of us are concerned just with staying afloat, it's not even a matter of success beyond others so much as it is trying not to fail out!

    • scicurious says:

      And really, if we ALL are worried that we're all huge imposters...maybe we should just let it all out!

      • drugmonkey says:

        I try to. Does it help? Or does it just make it even more apparent that there *are* imposters in science who are getting away with it (out of serial pity or by fooling everyone, this distinction is not important)? Does exposing the warts simply make you ignore those PIs as not being in the pool that you respect and no, really, it's those other folks who still appear flawless that are *really* the genuine, high quality scientists that you want to join?

        • scicurious says:

          Good questions. Maybe there's expectations of perfection on both sides. I think many students don't come in realizing just HOW much failure is in science, and even if they know, they don't necessarily know on a visceral level.

        • Isabel says:

          Stressing, worrying, or complaining and expressing self-doubt too much might make underlings lose respect, that should stay within your cohort, of course. But just being honest is *definitely* helpful. My advisor is a big self-promoter and always seems to have a lot of big grants coming in, so when he admitted to me the actual percentage of grants he is awarded (pretty low success rate) on the occasion of me being turned down for an NSF grant, yes, it was helpful.

    • Isis the Scientist says:

      I suspect that there are mentors who are open about the ups and downs of science. My experience has been quite different and my previous mentors have been very communicative about their experiences.

      • Tybo says:

        That's been the case with many of my previous mentors as well. My present adviser is in the process of review for tenure, and has been very straightforward in casual conversation about how the process works, where she thinks her weaknesses are, grants and manuscripts falling through, and even details about the work/personal life balancing act.

        Before that, I worked with a professor who was a little more sheltering. It was an amazing contrast; I only found out about failed grant applications and the lab funding situation from the senior scientist. Her family life was only mentioned in the context of days on which she had to leave early. She has been somewhat pessimistic about the manuscript(s) on which I've worked with her on, but that's the most she's shown to me.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I think DM hits on an important component of impostor syndrome--it's not just low self esteem or feelings that you're not good enough--it's the fear of being FOUND OUT. That one day, the wool that you've somehow managed to pull over everyone's eyes all this time will suddenly come off, and people will see you for what you really are: a fraud who's inadvertently tricked everyone into giving you your fancy post-doc, your speaking invitation, your TT job, etc.

    • scicurious says:

      See, this is interesting, do all people worry about "tricking" people into getting a postdoc, etc in imposter syndrome? I never feel like I TRICKED people, I feel instead like they are grudgingly giving me a second chance out of the grace of their hearts and don't really think I have much potential and they will lose patience with me soon. Does this mean its something different than imposter syndrome?

      • Dr Becca says:

        Does this mean its something different than impostor syndrome?

        In my mind, yes, though others may disagree. Think about what an impostor is, in the classic sense of the word--someone who impersonates and infiltrates, undetected. The impression I get from you is that you feel like other people think you're not good enough (thus making you feel not good enough), while the opposite is true for someone with impostor syndrome. In impostor syndrome, you can't comprehend why people seem to think you're so great, and think you must have done something deceptive to influence their thinking, rather than having earned their respect and accolades based on merit.

        • scicurious says:

          I do think they both have something deeper in common though, the idea that you're not qualified for your current position, and that all your failures are indicators of this.

          Maybe I've got something else..."Charity Syndrome"? The idea that I'm only here out of charity?

    • Crystal Voodoo says:

      Ditto here. My imposter syndrome always hit immediately after good committee meetings or manuscript acceptance. It was tangible like a storm front moving in. I would just wait for the everyone to realize that I'd fooled them all into thinking that I had done so much and analyzed things so carefully when I clearly had no idea what the hell I was doing (because if I was doing it it couldn't actually be right). As time passed it festered because I felt like somehow I was betraying their trust in my abilities. I was lucky because my grad PI was pretty good at realizing when it was happening and knocking me upside the head (metaphorically) before it could cripple me emotionally and disturb my productivity. Oddly enough when confronted with repeated failure I'm actually pretty resilient, it's just in the success where I have problems.

