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Impostors Among Us

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Nervously waiting for the shuttle to scifoo this weekend, I (mostly-jokingly) tweeted:

My nervousness that tweeting about impostor syndrome would make everyone realize that I was actually an unqualified fraud and rescind my invitation to scifoo was quickly relieved as friends urged me to suggest the panel (thanks Debbie, Sara, Andrew, and Bora!). But then I thought that if I did run a session about impostor syndrome then people would really really know I was an impostor, and why should people listen to me talking about my feelings anyway? How am I qualified to talk about this with anyone?

Exactly.

While the schedule for the weekend was coming together in a flurry of post-it notes, a conversation with the wonderful and eminently qualified professors Kate Clancy (check our her terrific post on the session here) and Sally Otto turned into a plan for a session about impostor syndrome and the culture of science. How does the culture of science and the ways that we define expertise influence our feelings of impostorhood? Can we do a better job of supporting each other and in the process do better science?

We put our post-it on the board assuming we’d have a session where those more traditionally associated with feelings of being an impostor—women and graduate students—would have a chance to talk and listen, supporting and motivating each other to speak up and speak out about their experiences and their areas of expertise.

Instead the table filled up not with nervous young people, but with faculty members at the top of their fields, the heads of various research institutes around the world, a former member of parliament, and even a Nobel prize winner. We moved slowly around the circle, everyone getting a chance to introduce themselves and share stories about their feelings of being an impostor. As we shared and listened, a few really interesting and important themes emerged.

First, almost everyone feels like an impostor sometimes. Even (and maybe especially) after gaining enormous recognition for your achievements. The feeling isn’t unique to any one group, and that’s important to remember for both those who might be feeling like an impostor and those in a position to give advice and support to others. You are not alone!

But while almost everyone mentioned feeling like an impostor, it was only women who described times when they had been told by someone that they don’t “look like a scientist,” only women who were actually being called out as impostors, regardless of their knowledge and experience. Impostor syndrome can happen when the image you have in your head of the kind of person who deserves to be recognized doesn’t match with the kind of person you are. When the kind of person you are doesn’t match with the culturally dominant image, then it’s not always just the voice in your head telling you that you don’t belong. With internal feelings of being an impostor magnified by external forces, both explicit and implicit, overt and subtle, you can end up with a very damaging feedback loop. While women shared stories of their knowledge and experience being pushed aside and ignored, leading them to question their talents, several men discussed the opposite problem—people assuming they have expertise in areas far outside their training and leading them to overestimate their ability to contribute to any conversation.

At the same time, many at the session shared stories that emphasized how it can be useful to sometimes actually be an impostor, to jump into a completely different field, to build bridges between disciplines when you have no official business being there. Around the table people shared stories of new and exciting research emerging from occasionally being in over your head and not letting the voices inside or outside stop you from creating something new and interesting. This theme came up again and again, from people who had founded new disciplines, started new companies, or promoted new ways of doing or communicating science. Being a purposeful impostor doesn’t mean storming into arguments and claiming expertise from authority rather than knowledge, but something more akin to the notion of the public amateur, a person who is not afraid to learn and to create in public, to allow the process of learning something new be part of the process of creating something different.

By opening up about our uncertainties, perhaps that something different will be not just new science (or technology or art) but also a new and more diverse community, a more open and welcoming culture of science. In either case we will all have be willing to go outside of our comfort zones, willing to ask new questions, but also willing to question what it means to be an insider vs. an impostor and to help support those that may not fit into the image we have in our mind.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bittelmethis 1:46 pm 08/11/2012

    Hear, hear! I’m constantly worried I’ll be outed for not providing the full 100-page context on a subject. Because even if I’m writing about something like the bifurcated opossum penis, you just know there’s someone out there who has dedicated his/her life to marsupial genitalia and he/she’s just waiting to give me the old, “Well, actually…” Anyway, great topic, thanks!

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  2. 2. Oscar 3:11 pm 08/11/2012

    It seems that some of us feel the shoulders we stand on more than others. I like the concept of “public amateur” it fits well with the concept of a “participatory reality.”

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