Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Impostor Syndrome for Men

Pretty much every women-in-science workshop I've attended, book I've read, and website I've visited discusses the threat of Impostor Syndrome. If you're not familiar with it, this is the belief that .... *looks both ways*.. someone will find out your deep, dark secret that actually you're faking it! That you don't know anything about anything, and really you're just a pattern matcher in a Chinese Room - sprouting out clever things at the right moment, but actually you're lost and confused and feel like you don't really belong here.

It's funny, but due to how much this is over-emphasized at these women-in-science workshops on some level I think I must have really believed this was just something women faced. But the more time I spend in academia the more I realize that just about everyone faces this - and, in fact, the people who are the most pompous and the most boisterous about their intellect are the biggest self-doubters of all.

Take my recent acquaintance Sam. I watched Sam present some truly ground-breaking research. His work is so ground-breaking I imagine just about every funding agency and venture capitalist on the planet is begging him to throw buckets of cash his way, because this stuff is bigbigbig. But it's not just that - he has published an ungodly number of papers in the past few years in top journals/conferences, is PI on a large grant, is at a very prestigious place, etc.

Sam delighted in "telling me" (read: bragging) about all of these accomplishments. And truth be told, he really has the right to brag - his research is amazing, and he's got the paper trail to prove it. After awhile, I asked him if he was going on the job market this year.

"Oh, I don't think I will."
"Why not?"
"Well, I'm not good enough to get a job at the top places..."

Wha?!?!?! If this guy doesn't think he can get a job at a top place, something is clearly very wrong in the world. I told him he was nuts, and he should absolutely try. Of all my friends and colleagues at his career stage, I know of no one more accomplished or doing more interesting research than him.

Anyway, it was eye opening for me to come to this realization that Imposter Syndrome is an egalitarian epidemic, and as I look closely I now notice it more often. I saw a man who is one of the top researchers in his field presenting a poster recently, and as people came by to see it he kept saying, "Oh, this is just simple stuff. Nothing fancy, really unremarkable and unimpressive." This shocked me. And lots of other  examples recently have as well.

This is all comforting to me somehow. Especially Sam. If he's self-doubting, by induction it's no shock that we all feel that way from time to time. :-)


  1. In your last example, I wonder how much this has to do with feeling of inadequacy, and how much with being down in the trenches day after day? I know that I get jaded about what I'm doing because I do it every day. To me it does seem simple and unremarkable. Every once in a while I force myself to step back and realize how good it actually is.

  2. Are you sure it's imposter syndrome in Sam's case? Because, in my field at least, something really is terribly, terribly wrong in the field. He would be wasting his time applying for jobs, if he didn't know the right people, if he had career gaps in his CV, or a million other 'problems'.

  3. Regarding impostor syndrome in males, see "Self Doubt Plagues Female Astronomers" (Nature 463, 574, 27 January 2010).

    Basically (despite what the title implies), a group of both male and female astronomy graduate students were asked to indicate to what degree they agreed or disagreed with the statement "Sometimes I am afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I lack." For both male and female respondents, the most popular answer was 'agree' (where the choices were strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree).

    If I were to guess what the response of males would be, before having seen this data, I would have thought that the majority of them would have leaned toward neutral/disagree/strongly disagree. So, the study really opened my eyes on two levels, first by showing me in a nice bar graph that I'm not the only one who feels this way, and, arguably more importantly, that the feelings aren't restricted to females.

  4. Reading about all these smart and accomplished people suffering from impostor syndrome has made me doubt I've got a true case of it. I am just going to have to fake it from now on.

  5. There are two related but different beliefs that I have come across. First is a belief that you aren't good enough, and are faking it. That's the Impostor Syndrome. The second is that that you are good enough but not matter how good you are the system is in some way rigged. Getting those top jobs isn't as simple as being a good researcher. It involves knowing the right people, having the right schools on your CV, etc.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all.

    @Brer, definitely, I think it's good to take a step back from time to time. I also think it's good to try to not be self-deprecating. This researcher really kept being down on his work, which seemed really strange to me. It was far outside my field, so who knows, maybe it was unremarkable. Or maybe this is one of those cases of a top-dog stepping themselves down a bit in order to be accessible to the masses.

    @Kea, I definitely think so for Sam. His letter writers are the academic equivalents of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Steve Jobs.

    @Jean, thanks for the reference! I will definitely check that paper out when life returns to something more normal. (Swimming in deadlines at the moment).

    @fubarator, heh. Also, I love your handle.

    @Bashir, I've come across both beliefs as well. They're both unfortunate views to have, but the second one is probably the most difficult to overcome. Believing the system is rigged against you makes you less likely to do the things you need to do to get in to the club - publish, postdoc/work somewhere good, network, etc. That being said, I do think some people really do end up getting the short end of the stick sometimes (e.g., some underrepresented groups), which is why I really hope some of the recent NSF initiatives can make some headway.

  7. Self-deprecation isn't really a good example of impostor syndrome. It's a defense mechanism well known to social psychologists. Self-handicapping, it's called. It's similar to claiming you drank too much the night before the GRE's. A great strategy for maintaining your social standing, even in the event of failure.

    Interestingly, men were shown to do this more than women.