Being imperfect in perfect academia

It was with great pleasure that I listened to the wonderful podcast by The Black Goat (http://www.theblackgoatpodcast.com; Twitter: @blackgoatpod) about impostor syndrome in academia. I commend the contributors to this podcast (Simine Vazire, Alexa Tullett and Sanjay Srivastava) for having the courage to discuss this much-shied-away-from topic as well as to be honest about their own personal experiences with trying to meet the high expectations of academia while at the same time – we seem to forget about this – trying to have a non-work life. This blog post is a reflection on what they said during the podcast as well as a call for considering additional reasons for why this impostor syndrome may be particularly pervasive in academia.

What is impostor syndrome? First coined in 1978 (Clance & Imes, 1978), the term refers to high-achieving individuals who have difficulty to internalize accomplishments (e.g., I got that grant because I’m a good researcher) and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Personally, I’m somewhat hesitant to call it a syndrome – calling it that brings in a host of questions for which we do not really have answers (e.g., Is it real or a social construction? Is it pathological? Should we treat it?) – but for now, let’s call it the presence of impostor feelings. So, in academia, the definition is, I think, mostly used to describe that eerie feeling that other people in academia are not aware of your grave imperfections. One day, one way or another, they will find out how incompetent you really are.

As one can imagine this is not a pleasurable feeling. I can vividly recall the day of my dissertation defense. I could not sleep all night: not because I was so excited at the prospect of obtaining my PhD, or at the prospect of throwing a big party that would end with giving people ibuprofen so they could treat their hungover symptom networks the next day. No, I could not sleep because I was convinced that this would be the day that I would be found out. In front of my colleagues, friends and family, the questions of the defense committee, and my inability to answer them, would make crystal clear, once and for all, that I was an impostor. In real life this did not happen: not only did I answer all questions in a thoughtful way, I even managed to crack a joke here and there and set forth a research agenda that I’m still pursuing this very day. I obtained my PhD with honors. So, one may ask, surely the impostor syndrome is gone now, buried in my past and only relived when I give students advice about life in academia? No. I still have these bouts of impostor feelings and they will probably not go away – as the speakers during the podcast also conceded. That is, not only is feeling like an impostor not pleasurable, it is also probably long-lasting irrespective of the successes one amasses throughout an academic career.

The podcast discussed several reasons for why impostor syndrome is a thing in academia and I related to all these reasons. For example, the contributors discussed a trend of over-exaggerating the number of work hours per week. In one study that was mentioned, academics reported way more hours of work per week than could be distilled from a diary they kept for a few weeks. This “I’m super duper productive, busy and online all the time” attitude feeds impostor feelings, probably most notably in researchers who do not devote the same number of hours to work – either due to child care, caring for a family member, or other (personal) issues. Because: how can one ever be as good as the colleague in the next room who works 20 hours per week more than you? A second reason is being silent about periods in one’s working life that were not overly productive. For example, Simine Vazire shared an unproductive period in her life because she suffered a breakup. The podcast members agreed that these unproductive periods in life are completely normal yet somehow, we do not readily talk about it.

A third reason, not discussed at length during the podcast yet related to the other two, is the fact that academia has a strict hierarchy – despite so many academics claiming its non-hierarchical nature, with which I wholeheartedly disagree – that is highly visible. Take, for example, the average conference, which comes with a visible pecking order: poster, giving a talk, giving a talk in a symposium, giving a talk in an invited symposium, keynote speech. That is, it is not particularly nurturing for the insecure aspects of self that it is so darn visible that you are not ‘ready’ or ‘important enough’ yet to give a keynote.

Pecking orders do not cause impostor feelings, I do think that hierarchies, exaggerating work hours and not talking about the unproductive phases in academic life set the perfect stage for impostor feelings. A fourth, final, reason for impostor feelings is, I think, an interesting feature of academia that is notably not present to the same extent as in commercial business working environments: it is all so darn personal. While this is great when you have success, it is not that great when you lose. It is YOU who does not get that fantastic grant, it is YOU who gets horrible reviews on a paper you worked on for two years, it is YOU who is not even mentioned as an expert during a meeting about the topic you have been working on for almost a decade, etc. I could go on and on. To the contrary, as I have distilled from conservations with quite a few non-academic yet high-achieving people: in modern business, it is more about the teams and their collective performance and not so much about the individuals. Sure, individuals, not teams, get a promotion or not, but developing a successful prototype after a Sprint session is a team win with no single hero who claims the victory.

Synthesizing these observations about academia: we have created a pervasive myth, a perfected, idealized version of an academic; the 80-hour-a-week-working, prize-winning, grant-awarded, keynote-giving human (often, still, a white male). A human, do note, without a personal life: there are no depressive episodes, no elderly parents that need care, no daughter who is arrested for drug use. The academic that features in this myth is not a person, it is a persona, a vignette, one that is completely unattainable for those of us who – and I suspect (hope!) they are the majority – are devoted to not only academia but also to all other things that make life worth living.

I think impostor feelings have a lot to do with accepting, owning and showing one’s imperfections: feeling an impostor may in fact be an exaggeration of the extremely natural yet uncomfortable realization that one is not perfect. Not to say that someone who feels like an impostor has every right to feel that way because he or she truly is not good enough. But I do think, speaking from experience, that impostor feelings and feeling uncomfortable in one’s own imperfect skin, are related. If so, then being imperfect, and owning up to it, is really really hard in the academic world I have just described. Think about the following behaviors that would be considered signs of being comfortably imperfect: 1) during a meeting, acknowledging that you are not familiar with that shiny new method that the PI was just discussing and everyone else at the table seems to know; 2) owning publicly, by means of a blogpost, that you made an honest mistake when analyzing your data; 3) sharing with your close colleagues that you have suffered from episodes of major depression. All three behaviors convey the same message: I am imperfect. Would we do it, any one of these behaviors? I don’t think so, and yet, we should.

So: what can and should we do about impostor feelings in academia?

  • Stop buying into the perfection myth, just don’t believe it: researchers are humans too, and we all experience fear, grief, loss, physical and mental health issues, just as much as non-academic people do.
  • In order to debunk the myth I: start being honest about yourself, embrace your imperfect self. No, you don’t have to share your entire life story, but we need to start presenting ourselves as actual persons instead of persona, perfectly crafted vignettes that only contain work-related achievements. A CV of failures is a good idea in that sense. Additionally, as I have done in this blog post, sharing a personal story now and then, showing your imperfections, will hopefully help by encouraging other researchers to start doing the same.
  • In order to debunk the myth II: besides working towards owning our imperfections, our working environment needs to change as well. Impostor feelings are also a product of this environment as I have argued in this post. So: for example, we could do with a little less hierarchy, from the “superstar rockstar professor” to “merely the PhD student”. I think one of the advantages of social media is that institutional hierarchies are less visible online. Additionally, we need to start learning how modern businesses work. In particular, I’m thinking about non-hierarchical structures in which agile teams, without a real leader and thus no single hero, together work on projects.
  • We need to start extending the conversation to people who may not otherwise recognize that they suffer from impostor feelings too. In my experience impostor feelings are quite exclusively discussed as being experienced by specific groups, most notably women. Maybe women are somewhat more insecure than men, and women certainly face additional hurdles when trying to get ahead and build a productive career; but showing our imperfect selves as a means of creating an environment where it is OK to be unproductive for a while, to not know something, is just as beneficial to men as it is to women.

I’m done with confessing for now. This imperfect researcher is getting back to her imperfect work!

Note: I thanks Simine Vazire, Alexa Tullett and Sanjay Srivastava for their helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.