Belief in the Absence of Proof: Imposter Syndrome Part II

Imposter Syndrome Part I 

So, how is it that a person can be a scientist, someone who forms opinions, ideas, theories based on facts and can, in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary, believe that she is stupid? Good question. This is exactly what my friend, R, wanted to know. She had to accept that such a thing was possible because she had seven people telling her they thought in exactly that way, but she just didn’t understand how it could happen.

I’m not sure I understand either. Certainly I believe low self-esteem plays a role somehow. That much seems obvious. In the paper by Clance and Imes (1) describing Imposter Phenomenon, the authors suggest that a woman suffering from imposter syndrome typically falls into one of two categories:

1. She grew up in the household where another sibling was “the intelligent one” even though she consistently out-performed that sibling.

2. She was told while growing up that she was precocious, that she did things effortlessly, AND that smart people don’t study until she somehow got the impression that if you have to make an effort, you are not smart.

However, I don’t see myself fitting in very well with either of those two groups, though I am often guilty of thinking that how hard you work is inversely correlated with how intelligent you are (2). If anything, I was considered “the intelligent one” growing up but I certainly wasn’t told that I was precocious or a natural genius or anything like that. However, I have had problems with low self-esteem and low self-confidence (and have had years of therapy to determine where these things came from and it certainly wasn’t from people telling me I’m brilliant).

Anecdotaly, in talking to the other female members of my lab and other women, it seems that many things can contribute to the belief that you are an imposter and low self-confidence is related to these things. Some women say that it is the apparently high self-confidence of the men that they work with that leads them to believe they are less bright and not deserving of their achievements. If you thought that you were genuinely smart, wouldn’t you boast about it (though this suffers from a “chicken or egg” problem–do these women feel that they are not smarter because they don’t boast about their accomplishments or do they not boast about their accomplishments because they feel they are not really smart?). Other women say that they got so used to professors dismissing them in favor of their male colleagues that they started to believe that they must not be as smart. This reason has the ring of truth to it for me. It is no secret that women are often marginalized in the sciences and being consistently marginalized has to have an effect on how you view your own worth.

Whatever the reason, imposter syndrome has negative consequences for the woman involved. First, of course, there are the psychological problems that accompany thinking that you are a fraud. It’s emotionally stressful to be constantly afraid you will be outed as an idiot, that any day you may lose your job or get kicked out of school. Having high levels of anxiety can keep you from performing your best, and reinforce the belief that you are a phony. On top of that, women with imposter syndrome may stop short of achieving all that they can. In Part I, I wondered whether imposter syndrome was related to the attrition of women as you climb to higher levels of science. According to Clance and O’Toole, this does seem to be the case (3). Women suffering from imposter syndrome do not take opportunities to advance their careers. They don’t follow their dreams, perhaps because they are too afraid or perhaps because they feel they are not qualified for the positions their hearts desire.

But why does it seem to primarily affect women? Why are women more prone to thinking they are frauds? Clance and O’Toole suggest that other factors affecting women complicate the issue. Women are often not encouraged in their career choices the same way men are. Women more keenly feel a conflict between their careers and their and families. These also have the ring of truth in them for me. In some ways, I think the desire for a family is used as an excuse for abandoning a goal that I don’t believe that I can actually achieve. And while I was never actually discouraged from following my career path, I was never actually encouraged, either. There’s no one standing there telling me that I should pursue a career in science, that I should finish my PhD. On the contrary, lately I’ve mostly heard that they would still love me if I quit! Whether that would be different if I was male, I have no idea.

So, now that we know that there are a substantial number of women out there who believe that they are somehow faking their way to success, what do we do about it?

Imposter Syndrome Part III


(1) Clance, PR and Imes, S (1978) “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3.

(2) I know there is no logic to this, but there often is no logic to the feelings buried deep down in my soul.

(3) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy. (I’m sorry, but I don’t have the full citation for this article, having downloaded as a pdf from here (PDF). Even more egregiously, they cite another work for this data which I was unable to obtain and therefore cannot cite it properly.)

