I’ve read about three articles recently about imposter syndrome, particularly in academia. Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments, so despite doing incredibly well and excelling within the world and workplace they remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Successes are brushed aside as being lucky or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be, despite the glaring evidence.
For me this rings true, but I have been thinking about why I so often think that I am, in fact, rubbish, when I have achieved an almighty amount in a very short time post-PhD. Sure, my PhD didn’t exactly go swimmingly and publications weren’t doled out like candy amongst my lab group (no 5th author Science publications for me), but I did learn a lot about behavioural / laboratory techniques and also how a really pleasant lab worked (there were very few dramas, and egos stayed well contained).
But in the last 18 months I have relocated 16,000km, I have published well and earned myself a competitive fellowship for 2014. But why, despite this evidence, do I feel inadequate?
I have previously discussed that it may be comparison that was stealing my joy. However, upon reading about imposter syndrome, I began to feel that maybe it was more external factors such as attitudes of academics that could be making me feel inadequate.
Peer review should apply to the science, not the scientists
Sadly, in the cut-throat world of academia, people are always out to point out and prey upon flaws and weaknesses, particularly in research. I have senior researchers that I hold in esteem on the basis of their past and current research interests, innovative techniques and sometimes just because they are fantastic speakers and great people. However, I see other senior (and not so senior) researchers slamming their work and think “wow, what do these people say about my work?”. Often these researchers have great reputations, but these critics haven’t really had that big paper accepted for a while. Is this bad behaviour a facet of insecurity even in these established researchers? Or is it the act of cutting the newbies down to size?
The whole process of reviewing manuscripts focuses on ripping the paper apart as much as possible and pointing out every minute flaw. I understand that standards are high, but if people simply brutally tear apart research it passes the precedent on to those being reviewed – to destroy any paper set in front of them. In particular this discourages the submission of null results for publication – surely the absence of an effect in a well thought out paradigm is as interesting as an effect? Also publishing null results prevents further research being carried out in the same way that will undoubtedly then not be published – wasting researchers resources!
Furthermore, destructive characters in positions of power can become threatened by anyone striving to get ahead in academia. Is this just simply paying it forward? Confident early career researchers get branded self-entitled or arrogant, or their scientific integrity questioned for publishing every scrap of data available to them. Don’t get me started on media and outreach, researchers know it is important and valuable particularly with putting a human face to scientists and inspiring the public and future researchers. However when met with eye rolls “oh, you’re on the radio / oh you’ve written something” it does very little to instill confidence into a fledgling researcher trying to establish themselves.
This might just be sour grapes from senior researchers, but it transfers to people at the early stages of their careers who are feeling vulnerable or insecure. Our jobs are uncertain, our futures equally so, but to be met with elements of ridicule by those we respect is hardly congenial to creating confident future leaders. Breed integrity, not undue criticism and superiority.
Let me leave you with a quote:
It stands to the everlasting credit of science that by acting on the human mind it has overcome man’s insecurity before himself and before nature.