Skip to main content

Guest post by Elisabeth Newton: The Impostor Cycle

Elisabeth Newton is a sixth-year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics. Her research focus is on developing methods of measuring the physical properties of low-mass stars as a member of the MEarth team. 

The players: 
Awesome Grad Student - a talented senior grad student who experiences imposter thoughts
Superb Young Grad Student - another talented astronomer-in-training, perhaps in their second year,  who is struggling with imposter syndrome
Nice Faculty Member - a respected person in their profession

The scene: The awkward moment after a talk when everyone is hanging around. Awesome Graduate Student has just delivered a great talk on their research.


And, action! Awesome Grad Student (AGS) expresses their relief to Superb Young Grad Student: “I’m so glad that’s over, I wasn’t prepared at all! I was finishing my slides up until the last minute!” **



“Don’t worry about it, that was an awesome talk, AGS!” Superb Young Grad Student says, trying to reassure AGS, but thinking: “If that’s what AGS can throw together last minute, I’m never going to be able to work hard enough to give a talk as good as that!”



Nice Faculty Member, kindly and truthfully, complements the speaker: “Why AGS, that was truly an excellent talk you just gave! Your research is most compelling,” and Superb Young Grad Student chimes in, “Seriously AGS, it was fantastic!”



AGS is uncomfortable with the complement and still demurs. “Uh, I don’t know. I really stumbled over a few things.” The culture AGS grew up in makes it socially unacceptable to acknowledge having done a good job. Moreover, they are still uncertain in their capacity as graduate student just starting to take control of their own research program, and AGS also struggles with feelings of self doubt.



Nice Faculty Member congratulates AGS again, and leaves the two graduate students alone. AGS expresses their doubts to their colleague: “I can’t believe Nice Faculty Member thinks my research is cool, it is so not that interesting.” 



Superb Young Grad Student tries to reassure AGS again, as their own imposter thoughts rear up: “I wonder what AGS thinks of my research? AGS has the most badass research program… mine is never going to amount to anything.”



This interaction sounds a bit silly when I write it out, but I’ve heard it played out many times throughout grad school. A faculty member doesn’t have to be involved — most of the times I can recall it was enacted between grad students — and it might have to do with research, or classes, or awards. I’ve been the grad student uncertain about the compliment they’ve just been paid, and the response is automatic, a reflection of my own imposter thoughts. I’ve also been the student on the receiving end of a friend’s doubts, and it’s tiring to have to reassure them, and it seeds imposter thoughts. 



It took me three years of grad school to realize that this scenario was being played out over and over again. It’s a lot easier to brush off the imposter thoughts (in the role of “Superb Young Grad Student”) now that I know what’s going on. It turns out it’s harder to stop playing the role of “Awesome Grad Student.” I can’t just turn off my own self-doubts, but this isn’t about me, it’s about how I’m making someone else feel. That makes it easier to give the appropriate response: “Thank you so much. I worked really hard,** and I’m glad you enjoyed it."



** Author’s note: it could be true that AGS just finished their slides and didn’t practice at all, but I guarantee that if this is the case, there were years of research, dozens of previous slides, and however-many previous talks that allowed them to get away with being less prepared this time.

Comments

Monika said…
Truth! I've seen this in myself, in my students. This is a topic we need to bring to faculty meetings about effective teaching and good mentoring.

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…