Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the Impostor Syndrome

Over the last year I read a lot of excellent blog posts about the Impostor Syndrome. This famous feeling that all scientists have every now and then (young folks especially): the feeling of being the most stupid person in the room (or in the department, or in the field). When you go to a scientific seminar, and have no idea what the person is talking about. Or when a person says something that you think is either boring or insane, but suddenly everybody start asking serious, thoughtful scientific questions, and you realize that it is probably you who are not really a scientist. Or when you have a great idea for an experiment, only to find that it was done back in 1976, and your PI references it in a good half of their papers. Or when you meet your peer at a conference, only to realize that they have 3 Nature papers, and 2 job offers, while you do not exist as a human being. The occasions are endless.

And while there are ways to fight the impostor syndrome, and some of them are really cool and important, what I find interesting is how this whole phenomenon looks in the light of another topic, the most popular topic for midnight academic conversations. That of the overporoduction of PhDs, in comparison to the TT positions available.

Based on my original research, of every 10 people entering grad schools in Neuroscience, only one will get a "normal" tenure track faculty position. Well, do you realize what it means?

It means that when I feel a surge of the "impostor syndrome", statistically speaking, I'm just feeling the truth, as it goes down the spine. Statistically speaking, the most plausible hypothesis is that it is not the "syndrome" at all, but just the reality looking in my eyes.

But if it is true, and I am really an impostor, what should I do with it? Can I still survive in academia, at least for a while, without getting depressed, even though statistically speaking I know the truth?

One solution (and I've seen some people following it) is to claim that everybody are impostors, and the question of getting a TT position is that of pure luck. Well, I don't like this idea, because I find it almost as depressive as the "simple solution" of leaving the field immediately. I don't like raffles and lotteries. If it's pure luck, then not only I'm an impostor, but also the world around is more unfair than I can handle. I want to believe that people who get TT positions usually deserve it. Even if I won't make it there, at least I'll know that the world is in good hands.

My solution so is to pretend that being an impostor is an inherent feature of science. It has something to do with the importance of stupidity in scientific research. Scientists are impostors by design: because they venture to describe and explain something that cannot possibly fit into one person's head. And so this whole science affair is a giant Mardi Gras procession of impostors. Quantitatively some of them are more efficient then the others, but qualitatively - all are alike.

Which means that "Fake it till you make it" is not just a saying, or a joke, but actually a viable practical advice, and the only solution to the problem. To boldly pretend something that no man has pretended before. Coz having dirty hands makes you right, and who cares if you are really a "wrong person", as long as you do what a "right person" would have done on your place.

And as for the career perspectives... I'll think of it tomorrow.

2 comments:

  1. It means that when I feel a surge of the "impostor syndrome", statistically speaking, I'm just feeling the truth, as it goes down the spine. Statistically speaking, the most plausible hypothesis is that it is not the "syndrome" at all, but just the reality looking in my eyes.

    Scary, isn't it? I can never convince myself that when I feel like a fraud I am not actually a fraud. The best I can do is pretend it doesn't matter as no one caught me yet. :)

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  2. Yes, it may be somewhat scary. But "a fraud" is probably too strong a word =)

    My philosophy in life, generally, is that the key to happiness is in having low expectations. So of all possible interpretations of the world around, and of all possible expectations for the future, I'm trying to stick to the most depressive one that would still keep me functional at the same time =) Or, the other way around, to the most optimistic of all cynical expectations I could have. For science, it means doing everything I can to get good publications, and to find a good position, but treating it all as a giant real-life experiment. It is not the system that evaluates me. It is me who tests the system: for efficiency, fairness, adequacy. And in a while we'll see the results =)

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