Me and my shadow: on Impostor Syndrome

Reader Advisory: The following post contains material suggesting that a white, male, middle-aged, tenured professor sometimes has doubts about his abilities. If such ideas mess with your worldview, perhaps you’d prefer to read about why taxonomy is sexy, or why natural history matters, or why Bohemian Rhapsody is kind of like data.

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome — that “what the hell am I doing and who the hell am I kidding?” feeling that can follow you around, poking you at the worst possible times, making you doubt Every Single Decision you have made throughout the duration of your young career. There’s been a growing recognition lately of how common this is in science people (although it’s by no means restricted to scientists!) A lot of the discussions have focused on grad students, especially female students. I’ve seen it my own students, and in other students I’ve known or talked with over the years. And I can only imagine how challenging it can be for female and other under-represented students, who have to fight so much harder for recognition and respect in the (still) male-dominated world of science.

I can relate to this, at least on some levels, because I deal with it myself. Impostor Syndrome is a little shadow that still follows me around.

When I was in primary school I was a good student. I was smart and curious and I liked learning. And I always did well (disclosure: it was a tiny rural school with three classrooms). But moving up through school is a bit like running fast. Little kids like to run, and fast little kids tend to win the races at school and family reunions and summer camp. But as the fast kids keep running, they come up against other fast kids, and by the time you get to varsity track meets and national championships and the Olympics, you realize that you may not always be the fastest kid any more. And finishing 7th out of 8 in the Olympic final in your event may make you feel like a failure, because it’s easy, in those moments, to forget that you’re in the freaking Olympics with only seven other people in the world! And the world of science is a lot like that.

My road’s been smooth so far (at least my academic road). I got scholarships. I got my PhD in 1991, I got a faculty gig in 1995 and tenure in 2001 at a great university. I get grants and I publish papers. Lots of my grad students have great jobs that they love. Students like my teaching. I won some awards. People on other continents know who I am and what I do. You’d think that all of that together would give me all I need to feel pretty awesome about my accomplishments.


Impostor Syndrome still greets me in the lab some days, with a fresh cup of coffee and sinister giggle. Why? Because fieldwork doesn’t always work out. Because results don’t always make sense. Because manuscripts get rejected. Because I get dropped from a grant application cuz my H-index is small (srsly. that happened). Because somebody says the wrong thing at the wrong time about my work or my students’ work. Because scientists are only human.

I trained as a taxonomist. My grad and postdoc work was based on insect taxonomy using morphological traits. I was pretty comfortable with that. When I was hired at McGill, that’s what I came to do. But pretty soon I realized I should diversify. That was mostly driven by my students. Not everybody wants to do taxonomy. Some of them liked working with insects but they wanted to do faunal inventories, or address ecological questions. And I thought there was a niche for ecologists who also do taxonomy. So I had to start learning some ecology. And some more stats. And a bunch of new literature. On top of all that, 21st Century taxonomy uses more characters than just morphology, so I’ve had to learn about molecular methods and the pros and cons of DNA barcoding, and the analyses that go along with those methods. If not for my own work, at least to keep up with my students. Sometimes I feel like I’m back at the MSc/PhD level trying to digest a bunch of new papers and questions and methods. And although that’s great for making me question my abilities, it also gives me the chance to remind myself that my Impostor Syndrome is an indication that I’m still pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

So how do I deal with it? I wish I had an easy answer. But I don’t. What works for me might not work for others. Hell, sometimes it doesn’t even work for me. But here it is.

Some ways of dealing with it definitely don’t work. The “have you tried not having Impostor Syndrome?” approach is about as effective as asking someone with mental health problems if they’ve tried not being depressed.

It’s hard to ignore the negative feelings sometimes, but a concerted effort to focus on one or two things that I’m pretty proud of can help, at least in the short term: looking over a paper or a presentation that I’m pleased with; talking with one of my students who’s doing great work and feeling excited about their progress; reminding myself about good things that have happened to me over the course of my career; talking to somebody who thinks I rock. Sometimes these things don’t help much, but sometimes a little is enough.

