One of the reasons I like WordPress is because it is easy to check the stats on the traffic your blog is getting. You can look at which entries got the most views that day and what links people are clicking on to get to your blog and so forth. Usually, my blog gets around 10 views a day, maybe 20 on the day that Scientiae comes out.

So I was a little surprised (and by surprised, I mean shocked beyond belief) when one day my blog had over 300 views. Several things happened at once. I commented on a post at A Blog Around the Clock over at Scienceblogs which then listed me one day on their daily blogroll (boy was I glad I had the Imposter Syndrome posts up by then and wasn’t stuck on Talk Like a Pirate Day), then I got a link from YoungFemaleScientist and then Scientiae came out and I got a link from Drugmonkey and–Holy traffic Batman! More links, more comments, more everything! I’ve been watching the stats and, I don’t mind telling you, getting a little nervous thinking, Oh shit, now I have to say something intelligent–there are people out there watching!

In thinking about how all of this happened, I realized that a major factor was that what I wrote struck a chord in a lot of people. People are commenting and saying thank you for writing these posts because they felt this way for a long time. This is immensely gratifying. Shouting* that you feel like an imposter is not easy and the only thing that makes it worthwhile is if it helps someone else. An increase in blog traffic is nice and all, but I find helping people to be a lot more satisfying.

A couple of interesting points have come up in the comments and on other blogs. One is that men suffer from imposter syndrome. This was mentioned in one of the papers I read, but the authors also thought that somehow imposter syndrome affected men differently than women. Not being a man, I really can’t speak to that, but it’s clear that there are men out there who are not nearly as confident in their abilities as they project.

Another interesting topic has been what mentors can do to stave off imposter syndrome in their charges. Bikemonkey mentioned it here, and Alethea also talks about it here. Bikemonkey asks, “A related question is what degree of confidence do you project as a PI and mentor?” then adds, “…in some senses the highly confident PI is not good for the imposter syndrome trainee.” Alethea on the other hand suggests, “…I am not sure that an unconfident PI such as myself, who lets the young women in her charge see the bumps and warts of handling it all – family, grants, travel, article submissions, is such a great example and will thereby bring new, liberated scientists into the coterie.” As a graduate student, I appreciate the sentiment. Certainly, as a student you don’t want to have the uneasy feeling that you are on a ship that is barely staying afloat. So, you do want your advisor to project some degree of confidence. On the other hand, having an advisor who is confident to the point of arrogance would definitely get those old imposter feelings bubbling. There’s a difference, though, between allowing your students to see the realities involved in being an academic scientist and telling your students you don’t think a grant will be funded because you are an idiot. Alethea, I’m sure, is talking about the former and I appreciate it when faculty allow me to see the complexities of academic life. It doesn’t make me want to be an academic scientist, but that’s not because I think I can’t handle all of that–it’s because I don’t want to.

Neurolover has this important piece of advice, “One piece of advise I’ve seen offered on how to counteract imposer syndrome is to be specific about praise with your trainees: not “great talk!”, but details about why the talk was good. Then, when the person starts going down the imposter syndrome path, they have factual information to draw on to counteract it.” To which I say, AMEN! This particular example struck a chord with me simply because I know for a fact (because I have done it myself) that people will say, “Good talk,” to a person even when they think it was a horrible talk (not to be two-faced, but to be polite). Generic words of praise are very easy to brush aside.

Not all that long ago, a student in my lab defended his thesis. It is customary for the advisor to introduce the student and often this introduction is full of praise for the student. In this case, my advisor spoke of specific things about this student that made him a good scientist and why exactly he was a joy to have as a student. Looking back at other thesis defenses in my lab, I remember that my advisor did much the same for everyone. And I thought, how sad that we have to wait until we have almost finished our careers as graduate students before we hear something like that. I have gone into my advisor’s office specifically requesting a peptalk because I am down in the dumps about my experiments and the best that I have heard him say is, “You have a good scientific mind.” Um, thanks, but what does that mean??? How do you know I have a good scientific mind? What about me makes you say that? I’m in here because my PCR has failed for the umpteenth time and I need a little bit more than, “You have a good scientific mind.”

When discussing with my labmates our advisor’s introduction to the defense, one of us wondered what Advisor would say at her defense and when we assured her that it would be something good she said (in a classic imposter syndrome moment), “Well, he has to say something nice then, doesn’t he?” Which emphasizes the need for students to hear praise throughout their careers and not just when the advisor, “has to say something nice.” Back when I was a tech, I had a mandatory once-yearly evaluation in which my boss was required to tell me what he thought I was doing well and what he thought I needed to improve upon. I’ve often thought the advisor/student relationship could benefit from the same system.

Ultimately, though, all the praise in the world won’t help if the person with imposter syndrome doesn’t see the reality of her (or his) worth. So, I think it is just as important for advisors (and friends and family) to watch for things like devaluing accomplishments. Don’t let a person get away with saying, “It was nothing.” Do not assume the person is just being modest. Tell them, “It was not nothing, it was very good work and you should be proud of yourself for doing it.” Perhaps they won’t believe you. But at least you have done what you could to counteract their false assumptions.


*Which is what blogging really is when you think about it. You’re saying something that the whole world can hear.

4 thoughts on “Whoa.

  1. “An increase in blog traffic is nice and all, but I find helping people to be a lot more satisfying.”

    And it lasts longer, too. Who knows how many people you may have influenced?

    You were right – I do have some semblance of self-respect! And my interest is that my younger co-workers understand what they are getting into, and see that the obstacles *are* surmountable if you want to do it and have some measure of luck. Also, I don’t want them to think that everyone just buys into the whole system as is, lock, stock and barrel.

    Thanks for the shout-out, too. A blog traffic increase is nice, as well.

  2. with respect to how you deal with it as a mentor, it depends on the nature of this “syndrome” as it is being construed. some aspects of it are similar to established mental disorders like anorexia in which the belief (too fat) is held despite overwhelmingly clear evidence to the contrary (80 lbs, breaking bones, etc). If imposter syndrome is a similar mental disorder, no amount of specific complimenting is going to help because the evidence is discounted.

  3. Drugmonkey: I agree. As cliche as it sounds, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. If the person truly believes she is an imposter, there’s not much you can do.

  4. I live in the Far North and there have been some interesting studies about how our circadian rythms start to “wander” when it’s either all light or all dark and how the circadian rythm wandering can really mess up the way your body deals with other things. Up here one solution that even the toughest of fishermen use is to go to a tanning salon for 15min a week. It’s something I would have NEVER considered because I always thought it was for people who wanted to get tanned. Turns out it really helps with the S.A.D. Good luck with it.

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