Note: When I started this series of posts, I had intended to simply discuss my own feelings and that of my labmates and my own opinions of how these feelings arose. However, I found myself wanting look for more information about Imposter Phenomenon and what research was being done on the subject. If I had the time, I would dig into this further and find more recent articles and so on, but 1) I’m currently in California visiting my husband and I think he’s already confused about why I’m blogging instead of spending time with him (I’m a little confused about it as well, actually) and 2) I want to get these out in time to submit for Scientiae. But, I’m sufficiently intrigued by this subject that I may write more about it at a later time when I have the full resources of a university library available to me.

I’m Good Enough and I’m Smart Enough: Impostor Syndrome Part I

One of my labmates, R (a very junior student), who is also my friend, constantly challenges my thinking about graduate school, science, and the experience of women. She seems to defy my notions of what is normal experience (normal as in typical, not normal as in what everybody thinks is normal). She is, as far as I can tell, an extremely well-adjusted person who works hard, enjoys lab, loves science, and thinks our university is the bee’s knees. I secretly believe that she is a closeted axe murderer. Never in my experience at this university have I met someone who was so enthusiastic and so utterly forgiving of the problems that are inherent in our program. Her normality is abnormal.

Not too long ago, I was having a problem transforming my yeast cells in lab. I was trying to integrate a plasmid containing a small part of the end of a gene fused to GFP into that gene’s endogenous locus. We have done this a thousand times in my lab and I personally had does this a hundred times before but it just wasn’t working. I was getting very few transformed yeast and none of them seemed to have integrated the plasmid in the right place. As a control for technique, I tried integrating a very similar plasmid into the same gene in yeast–a plasmid a former member of the lab had gotten to work–and it was also not integrating at the proper place.

At this point, I had to look at the possibility that I was doing something wrong. However, this seemed to be unlikely. It was a simple procedure and there was very little that could go wrong.* I thought it more likely that there was something going on with the parent plasmid of this construct (looking at the lab notebook of he former lab member who had used this parent plasmid I could not tell if his transformations had been very efficient). That is, this is when I thought about the problem logically. Mostly, here was what was going through my head:

I’ve probably screwed this up. I always screw up cloning in some manner. It can’t all be bad luck, some of it has got to be me. I’m not a good bench scientist. I’m not careful enough. I’ve probably screwed up the plasmid prep and so I have much less DNA to start with when I’m trying to transform this thing into yeast. And I’ve probably screwed up the purification process after I cut the plasmid** so that I have even less DNA than a normal, competent, person would and that’s why this isn’t working. It’s not working because I’m a bad scientist with bad hands who never should be in benchwork and I don’t know why the hell I’m wasting my advisor’s time doing research when I’m clearly not suited to it and so bad at it. A better student would have this project done by now. I should just quit.

To my labmate, R, I would say, “I don’t think this is something I’m doing wrong. Whenever I’ve thought that in the past, it turned out not to be true. It’s a problem with the construct and that’s all. There was this time when Advisor thought I was clearly messing something up and he tried to do it and it turned out worse for him than it did for me. I just have bad luck when it comes to cloning.” I probably said this to her three or four times during the week when all of this came to a head.

In the end, I did more controls, I determined the concentration of DNA in my sample (which was actually higher than advertised as maximum efficiency for the kits I was using!), I did the transformation side by side with someone who wasn’t having problems (someone who had been in the lab much less time than me–I think we were both a little embarrassed by it all), and… it wasn’t me. It was the construct. There’s a problem with the parent plasmid in general and because the gene I’m working with is difficult, it meant that I had to use way more DNA than was typical in my transformations in order to get it to work and when I did that, it worked.

So, I said to R, “From now on, I am not going to always assume that the reason something is not working is because I’m a bad scientist, with bad hands. Time and again, I’ve shown that’s not the case and I’m not going to let myself think those things anymore.” And R said, “But, that’s what you’ve been saying all along.” To which I replied, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying to you, but what I’ve been saying to myself is that I’m not good enough to be in lab and that I’m not smart enough to be here.” And that’s how we got started talking about impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome, for those who don’t know, is characterized by the belief that you have somehow fooled everyone into thinking that you are smart and competent, that in fact you are neither, and one day people are going to figure out that you are a fraud. It seems to be fairly common among women academics. I first heard the term a few years ago and it described exactly how I felt on a daily basis.

