Archive for Impostor Syndrome

On the Interpretation of Dreams

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by telescoper

Last night I had a peculiar dream in which, for reasons obscure, I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge and drove it at high speed along a railway line all the way to Oxford (pursued by an ice cream van). To non-astronomers this probably sounds completely barking, but I should point out that the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory is located at the site of Lord’s Bridge, a former railway station on the (now defunct) line between Cambridge and Oxford and some of the telescope dishes move along sections of the old track. Of course the track no longer extends all the way to Oxford, and in any case there would be bridges under which one of the 13-metre antennae of the Ryle Telescope could not possibly pass. Such mundane considerations don’t matter in the world of dreams, however, and the whole escapade was like a madcap chase scene from a daft movie. I woke up chuckling.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamt about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the recent past. In this particular case I recall reading an article about the possibility (now, I believe, shelved) that the Oxford-Cambridge railway might be reinstated. I’ve also been reading tweets and facebook messages from people currently at a radio-astronomy workshop in the Netherlands.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system. Not sure how the ice cream van fits into this scheme though.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard “anxiety” dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape? I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career: starting in Sussex, then in London, Nottingham, Cardiff and then back to Sussex. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

That kind of dream is quite disconcerting, especially since it’s recurrent. But I can give an example that’s even weirder. As regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I was unwell for a period last summer. During the worst of this episode I was confined for a while in a psychiatric clinic. I wasn’t there for very long (perhaps 3-4 days) but I didn’t really keep track of time very well and in retrospect it seems I was there much longer than that. I was also heavily sedated for a lot of the time I was there. The effect of this was to blur the distinction between sleeping and waking almost completely so I literally didn’t know whether I was conscious or unconscious.

Now I know for a fact that I didn’t have any visitors when I was in that place. However, I have perfect recollection of a time when a young man (a former student of mine of Cardiff University) came into my room, sat down beside my bed and opened a discussion about physics, his plans for doing a PhD in Early Universe Cosmology, and various other topics to do with books and films. Looking back on this I realize that the conversation I’d imagined was actually a kind of synthesis of bits of other conversations I’d previously had with the same person in a different environment (i.e. my old office in Cardiff University). The peculiarity is that I now remember that imagined pastiche of a conversation as if it were actually real, and it has always been difficult for me to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the filing system had gone into reverse, pulling old memories out of their drawers and sticking them back in my consciousness.

Related to this (possibly) are various memories I have of very early childhood. These are often very vivid, but in many cases completely at odds with facts that I’ve subsequently established. I think what has happened in such examples is that I haven’t actually remembered the event in question, but have been told things about it so frequently that a memory has somehow been constructed to accommodate the narrative.

Over a year on I still find the clinic episode quite scary to think about. I think that’s mostly because it’s an extreme example of how one’s perception of what is real and remembered versus what is imaginary and dreamt can get confused. Am I really writing this? Or am I dreaming? Are you really reading it? Are you dreaming? Wake-up!

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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