      • catherine says:

        I feel the same way - it's especially bad after repeated successes, after which I feel like I am being given a pass because they don't know the real me and I'm just getting a benefit of the doubt that I don't deserve. Failures I'm OK with, because I take that to be honest feedback to which I can say there's more work to do and keep going - in fact, they usually make me work harder. It are the successes that cripple me, because I assume people aren't being truthful so as to not hurt my feelings, but that I shouldn't try anymore because people won't even critically assess what I'm doing because I'm so bad, so I might as well not put in the effort.

        I think I am reaching the stage of this where it is crippling my productively, just as I'm trying to finish my dissertation. What did your PI do to set you right?

  • Pretty darned timely around here, I've gone through these cycles of being stuck in the rut and magically flying out.

    Maybe there is something to changing in our mind who we are "competing" against- in training for a marathon, a long bicycle ride, we are improving when we compete against our own, marking progress, setting up training routines with milestones. Eventually we do compete against others on race day, but during the training it is just us against us..

    It seems like in science and academia, we always act like it is race day.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    For those new to this sort of discussion, I recommend a few simple tools if you want perspective. PubMed and RePORTER to start with for biomedical scientists. I think NSF also has a grant database? Fastlane or something? The departmental web page, look for CV links. The point is to review the career arc of some of your favorite heroes and not-so-heroes (for these latter, maybe start with a paper or three that seem to be the person's "only" work of significance).

    Review their entire career to date. Figure out the timeline. Where did they train, with whom and for how long? Was the person a shining star at every possible moment?

  • schrokit says:

    Just wanted to say thank you for starting this discussion. I'd just posted something on twitter a few weeks ago, as I'd had an extended episode of impostor syndrome that I just couldn't shake.

    I think the point about 'tricking' other people is an interesting one, and there's something in that observation from my perspective. Whilst I wouldn't say I have ever felt like I deliberately or maliciously *tricked* anyone, I have had a feeling of 'what if I'M wrong and not only can't I see it (yet) but others don't either'. And the fear that they will figure out that I'm totally wrong before I do.

    I'm not sure 'wrong' is the right word, as in general, being wrong (a lot) is the nature of the beast, but more that you're suffering from a self delusion that no one has checked yet.

    Does that make any sense?

  • [...] is talking about Imposter Syndrome today, which is the irrational fear that everyone will realize what a spectacular fraud and general [...]

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I don't know you. (Well, for all I know, I do, since we're both behaviorally-physiologically-neuroscienceishly oriented.) But from lurking on your blog, I am wondering if maybe your postdoctoral situation may be just a teensy bit toxic. These thoughts you express here really touch me, because they remind me of some of my own thoughts just a couple of years ago, when my situation was very bad.

    I recall feeling deep impostor syndrome during my first year of postdoc, when I was working with a horrible person. I was incredibly stressed and I was made to feel that my attempts to do science were near-incompetent by said horrible person, but I was constantly being given "another chance." It was emotionally debilitating because I started to drink the Kool-aid that the only reason I had been able to accomplish anything in my graduate lab was sheer luck. Horrible Person would sometimes wonder aloud to me if I "had what it takes."

    I think Isis is absolutely right in pointing out that transition is when we are most vulnerable to such thoughts - there are new people who have to get to know us, new techniques and/or equipment to learn to use, not even knowing where the pipettes are - this is a huge letdown after climbing the mountain of the dissertation, of being Queen of your personal Hill.

    The problem is that sometimes the people we are trying to get to know and impress are total fucking asshats. Science is hard. Sometimes shit doesn't work, and its not you, its the shit that doesn't work. Everyone makes mistakes. No one was born doing everything right. Good mentors let you see their grants that got funded, and how they learned to write better grants, for example, because they weren't born knowing how to write awesomesauce grants. (Horrible) People with massive insecurities don't even want to talk about the possibility that their stuff may now be, or at any point have been, less than perfect. This was true with my Horrible Person - everything HP touched was perfect in HP's recollection. Ugh.

    Anyway, like I said, I don't know you or your situation. But if it was half as bad as mine was, you need to get yourself into a different environment. My graduate mentor found me a spot with someone who has turned out to be incredible. Not a big lab - but one with a good funding record, with consistent pubs, and with excellent resources and collaborations. I am managing to put some cool stories together. But it took me almost a year to not flinch when visiting her office, and about the same amount of time to stop feeling like an impostor.