Sometimes the workload gets overwhelming. And that contributes to stress. And that contributes to the sense that I’ll just end up doing crappy work anyway. Hello, Impostor Syndrome! I find it’s worse when I’m doing something out on the edge of my comfort zone — community ecology, phylogeography — when I get away from the work and methods that I’ve been doing and using the longest. I’m having a challenging time lately, for example, because I’m trying to work on some manuscripts that have analyses that are new to me. But what if they’re all wrong? What happens when the reviewers shred them? Silly mind games. At worst, I’ll shelve these papers for a while. I know they have to get done sometime, but maybe when I’m feeling better about things. Maybe next week. Maybe the week after. In the meantime, there is always a big backlog of work to be done that’s right in my comfort zone — sorting samples, identifying flies, describing new species. So I’ll take a break and do that for a while. It’s displacement, I guess, but at least it’s productive displacement. And it reminds me that I’m pretty good at that part of my career.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. I can’t stress that enough. As we go farther in The System, the air gets rarefied. Everybody who got this far got here because they are good. Really good. But yes, a lot of us brought our little shadow of doubt along for the ride. A lot of us wonder how we’ve gotten away with it for so long. But for all its faults, The System is generally pretty good at recognizing good people. If we’ve made it this far, it’s because we deserve to be here. Sure, sometimes we venture into areas that aren’t a good fit for us. A little alarm goes off. That’s maybe just a signal that, for the moment, we’re a better fit in other parts of The System, doing the stuff we already know that we’re good at (but see stuff up above about pushing comfort zones!)

And I am sure I am NOT the only mid-career professor or research scientist or director or teacher or writer who feels this way. Far from it.

And with that, it’s time to get back to work. On this new stuff. That I’m new at.

I just wish I knew what the hell I was doing . . .

Epilogue: I started writing this post almost a year ago, but I kept not finishing it. One reason was that I wasn’t sure it was a good decision to come out with this. Gotta maintain that veneer of sciencey superiority after all! The second reason was that I wasn’t convinced many people would care about this post (Entitled Prof Whines!) I’ve never been big on the “personal gut-spilling” approach. In the end, I decided those weren’t very good reasons and the potential benefits to joining this conversation outweighed the costs. Thanks to Sally Le Page for giving me the nudge to write this up. Check out her take on Impostor Syndrome here.



About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Me and my shadow: on Impostor Syndrome

  1. Thanks for sharing, as an early career scientist I am both heartened (because if an established scientist feels this way then it is ok for me to do so) and dismayed that the feeling never really goes away! I’m about to start my PhD, and realise my greatest challenges may be psychological rather than academic. The best two bits of advice I have been given so far are: “You don’t have to think you are good enough, you just have to be good enough” and “get used to not knowing what you are doing”.

  2. Hi Victoria. Those two pieces of advice are both excellent. I think you’re absolutely right that the biggest challenges we face are psychological, and those are tougher to overcome than the strictly academic ones. But there again, a lot of us are in the same boat and the more we, as a community, talk about it, the better. It’s daunting to realize that Impostor Syndrome sometimes hangs around as we go through our careers, but maybe that’s because, if we play the game well, we never really stop being “students”.

  3. Hi Terry, thank you for posting this. It’s really nice to know that everyone, including tenured professors can sometimes feel this way.
    If it helps, I think you’re an amazing teacher. I took a couple of your classes in 2008-2009, and your passion for systematics and insects really shone through. I know that your classes played an important role in helping me identify my interest in studying insects. So, thanks! 🙂

  4. Great to hear from you Sara. Thanks for your comments! I have to say that one of the most rewarding parts of my job is running into former students at conferences or seminars and seeing how well many of you have done. The list is long!

  5. Pingback: Why do I blog about what I blog about? | Lyman Entomological Museum

  6. Pingback: 20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong | Lyman Entomological Museum

  7. Pingback: Two years of Small Pond Science | Small Pond Science

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