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Fighting back against “Imposter Syndrome”

April 5, 2012

I recently stumbled across a couple of really interesting articles about imposter syndrome (the feeling that you are not good enough or smart enough and that at some point everyone is going to figure that out and kick you off the island), which I thought I’d share.  Imposter Syndrome is very common among scientists, particularly female scientists (I know I struggle with it), and knowing other people feel the same way helps, but maybe there is more we can do to help each other.

The first article Could imposter syndrome learn from sports? is by a post-doc with an interesting hypothesis that imposter syndrome is so prevalent in science because scientists in general are afraid to show weakness, we tend to hide our failures from colleagues and students.  As a consequence, it appears that everyone around you is always succeeding and you are the only one that keeps failing.  She has a good point:

And while these tales of achievement and shining sources of confidence may be inspiring, they are also intimidating. They make us think we can never live up to what the successful among us have done. That we will never be enough. From where we sit, it looks like these people never saw failure in their lives. Oh, we know intellectually that it must be there. But we never, ever see it.

That article lead me to another article Impostors, Underdogs, and the Status of Science. That author was inspired by the first and expands on her hypothesis to posit that the root of this tendency to hide failure stems from the general narrative that is told about scientists in the press, in literature, and in popular culture is “a story of the inevitable triumph of genius” which is in stark contrast to the typical sports biographies that highlight how the underdog rose to success after years of sweat, tears, and hard work. 

The notable thing about this is that the stories we tell about sports are fundamentally inclusive while the stories we tell about science are exclusive. In both cases, we’re talking about people who do things that are completely beyond the reach of the average person, but when we tell those stories about athletes, they’re cast in a way that makes them seem different from ordinary people only in a quantitative sense– they’re a little taller, a little quicker, a little more disciplined. The framing invites the reader to imagine themselves at the center– “If I’d only been a few inches taller, that could’ve been me,” or “If I’d been able to spend a little more time working on my swing…”


The standard stories about scientists, on the other hand, are exclusive. They tend to emphasize the difference between the reader and the subject. Even as children, great scientists are often portrayed as qualitatively different, as people whose brains just work in a fundamentally different way. They either breeze through their education, or battle with administrative structures that are too confining for their genius. The framing encourages the reader to step back and gape in amazement at the subject.

This is why when I tell people what I do, often the first reaction I get is “Boy, you must be really smart.” not “Boy, you must work really hard.”  The myth of the genius scientist is a lot to live up too.  Not only is it okay (and inevitable) to fail, it is noble and inspiring to pick yourself up and try again.  Maybe we could all try to be a little better about sharing both our successes and failures?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 12:32 pm

    On a related topic – here is an article about how to stop comparing yourself to others…

  2. May 7, 2012 2:47 am

    What about when you actually have been kicked out of science, with other people taking your work? I ask for community help in getting me back into science, and getting my employment back! There is nothing that makes you feel more worthless than having colleagues wanting you to fail by taking your work and learning opportunities and giving them away. The example of LCOGT is one to strike fear into every struggling scientist, when Mr. Rosing’s observatory would actually attack your self image with the spirit of “Get out, go away, and give up,” all started by using private email forwarded by a vengeful private party to use one’s private honorable efforts to get married to create the false pretense of sexual harrassment. I am willing to travel the country to speak out and demand respect for my abilities and contributions to observing exoplanet transits for the Kepler project, and more, starting from the discovery of TrES 3b. Please support my 2013 March 2nd across the U.S. speaking campaign to take back my role in astronomy!

  3. April 17, 2012 3:04 pm

    I completely agree that we ought to try to be better about sharing our failures as well as our successes, but what are people’s thoughts about how this affects our professional image? I’m earnestly on the job hunt, and have a blog of my own. I would love to encourage people with my story, but I worry that it will reflect poorly on me…I hope that makes sense! Anyone have any thoughts about this?

    • May 14, 2012 1:45 pm

      Sorry for the late reply … but I totally hear you on things like this. It is sometimes hard to balance personal motives/career safety with a desire to help others. My guess is that there might be a time when you are not in a job search, or not in some another situation that would make you uncomfortable sharing, and maybe to save the stories for that time in the future?

  4. April 17, 2012 3:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Ms. Disarray.

  5. shawndgoldman permalink
    April 11, 2012 2:34 pm

    Wonderfully said!

    The other thing that I think happens with academics, in general, is that you’re surrounded by very smart people. And given the huge number of people getting degrees, and the relatively smaller number of positions available… something else has to be the separator. Often times, that “something” is hard work. Contrary to what many researchers seem to think, there’s only one “smartest person in the world.”

  6. Joe Shuster permalink
    April 6, 2012 8:09 am

    The whole “imposter syndrome” is quite a shock to me. Even after reading several articles I’m struggling to relate.

    But I do want to comment about the alleged contrast between sports biographies and science biographies and how this contrast affects IS. The claim is that sports biographies frame people as victors against circumstances while science biographies concentrate on the disconnection between the subject and the public. Supposedly this is a factor in IS because the former connects to the masses while the latter disconnects with the masses. However, I feel the claimed contrast and the claimed effect are both false. Apples and oranges; red herrings.

    Reading biographies across subject areas is likely to prompt a “grass is greener” effect, especially if you suffer from IS. An IS scientist reading a sports biography will see a connection between the athlete and the masses. But an IS athlete reading a sports biography will see a disconnection between himself and the subject of the biography. I wonder how many benchwarmers on a championship team feel sheepish about their trophy or medal? It’s probably a mistake (or at least premature) to think IS only applies to science or that it’s more prevalent among women.

    If you objectively read biographies of accomplished sports people like Michael Jordan you will see a mix of superiority, commonality, and inferiority. I think the same applies to biographies of scientists. What you take from a biography says more about you than the subject or the biographer. Maybe reading biographies can be a litmus test for IS.

  7. Juliane permalink
    April 5, 2012 2:17 pm

    This is really helpful to me. I struggle with this syndrome as well and I didn’t know that there is actually a name for it, nor did I know that it is quite common within the scientific community. I pretty much thought I was the only one. Thanks for posting this, it is a first step to know that there are others out there that feel/fear the same. It would be great especially for early carrier female scientist like me to hear stories both about success and failure and about the “human” nature of other scientists. Thanks again for posting this.


  1. Imposter Syndrome: Scientific Research is not Poker | Mistress of the Animals
  2. Dealing With Imposter Syndrome « Mrs. Professionalism
  3. Diversity in Science Carnival: IMPOSTER SYNDROME EDITION! | Neurotic Physiology
  4. Postscript: More Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome « Galileo's Pendulum

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