Another returning student, who works in different department and also has a lot riding her career change, was the first person I spoke to about the feeling of faking it. It’s not exactly a new feeling, and maybe is more tied up in the specifics of perfectionism than science itself –  but at the time I was surprised (and relieved) to hear this excellent scientist and technician admit that she felt like she was not actually smart enough to do the science that she wants to do.  This feeling was reiterated by a female grad student who I respect and often solicit for advice. When I told her that sometimes I feel like I’m faking it, she told me that she spent the  first few years of her PhD feeling like she’d accepted to the program by mistake and had not right to be there (obviously, she didn’t feel that way every minute of every day, and she got over it, thank god). So what makes some of us feel like big fakers?

Recently, in my new quest to read what other people write about their lives in science, I came acorss some posts on the topic of  Impostor Syndrome. Written in 2007 by an anonymous PhD student under the title I love Science, Really , this three-part post includes a link to a paper on the topic (with assessment quiz! I score a 69.) Briefly, the term Impostor Syndrome refers to the tendency of high achieving women to doubt their abilities and harbor fears that one day they will be exposed as frauds.  The focus of ILSR’s discussion was the prevalence of this feelingamong women in science.  And I wholeheartedly agree that this is a major dysfunction among women in this field. But would these women feel these same secret-faker-feeling  had they not chosen a career in science or academia?

While there are plenty of science-specific hurdles for women, I have to argue that this feeling is not limited to high achievement, or the sciences, or even specifically  to women. (A well timed voice from the radio says that  art is “a man’s world” as I write this.) But, a quick scan of my hard drive reveals I’ve never verbalized the impostor feeling to a man, and no man with whom I’ve been professionally acquainted has ever admitted his imposterhood to me. So maybe it is specific to some women, perfectionists, people with high standards, people who are really hard on themselves, people who define self-worth partially through work, or people who have staked it all on a certain endeavor for one reason or another.

So, what’s the appropriate response to someone who’s baring their faking fears? In no situation (yet)  have I given the right response, but I think it’s something really positive like “You’re great at what you do”,  not “Fake it ’til you make it”, which I will (with some embarrassment) admit I having said.   It’s a dark place, and I remain relieved that other people go there too. Below, a list of the moderately entertaining doubts I’ve harbored and the jobs they were attached to – a matching game.

Impostor’s thoughts

  • I am just pretending to be in charge, and when these kids figure that out there will be blood.
  • What if I screw up that regular customer’s order AGAIN!
  • I have no interest in making this bed/selling this cupcake/doing my boss’ bidding/painting this wall/packing this artwork/making this coffee – it’s hard to focus and I do a half assed job – if I can’t even do this right how will I ever do what I really want to do.
  • I guess I am doing well, but it’s just a matter of formulaic work, intelligence has nothing to do with it.
  • I should be too smart for food-service/house-painting/managing someone else’s bills, but maybe this is all I’m good  at.
  • I am not actually that creative,  and the more I force it the sooner I’ll wind up working in food-service again an justifying my lack of creative output as a choice I’ve made.
  • I am not actually that smart, faking it completely.

Imposter’s Jobs (there may be more than more correct match for each job)

Scientist, Baker, Barista, Nursing home assistant, Decorative painter, Art teacher, Artist, Artists’ assistant, Student part 1, Student part 2.


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