A badge of honour?

Posted by on Nov 12, 2015 in Academic, Career, PhD | No Comments

Yesterday I spoke at the “Taking Control of your Career” event for the Institute of Physics (there’s another blog based on the day here). The event was aimed at young female physicists and it’s perhaps inevitable that the topic of imposter syndrome came up. As I listened to the first speaker, Dame Professor Athene Donald talk about her career and acknowledge that she had made mistakes and that she felt imposter syndrome I could feel the relief from the audience as they realised “It isn’t just me”. Athene’s talk is available on her blog and many of the ten messages she shares can be related to imposter syndrome. As a regular reader of her warm and wise blog I found her earlier post “Getting Away with It” struck a similar chord last year.

My day job of running researcher and academic development workshops means that the topic of imposter syndrome comes up regularly. Most people feel at some point or another that they are “getting away with it” and although I feel this most of the time, the more I hear talented and successful people talk about it, the more I see it for what it is.

I feel imposter syndrome when I stretch myself. Even though I intensely dislike the feeling that I’m about to be caught out and humiliated (and it has happened on a few occasions) it is far, far preferable to the mind-numbing alternative of living my life safely cocooned in my comfort zone.

As I wrote my slides for the Taking Control event I added a line to my final messages which conveyed this:

 Imposter syndrome is a sign that you are stretching and learning.

When it actually came to say it, I went even further.

 Imposter syndrome is a badge of honour.

Which makes a great tweetable soundbite, but I think warrants a bit of explanation for those who weren’t in the room. On my (long, long) journey home I started to worry that this might be interpreted as trivializing the impact imposter syndrome can have on people. Earlier in the week I had read a beautifully written guest blog post on Professor Pat Thomson’s site by an anonymous PhD student on her fears and how they are affecting her confidence in her academic abilities.

I’d encourage anyone reading this to look at the post, but perhaps more importantly the comments at the bottom which are filled with empathy, advice and a constant stream of “me too”. Although it definitely helps to know that you aren’t alone in feeling this and to recognise that imposter syndrome comes as part of learning and stretching, it is critical to have a strategy for coping with those feelings and managing the impact they have on us.

When I talk about this in workshops I use the word resilience and point people to some of the resources that helped me to ensure my coping strategies were all they could me. I also wrote a blog post containing these links and my own resilience strategy.

If you feel the grip of imposter syndrome, recognise it as a sign that you are working towards your ambitions and congratulate yourself on having the courage to stretch yourself. But don’t do this in isolation – talk to people about the triggers (in the case of the student on Pat Thomson’s blog this seems to be partly down to the imbalance between critical and positive feedback from supervisors) and see if you can make changes. A resource I seem to point people towards pretty much every time I leave the house is the excellent “We Have To Talk” – a guide to difficult conversations.

When I summed up the day in my closing comments I made a few other points:

  • Capture your successes and get credit for your effort. Most of the CVs I looked at during 1:1 appointments barely scratched the surface of what was on offer. Take some time to stop and think about what you’ve achieved and keep your CV up to date (this is also a great reminder of what you have acheieved which is another resilience strategy)
  • Don’t be the person who say no to you – there are plenty of other people who can do that. This advice came from Professor Eugene Kennedy who spoke at the Dublin launch of the funding guide I wrote for the IOP. (You can find his slides on the Dublin launch page – full of advice.) He was making the point that we often don’t put ourselves forwards for opportunities because we assume we aren’t good enough – let someone else make that decision as they may be less harsh than you are on yourself.
  • As an early career researcher you have LOTS of time but you need to use your time wisely. The point I was making is that you have time to make mistakes and to have false starts but don’t just drift and wait for things to happen or for career inspiration to strike. Be proactive and show initiative but don’t worry about deciding on your whole life when it’s barely begun.
  • Be comfortable marketing yourself. I think this is more than a gender issue, but I see many incredibly talented women who are uncomfortable celebrating their successes. Even Professor Dame Athene Donald shied away from describing herself as successful at this event. We all need to be more comfortable accepting praise and describing our worth.
  • Finally, I emphasised the value of networking – being part of a supported community has given me the confidence to pursue opportunities and I get nearly all of my consultancy work because other people celebrate my successes. Build a network, be active in it, be generous with your praise and support of others and the karma fairy will ensure someone does the same for you.

In summary I still see imposter syndrome as a badge of honour, but I take resilience seriously. I hope that the fantastic women I met yesterday felt as inspired as I did by the end of the day to continue to push themselves into the “stretch” zone but also to look after themselves and each other along the way.