The Imposter Syndrome is a relatively new concept. Dr Pauline Rose Clance, a clinical psychologist, was the first to coin the phrase in 1971 when she noticed that her female students were not putting themselves forward as much as their male counterparts. Initially it was assumed that it was a gender-based phenomenon, but at last week’s ECR Network meeting it was clear that it was prevalent across academia.
‘Partly that’s down to your work being ‘open-ended’, with progress difficult to objectively measure, but partly it’s down to ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, said Dr Caron Fraser Wood, who led the session. ‘You are building on the work of others, and you’re trained to be critical, to question, and to find fault, in order to progress. It’s natural to do that to yourself as well.’
She went on to outline a definition of ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Essentially, it’s a feeling that
- You’re fooling other people into overestimating your own abilities;
- Your success is attributable to something other than your own intelligence or ability;
- You will be exposed as a fraud.
Whilst these feelings might be there in your everyday work, they come to the fore at times of particular pressure, such as job interviews, paper submissions, conference presentations or publication. The pressure, in Fraser Wood’s words, ‘opens the door for the imposter’, and drives you to do the impossible: to be perfect, and quick, and strong. You try to overcome the sense of unworthiness by pushing yourself harder, working longer hours, to demonstrate to others that you do belong.
Instead, Fraser Wood suggested that we should take a step back and be realistic about what success looks like. Whilst others, inevitably, play a part in defining your success, you should recognise that the criteria you set for yourself should be things that you control.
Thus, when submitting an application for a grant, success should not be measured in terms of getting funding: there are too many variables (and too little money available!) to make that a certainty. Instead, success should be measured in, say, writing a realistic and compelling proposal, in getting letters of commitment from external partners, or forming realistic and fruitful collaborations. It is actually submitting a viable proposal by the deadline. All of those are considerable achievements in themselves. Success should not be measured through the roll of a dice. It should be measured in your own terms, whilst accepting the environment you work in.
Once you’ve recognised your ‘success criteria’, review them. What actually happened? What does that mean for my performance? And what specific actions do you need to take to improve that performance?
Fraser Wood finished the session by summarising five tools that academics should use to tackle the imposter:
- Feedback Scales: we have a slightly schizophrenic attitude to feedback. We think positive feedback is insincere and essentially worthless; negative feedback is more honest and serious. Thus, we tend to discount the former and pay too much attention to the latter. Instead we should balance the two, and recognise that we can actually do good work. Seriously.
- Gather Evidence: we sometimes put the cart before the horse, and try and fit the evidence with our preconceptions. Instead, try and objectively look at what the evidence tells you.
- Influence: what do you actually have control over? What can you do about it? Don’t stress about the things you can’t do anything about (such as getting a Research Council to give you money), and work on the things that can (forming collaborations, writing a well-structured and compelling application, and submitting on time).
- Be Yourself: easier said than done in a competitive, critical environment, but think about your strengths, about how you work and what you are able to do, and concentrate on those.
- It’s All in the Mind: remember that it was a psychologist was the first to recognise this. Although she labelled it a ‘syndrome’, it’s more a way of thinking that can be overcome. If it helps, get ‘critical friends’ to view your work objectively.