I used to think I was alone in thinking that I wasn’t as smart as other people thought I was. However, after the Larry Summers debacle a few years ago, the Women in Science group on campus had a panel discussion to talk about the prospects of women in science and I attended. There, a woman on the panel told us about being in graduate school at Harvard and thinking, somehow, that all the other students (who were male) knew more and were smarter than her. This was not due to grades because she knew she had better grades than everyone else. She did not necessarily think they were smarter because they were male. Rather, in the absence of any sort of proof, or any theory as to why this might be true, she thought she was the dumbest person there. And I that’s when I started to rethink my ideas about how intelligent I was and whether I deserved to be in grad school. Up until that moment, I mostly thought that I was not smart and had somehow fooled everyone into thinking that I was.

I explained all of this to R who was dumbfounded. She had 1) never heard of the impostor syndrome, 2) never thought she was stupid, and 3) didn’t understand how anyone could think of themselves as stupid in the absence of proof. She may, in fact, have thought I was making it up. Except…

My lab happens to be primarily made up of women. This is not intentional on my advisor’s part (at least, as far as I can tell). Over the years, the majority vote would sometimes belong to women and sometimes to men, but most recently–due to a couple men leaving and a couple women joining–we have become a mostly female lab. Out of 11 people, seven are women. And, one by one, when asked, they admitted to often thinking that someone someday was going to figure out they were not smart enough to be here and throw them out. These women were smart, were doing good science, had been recognized by Advisor and others that they were doing good science, had passed their preliminary exams and qualifying exams and had published, and in the case of the post-doc had successfully defended a thesis and got hired, and yet, each of them thought that one day, someone was going to figure out that she was an idiot.

One the one hand, it’s good to know that I’m not crazy. Or, rather, that I’m not the only person who’s crazy. On the other hand, it’s heartbreakingly sad that so many talented women have so little confidence in themselves. It’s terrible to think that there are so many women out there who are secretly a little afraid that someday they are going to lose everything that they’ve worked for because someone is going to find out the “truth” about them. And I often wonder, is this related to why there are so few women in the upper echelons of science? After all, why apply for a position you secretly believe you are not qualified for?

Imposter Syndrome Part II

Imposter Syndrome Part III


*I should mention here, before other yeast biologists try to troubleshoot my transformation technique, that I am not working with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) or Schizosaccharomyces pombe and am using a different procedure to transform my cells than the ones normally used to transform these yeast.

**Plasmids are circular but to get the DNA to integrate into the genome, it needs to be linear, therefore, it must be cut with a restriction enzyme.

Public Service Announcement: How to use a laser pointer

It’s time for a little grumbling.

As a graduate student at a Big Research University, I go to a lot of seminars. Mostly, these seminars (besides informing me about whatever research these people’s graduate students are currently doing) have taught me a lot about how NOT to give a presentation. They might be boring, they might not have enough intro, their slides might be too busy. Sometimes, you get someone who is a very good speaker and that is a treat.

One of the things that annoys me the most about seminars is the way people move the laser pointer around like a crazy person. I am not talking about what happens if your hands shake when you’re nervous so that you’re pointing with a shaky dot (if that happens, though, keep your arm close to your body and hold your pointing hand steady with your other hand). I’m talking about flagrant misuse of the laser pointer. These abuses come in several categories:

The Sing-Along in which the presenter must be thinking: “C’mon everyone, let’s say the words all together–just following the bouncing pointer dot! I will point out each word as I say it so you can read it too!” This abuse is characterized by the presenter pointing to every word on the slide. The last time I had someone point to every word as I read them, I think I was in first grade. Really, I can read without you pointing to the words and frankly, it’s distracting.

The Circling Pointer of Death in which the presenter must be thinking: “To draw your attention to this figure, I’m going to circle it with the laser pointer over and over and over again!” I’m not sure what the purpose is of rapidly circling an object (or sometimes a word, this phenomenon often accompanies The Sing-Along) 20 or 30 times with the pointer, but I swear to you, I noticed it the first time you circled it.

