Monday, February 9

Imposter Syndrome

“Bob” stopped by my office last week for a chat. I am on sabbatical this semester and Bob caught me in a rare state of weakness (my door was open). Bob, who was in a sophomore level class of mine last semester, felt overwhelmed with the academic expectations of the institution we are at and wondered if the school had made a mistake in accepting him. Bob is clearly qualified to be here and will excel. In fact he is excelling. As I tried to explain all of this to him I could see that my words were not making him feel any better. Bob and I have the same problem: Imposter Syndrome (or here). Over the last few days my experience with Bob has consumed me.

A slacker in high school I was shocked to get accepted at Washington University in St. Louis. My first few years at Wash U were spent waiting for them to figure out the mistake they made when they let me into that fine institution. I just knew I did not belong with these smart, hard working kids who had all (seemingly) gone to private school and therefore were not only smarter than me but considerably better prepared. I felt like an imposter. Somehow I fooled them and I got out with decent enough grades to consider graduate school.

I went to Johns Hopkins University for graduate training. I was one of 9 accepted to my department, and I knew from the first day I would be the first to leave. My classmates were WAY smart and I did not measure up to them in any way. Four of us survived to finish our Ph.D.’s at JHU. I did not feel triumphant, accomplished or successful. Instead my consciousness was consumed by the knowledge that they mistakenly believed I had talent and drive worthy of a doctoral degree.

Same experience for my post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.

Obtaining a tenure-track job was unbelievable. Each review I passed shocked me. I now have tenure. I am asked to take on responsibilities that should be reserved for the accomplished and talented. Reviewing papers for top-notch journals, reviewing grants for NSF, chairing cross-departmental teaching programs, etc. They are crazy to let me do these things.

Psychopathology cracks me up (double-entendre intended). Bob should know he is skilled and talented. The objective signs are there for all to see. I don’t think I convinced him, and wish I could have helped him. Ironically, Bob helped me. As a scientist and rationalist I tend to demand data to support claims and assertions if at all possible. When a student claims “X” I ask “what data could we find to disprove X and what extant data currently support X?”. Bob needs to start listening to the objective data. So do I.

Time for a Stuart Smalley moment! (I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!) --> Bob, you are not an imposter. Come to think of it, neither am I.