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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.


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.

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