The Laser Light Show in which the presenter must be thinking: “Hand-waving is better when accompanied by a laser pointer.” In this case, the presenter is wildly swinging the pointer all over the slide. They are not so much pointing at things as trying to write all over them with a bright red dot. It has the effect of making me watch the dot traveling all over the screen and completely ignore what is being projected onto the screen. Which may be the point.

The Movie Re-enactment in which the presenter must be thinking: “There’s no way the people in the back can see that brightly labeled GFP spot as it moves about the cell, so I am going to put my laser pointer right on it.” Frankly, I think this is the most egregious of the offenses. The others, I think, mostly owe their existence to presentation anxiety, but in this case the person has complete control over their pointer hand, and they are trying to be helpful, but what they have achieved is the exact opposite. What in God’s name was the point of labeling your object with GFP if you are just going to put the laser pointer right on it? You are obscuring your data! I would love to see the thing you are pointing at, but your pointer is in the way!

My advisor has a good policy regarding laser pointers. Think of the pointer as an extension of your arm, as if it were an actual wooden pointer stick of old. Would you be wildly waving such a thing all over the screen during the middle of your talk? Probably not, if only because your arm would get very tired. Would you point to every word on your slide? Not unless you were teaching your audience how to read. The trick to doing this is to position the pointer, press the button to point out whatever it is you want to point out, then LET GO OF THE DAMN BUTTON.

Thank you.

The Demon Under the Microscope

I am in the process of reading The Demon Under the Microscope (listening to, actually–I like to listen to audiobooks while I knit) by Thomas Hager.  I saw a couple reviews of the book on scienceblogs and, being interested in science history, I decided to give it a shot.

I don’t have time to do a thoughtful, detailed analysis of the book (besides, I’m only 2/3 of the way through it), but I will say that there is plenty in it to enjoy for a cell biologist with an interest in history.  The book details the discovery of sulfadrugs in the early 20th century, but to tell this story, the author dips into the discovery of microscopes and micro-organisms, the appalling conditions in the field hospitals during WWI, development of sterile surgical technique, and a whole host of things that ultimately led to the discovery of these drugs. The focus is both on how scientists went about looking for a cure for infectious disease and about what drove those scientists to look for a cure in the first place.  Right now, I’m listening to the birth of pharmaceutical companies which arose from German dye manufacturers of all things.

Having never looked into the history of this subject, I can’t speak to how accurate the information in the book is.  But it is a compelling read and if you have an interest in science history, worth your time.

Blog overload

A year or two ago, I set up a knitting blog under my real name and posted to it fairly regularly.  Sometimes I would go a week or two without posting, but usually, I kept it fairly up to date.   Then, I decided that I really needed a blog where I could talk about lab and not feel I should explain each concept in detail so that laypeople could understand it and furthermore, this blog should be anonymous to make it harder for people I know to find it and recognize me.  THEN, I decided that I really needed a lab blog under my real name for my friends and family to read so that when they asked me how much longer until I’m done with my PhD, I can just say, “Read the blog,” and spare myself the agony of trying to explain my life (finishing my PhD is pretty much my entire life right now) over and over again.   Three separate blogs, three separate purposes.

Unfortunately, this means that posting to any one blog is sporadic.  Maintaining three blogs is a little time-consuming and I really ought to be spending my time doing labwork.  And yet, I really feel a need to have all three of those outlets.  I imagine that posting my latest knitting project on this blog would not be satisfying to me (because it’s more fun to show off your knitting and talk about your knitting with other knitters) nor the people who read this blog (because they came here to read about science).  I can’t have my family running all over this blog and still maintain my anonymity and I can’t post anything I want to post about science on the family blog because then I’m back to explaining what I do to laypeople.

The bottom line is, I want to keep all three blogs and post more regularly on all three but not have it take large amounts of time away from labwork which is what I really should be doing.  Any suggestions?

P.S.  I just ran the blog spellcheck on this entry and apparently, the word “blog” is not in the spellcheck because it got underlined.  I find that highly amusing.  I am maybe too easily amused.