By Brittany Maule, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, USA
About halfway through my graduate degree, I reached a point where I’d accomplished a few things. My new video was done on my research, I’d been selected to attend a competitive conference on science communication, and I had finished up a summer collecting data on algae in streams. Pausing, I should have hung my hat on a productive first year. But I didn’t feel this way – not at all. What I constantly felt was terrified that everything I was doing was wrong, and at any moment things would fall apart.
After a few more months I realized what I was feeling was part of a larger issue I had with imposter syndrome. Essentially a phenomenon where I couldn’t internalize my accomplishments, and I constantly felt like everyone else knew what they were doing much better than I did. I struggled with varying degrees of this throughout my graduate degree; however, by the end I picked up a few strategies that worked for me to deal with what I was feeling. Several articles have been written about imposter syndrome, and how it affects people from lots of different fields. I’m here to offer what worked for me.
- Talk About It
Acknowledge that you are struggling with feelings of inadequacy and voice your challenges to your peers, your friends, or your adviser. You may be surprised to learn that others are going through the same thing as you.
The worst time of graduate school was when I felt like I had to deal with and fight these feelings by myself; because I was feeling them I didn’t belong there. As soon as I let go of that feeling, and connected with other people, things improved for me. Talking with those who have similar experiences can also help you get in touch with resources that can help.
- Find the Thing that Helps You Start
For myself, one of the aspects of imposter syndrome was waking up and feeling paralyzed to move forward on my work. However, as soon as I got started on something I surprised myself with how productive I could be. Getting from “I can’t start anything” to “I gained some ground on my to do list” is different for everybody. For me, it was changing my environment. I could never accomplish anything at home where it was too easy to sleep, watch Netflix, or do anything else except what for what I should be doing. Realizing what you need to do to get started can help you break the paralysis, and move forward.
- Collect Some Data
As scientists, we want to see data. Turn your anxiety into your new experiment. One aspect of imposter syndrome for me was feeling like my work was never good enough; I was never spending enough time on my project. One strategy to combat this is to keep track of how many hours you are working on things, and compare it to see if you are meeting your goals. You may feel like this week you didn’t accomplish anything, but staring at numbers telling you otherwise can help you win that argument with the voice in your head. Another option that worked for me was making a list of 5-10 accomplishments I was genuinely proud of, and having it somewhere it can remind you of why you deserve to be doing what you are doing.
Remember that your experience is unique in that what works for me may not work for you. However, you are not alone in experiencing imposter syndrome, and there are lots of ways to help you move forward.
- Herrmann, R. 2016. Imposter syndrome is definitely a thing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available from: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Impostor-Syndrome-Is/238418
I recently got my M.S. in Biology at Ball State University where I studied aquatic ecology and science communication. I currently work on sampling and protecting drinking water sources in the state of Indiana. When I’m not buried in a novel I love hiking and writing about life and mischievous organisms on Eco-Troublemakers, and engaging about science on Twitter @BrittanyMaule.