Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feelings of Fraud and Inadequacy in Grad School

I keep starting to write this post and then stopping.  This subject is very difficult to write about; it's very personal and one of my deepest professional insecurities, and I don't think I'm alone.  You see, I was talking with a couple of fellow grad students not too long ago, one senior student like myself, and a fellow a few years younger than us.  We were discussing data quality and publication, and I admitted that sometimes I feel like a fraud - sometimes I think my good data is all in my head, I'm imagining it, and someday soon some experiment is going to unravel my entire body of work.  The other old salt agreed with me, while the young pup exclaimed "What, you mean those feelings don't go away with success?!?"  All three of us were affected by classic impostor syndrome.  I read that women are more often affected by men, although anecdotally I was the only woman in that conversation.  I wonder if this is more common among certain fields or regions.

What I find even weirder is that as I achieve higher levels of success with my project, these feelings seem to intensify - the more I participate in the scientific field, the more chances there are that people will discover what an idiot I really am. 
I have shared with my close friends, but have been reticent to share elsewhere, some recent accolades I have won.  I submitted an abstract of my thesis work for a Very Big and Important Cancer Meeting back in November, and not long thereafter I was informed that I was selected to give an oral presentation, alongside postdocs and maybe even a couple of junior faculty.  I also found out very recently that I won a difficult to get scholarship for attendance to VBICM, both of which look very, very good on my CV, especially at this point in my career (normally postdocs get both honors).  At first I was thrilled, but now I'm just terrified.  The social anxiety and fear of public speaking that I've always had don't help, however I find my anxiety over the talk centering around the idea that VBICM attendees are so much more knowledgeable than me about pretty much everything and will find all the holes in my research and eviscerate me publicly.  Which is silly - no one sane would do that because it would make them look like an ass.  Well they might but it's highly unlikely.  This isn't really about anyone who is going to be at VBICM, it's about me.  It's about my insecurities, and my ego - see, one of my myriad psychologists once explained to me that social anxiety is a very self-centered disease.  That one is so focused on what other people might think that one completely ignores the possibility that other people just don't care all that much - chances are they aren't thinking about me at all, but are rather thinking about things like tasty mashed potatoes or that mystery itch in their pants.

So where does this impostor syndrome come from?  I can think of a lot of things.  It certainly is related to my anxiety and perfectionism - traits that I've been in treatment for ever since I was a small child.  I am naturally anxious, and always felt pressure to be the best and then some.  My parents always expected the best from me, but I knew I had to be better than the best because as a girl my best was still seen as worse than the boys.  I had teachers who literally took off more points for mistakes made by girls than the same mistakes made by boys (kids work in groups and talk - even especially when told not to), and my achievements were always downplayed by the phrase "your brother is the smartest."  I had to be actually perfect to be seen as good enough.  Over the years I think I internalized the drive for perfection - if I wasn't top of the class (in anything other than writing - ugh did I hate writing classes), I beat myself up.  Somehow if I don't live up to my own impossible standards of perfection, I'm a fraud.  It looks so ridiculous written out here.  It didn't help that my first adviser constantly undermined my intelligence and data.  But my current adviser is my cheerleader.  In a reverse from the situation of my first lab, I think she is more confident in my data and abilities than I am.

So how do I move on from this?  Well for starters I can listen to my adviser - I should let her rewrite my internal monologues.  Rather than "They gave you this award by mistake and they'll regret it the second you open your mouth," I should say, "Your hard work and novel findings - which you have repeated ad nauseum - are being recognized."*  I also need to let go.  I don't need to be the expert in brain tumors and brain development and the three pathways that converge in my project in order to be competent, answer questions intelligently, and not sound like an idiot.  Now that I've explored the sources of my insecurities, I can confront my deep-seated need for perfection - and my impossible self-imposed standards.  I need to hold myself to the same standards that I hold others.  My standards for others are still high, but they're not impossible.  And finally, I need to repeat the mantra I discovered before my most recent departmental talk - "What's the worst that could happen?"  Anything I can think of realistically still leaves me employed, married, healthy and fabulous.  Also?  I'll always have my fabulous boots, a congratulations present courtesy of LB.

Allegra in Tan, by Born.  Fellas?  Shoes are always better than flowers.

*Actual conversation


velocibadgergirl said...

I totally sympathize with you on the public-speaking terror :S But I bet you're going to kick ass and take names! Practice, practice, and practice some more and then when you get there remember 1. You're a badass and they picked you for a reason and 2. Breathe.

Observant Academic said...

I think you just pretty much described me.

The best advice I ever got: when you notice you're getting there again, stop thinking.

queenrandom said...

Haha, great advice, Observant Academic.