Archive for Ed Bertschinger

Impostor Syndrome

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on January 6, 2012 by telescoper

I came across the phrase Impostor Syndrome the other day. As a phrase it was quite new to me, but the state of mind it describes is far from unfamiliar. Digging around to find out a bit more I chanced upon an article written by renowned MIT astrophysicist Ed Bertschinger who explains it thus:

Impostor Syndrome is the feeling of not deserving to be in the position you are, and of being afraid that advisors, instructors, or peers will come to realize that you are not as capable as you may seem. The effect can be harmful when it selectively reinforces negative messages and causes people to try less hard because they are convinced they are incompetent when they are not.

That someone as intelligent and capable as Ed Bertschinger could confess to having such feelings will surely help others counter the negative effects these self-doubts might have on their careers. In the piece he reveals figures that show that Impostor Syndrome is pretty commonplace in academia, though more prevalent among females than males. Sarah Kendrew has blogged about this from the perspective of a younger researcher.

Impostor Syndrome has certainly accompanied me all the way through my academic career. It started as early as the 11+ examination to get into the Royal Grammar School. I was quite a backward child when I was very young – I didn’t learn to speak until I was three – and assumed that taking the examination would be a waste of time and I would go to the local comprehensive along the rest of the kids. In fact, I passed, and got a scholarship without which I couldn’t have gone, but was convinced that I only got in because of some form of adminstrative error. During my first term at RGS I was overwhelmed by feelings of inferiority and struggled at almost every subject. I kept at it though and surprised both myself and my teachers by doing rather well in the examinations.

It was all very similar when I went to Cambridge. Nobody from my family had ever gone to university before, never mind Cambridge, and I assumed I’d fluked the entrance examination there as well. I took it for granted that everyone else was cleverer and better prepared than me, but I gradually realised that wasn’t true. Some were, of course, but I found that if I worked hard I could do OK. I admit I was a bit erratic as student, but I always thought it was better to be good at some things than average at everything. In parenthesis I’d say that I think the Cambridge style of examinations was kinder to people like me than the way things are done in most places now, in that it didn’t involve a straight average over papers.

The same pattern emerged when I began graduate studies at Sussex. I felt woefully unprepared to work in cosmology, especially since many of my supervisor’s other DPhil students had completed the fiendish Part III Maths at Cambridge before starting their postgraduate degree. I was fortunate in being given a problem that suited me – and I should say received excellent guidance and advice from my supervisor, John Barrow. Despite going through some frustrating periods when I thought I wasn’t going to get anywhere with my research, I completed in less than three years.

Thereafter I got postdoc position, an SERC Advanced Fellowship, a permanent position at Queen Mary, and then a Chair (at Nottingham) by the time I was 35. Looking back on all these successes the only thing I can attribute them to is outrageously good fortune. There are many cleverer people with far stronger technical skills than me who either took much longer to get a permanent job or who haven’t yet managed to do so. At times I marvel at my own good luck, at others I feel guilty about others who are clearly better than me but haven’t been so fortunate. I guess they probably resent people like me, but it’s best not to think of that.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

The bad thing about having feeling that you’re an impostor all the time is the constant fear that you’ll be found out and be subjected to all sorts of humiliation and, worse, that you’ll find someone relies on you for something that you’re unable to deliver. The latter is especially stress-inducing if you work a lot in collaborations.

However, there is a good side too.  I think a bit of self-doubt actually makes one a better person, in that knowing your own weaknesses helps appreciate better the qualities that others possess and instils a desire to help nurture the talents of  people around you, especially the younger ones.

When students ask me for advice about scientific careers I usually say the usual things: work hard, choose your problems wisely, make connections, believe in yourself. If I were being completely honest, however, I’d say that I really believe that the most important thing is to be lucky.

Ps. The wikipedia page on Impostor Syndrome also includes a reference to its converse, Dunning-Kruger Effect in which “incompetent people find it impossible to believe in their own incompetence”. I wonder if this might be even more prevalent in academia?


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