    • scicurious says:

      I personally do not find my situation to be toxic, I'm actually very happy where I am right now.

      But I do agree that Isis has a great point, transition has got to be the hardest time. Going from Queen of the Hill to a new lab or a new technique or a new field, it's a very hard time. A hard time with a slow start.

      For those who haven't seen it, a link to Isis's great post on this:

  • ecologist says:

    I think this is a very timely discussion, and it brings up something I have been thinking about for a while. Imposter syndrome is a mental thing, and goes along with a bunch of other counter-productive mental mechanisms that we all have (see the discussion above about the taxonomy of these). Athletes are also affected (afflicted) with mental issues that are counter-productive to their goals. But, at least sometimes, they work on those in the same way that they work on their speed, endurance, form, skill, ... whatever is appropriate for the sport in question.

    We also do the latter part for our "sport". We take courses, we study, we train, we practice, for years and years, trying to get better at the speed, endurance, skill, ... that we need to do our particular kind of science.

    But athletes also work explicitly on the mental part. As an example, I have an old book floating around called "The Mental Athlete" (current version seems to be here: )

    It argues that you need to train yourself to avoid mental habits that will "psyche you out" relative to your opponent. The version of the book that I have suggests a lot of practices, mostly relatively simple and some annoying when you read about them (affirmations, visualizations, relaxation exercises, meditations). BUT ... the attitude contained in the book is that the mental part is as much a part of your athletic performance as the physical part, and therefore deserves to be worked on in the same way.

    And the argument from the sports psychologists is that this applies just as much to the amateur athlete trying to improve her time as it does to the professional or the Olympic athlete (to address DM's point above).

    So, here's my question: Would it be productive to train our students to

    (1) be aware of the mental habits that can hinder their success in science
    (2) know how to identify those
    (3) have tools to practice that will improve mental status

    This would be different from just collecting stories that make it clear that everybody has had both successes and failures, and that we are not as much losers as we sometimes tell ourselves.

    I'm not sure how it would work or how to do it, but it might help.

    • Karen says:

      ecologist, that would really help a lot of people, I think. The acknowledgment of impostor syndrome alone seems like it's helping. Maybe a course like this could be inserted into undergrad studies -- this stuff can affect even what major you pick. Sigh.

  • alethea says:

    I actually just had a collaborating PI relate a story of frustration to me today! It didn't fix my problem, but I did feel better. I've been beating my head against optimizing a particular method for about a month, and it's still not working, so I was asking his advice.

    He told me that the first time he had to use this technique, after a few days he got so angry that he couldn't get it to work that he flew into a huge rage and started storming around the lab and his PI sent him home for the day to cool off. Which is what I WANT to do, only my PI would probably not respond well to that. 🙂

  • Karen says:

    One reason I'm not a scientist today is that the teacher of my first advanced class told me that I wasn't tough enough to make it in math -- in eighth grade. I broke my finger in second period and stayed in school all day so that I could take her stupid quiz, writing with my injured hand, and instead of realizing maybe she was pushing pre-teens too hard in non-math-related areas (or noticing that taking a quiz with a broken finger actually is pretty badass), she suggested I was not emotionally ready for higher math. I'm inclined toward self-doubt anyway, but she really pushed me into that chasm. Fortunately I found a backup career in something that comes as naturally to me as freckles, but now I'll never go study lichens in Antarctica. Because I'm not good enough to attempt things that are hard to do.

    Seems like all of you made it further than I did. Kudos, and please persevere.

  • katie says:

    Check out Judah Folkman's career. Yes, he was a prof affiliated with Harvard but he studied angiogenesis for years saying that it could lead to cancer treatments and was laughed at for a long long time. But in the end, he did get recognition, loads of it.

    But you're right--we applaud the folks who make discoveries young rather than the folks who perservere at what they love for years before the world catches up with their work.

