Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Impostor Syndrome (and other such problems in grad school)

Today a post-doc in my research group emailed me a link to a blog post about impostor syndrome. This sparked some conversation among those on the email about this topic and problems with grad school and academia in general.

For those who don't know impostor syndrome (according to wikipedia) is:
A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. It is commonly associated with academics and is widely found among graduate students.

I thought I'd put some highlights from the email conversation here because this seems to be such a wide spread problem, and one that I have thought about a lot and discussed with many people.

"I definitely have a tendency to think slightingly of my own abilities. There's a circular logic that I cannot escape: if I find something eminently do-able, that means it's easy. If it's easy, then I can't be impressed with myself for being able to do it. Therefore, I myself am only capable of accomplishing things that are trivially easy. The things that impress me, the things that are by this definition "hard", are the things I *can't* do, or the things that I think I can't do. Thus I am an unimpressive master of the trivial, while other impressive people out there are doing the hard work." -- UC Berkeley Prize Postdoctoral Fellow

"To this day I still have occasional thoughts that I got here by mistake. That they will re-read my applications and realize that they hired the wrong guy." -- Tenured Professor at UC Berkeley

"I've known about impostor syndrome for years, yet even with this knowledge I can't shake the feeling that I am truly different. That I really am the person who got here by accident or mistake -- or who isn't as good as anyone else. It's horrible how persistant this belief is, and how it causes me to focus in on any negative feedback I get, and dismiss praise and encouragement. While everyone goes through periods of insecurity, the real issue becomes when beliefs like this become so internalized that it causes me to become unproductive and/or depressed." -- Senior Berkeley Graduate Student

"It would be nice of physics/astronomy had more of a culture of giving positive feedback. When I gave a practice quals talk on campus to a group of students, the feedback was dominated (as one would expect) by constructive criticisms and ideas for improvement. I got an email afterwards by a woman in the audience saying she was frustrated with the lack of positive feedback, and proceeded to point out the strengths of my talk. I think the hard sciences tend to view comments like this as too "mushy." There seems to be much more of a culture of positive feedback in the social sciences. We should try to change this." -- Senior Berkeley Graduate Student

"I myself, and many women i know, have felt that we've gotten lucky along the way and that we haven't really earned the honors that we've received. I've consistently thought the phrase, " someday they are going to find out that I'm not really that good..." . I know rationally that I've earned my place, but i still often feel this way. And so do many women I know." -- Post-doctoral Fellow, Berkeley PhD Graduate

I think impostor syndrome plays a huge part in the problem of depression and anxiety of graduate students. The chronicle of higher education had an article a few years back titled "Grad School Blues" about mental health problems among graduate students.

I'm very interested in thoughts people have about this subject, or other articles people would recommend. I really don't think graduate school needs to be so painful and ego-deflating, however this problem seems to be persistant over time and location. I would love to hear readers comments/experiences.


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