  • Great post. I will bookmark it to send to people I know who have this problem, which is a list includes an unexpectedly large number of people. My personal suggestion for people dealing with this is some good old-fashioned self-CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). Based on my own+friends' experience, much of Imposter syndrome feels like unwanted negative thoughts, typically directed at the self, less often to the environment and the future. These are classic depressogenic thought patterns, and that means they may progress into more negative states. That's the bad news. The good news is that these kinds of thought patterns are highly responsive to brief interventions like CBT. In fact, deliberate self-help, even using a book but no therapist, has been shown to be pretty effective for alleviating mild anxieties and depressive thoughts. Not that this is depression, or is even that it deserves a psychiatric diagnosis - but I bet CBT would help a ton. (And note that many of the strategies suggested above are not too dissimilar from CBT. For example, reading the CVs of other famous scientists reminds me of reality testing, a core component of CBT, and seems like a standard homework assignment a therapist might assign.)

  • arlenna says:

    I love the self-CBT suggestion--that's what I have been trying to do when I feel imposter syndrome creeping at me. It's all consistent with my current favorite teaching topic: mindset theory from Carol Dweck at Stanford. That 'fixed mindset' part of all of us originates and enables the impostery feelings. But nobody has to be stuck with a fixed mindset for life--we can have a growth mindset about developing a growth mindset--we can believe that we can do it if we just keep practicing the self-CBT, and more than likely we will improve in our ability to manage our imposter syndrome.

  • arlenna says:

    Oh, and this is also why I share my entire K99/R00 process with people--from the first submission through my final one, including all my summary statements and 'introduction to resubmission's--because otherwise how can people learn how a regular kid like me got one of those grants?

  • I suspect that there are mentors who are open about the ups and downs of science. My experience has been quite different and my previous mentors have been very communicative about their experiences.

    Same here, and I am an open book about this shitte with my own trainees and anyone else who will listen. And my experience has also been that late at night during the conference drinking sessions, many people are very honest about the ups and downs and random swerves that led them to where they are now.

  • Bashir says:

    I've never really felt like I had much of impostor syndrome. I'm quite sure I am what they call an Irrational Confidence Guy.

    an the guy who isn't one of the team's best players, but he'll have stretches in which he THINKS he is.
    -Bill Simmons

    Being somewhat irrationally confident is useful. I highly recommend it. Try it for a while. It won't quite make sense at first, but it works.

    • arlenna says:

      See, I swing back and forth between imposter syndrome and irrational confidence, but spend most of the time in between. A good deal of the time I know deep inside that I am the awesomest, smartest person alive--even while also thinking I pretty much don't know anything and have eevr had an original idea. It's only bad when the balance of those two things gets out of whack.

  • I think there are senior scientists who are willing to speak up about impostor syndrome, and my experience is that this is immensely helpful to those starting out. I blogged about this recently here, asking if women were more willing to be open about the issue than men. I got a phenomenal response, including many men who admitted not only they did feel like impostors themselves, but also that they would talk about it but there didn't seem to be the same sort of support groups where they could do this. I compiled the summary of the responses here. There are many things that PIs can do to encourage their teams, and being open about the realities of life - and work-life balance too - should most certainly be part of this.

  • [...] been reading with interest the posts about the Imposter Syndrome. The first I ran across was from Scicurious, and then Dr. Isis (and many others by now, but I don't have time to link to everyone--SORRY! I [...]

  • [...] first article Could imposter syndrome learn from sports? is by a post-doc with an interesting hypothesis that imposter syndrome is so prevalent in science [...]

  • [...] many excellent scientists are plagued with a sense of inferiority themselves. As Sci Curious eloquently relates, the Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that, despite extensive training, experience, and obvious [...]

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  • [...] people were glad to put forth their ideas for this carnival. I thought that maybe it comes from an unwillingness in science to show your warts, to show lack of confidence or failure. The desire to appear successful might give young students [...]

  • [...] life. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it? Back on Scientopia, scicurious wrote recently about Impostor Syndrome, that sudden, sickening feeling that you are faking your way through a degree, through a career, [...]

  • [...] might still take away my PhD and kick me out of my job (see these great posts by Athene Donald and Scicurious for more on ‘imposter syndrome’). This feeling has eased a little now I have formally [...]

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