During my career as a laboratory manager and mentor, I’ve known plenty of researchers who’ve been quick to devalue their accomplishments, or to worry that a supervisor’s congratulations were prompted more by kindness than by genuine admiration. Often, those same researchers feel that a ridiculously misguided criticism — from anyone — is a fair assessment of their abilities.
Whether you’re a student, a postdoc, a staff scientist or a faculty member, ‘impostor syndrome’ makes every research challenge and setback a little harder to navigate. When dealing with a capricious technique, a difficult experimental design or a nullified hypothesis, a full-on bout of impostor syndrome can undermine your confidence and ability to make decisions. At worst, it’s emotionally destructive, leads to burnout and affects your physical and mental health. And even when a research project is going well, impostor syndrome can loom up again and make you feel incapable or unworthy of accomplishing your goals.
Although you might never eliminate all feelings produced by this emotional saboteur, you can adopt tactics that will reduce the frequency and intensity of its attacks on your self-esteem. For many researchers, the most realistic goal is living without its effects most days, and managing the symptoms when it rears its ugly head on the bad ones.
Here are four tips to help protect yourself against these insidious attacks.
Recognize that you earned your position
You deserved your research appointment. It wasn’t given to you out of kindness, sympathy, for political reasons or because you fooled a selection committee or hiring director. It’s not uncommon to be several years into a research post or career path and still have doubts about belonging. And those lingering fears can lead to some of the lowest moments associated with impostor syndrome.
To make matters worse, sometimes it takes only a single, toxic comment to derail your confidence or reinforce the fear that you’ll never be good enough. This fear is compounded if you’re in a lab or department with members who are hostile to your presence because you don’t look or sound like a scientist to them, or fit their idea of what a scientist should be. And it doesn’t help if you’re unable to publicly embrace who you are for fear that doing so might have adverse political consequences or expose you to dangerous situations.
If someone tells you, either outright or in a subtle way, that you don’t belong in science, know this: they are already wrong because you’re already here. And, if you’re a member of a marginalized group, or are a first-generation scientist (or perhaps claim membership of both categories), know that you belong in science as much as anyone else does. So keep building a professional mentoring network and asking mentors for advice on dealing with hostile co-workers or colleagues — or for direct intervention, if necessary. Also, stay connected to your personal support network — the insight and support that its members provide can be invaluable for getting you through the dark times.
Shut down a toxic inner critic
You deserve more than to survive your research experience. You deserve to thrive while achieving your career and personal goals. And although external validation from mentors and others will help you to recognize that your achievements aren’t lucky coincidences, ultimately you must become your own strongest advocate.
When faced with disappointment, frustration or failure, for example, you can choose to be your harshest critic or your greatest ally. Choose the second — even when it’s harder than the first. You deserve to move on from mistakes without attaching an emotional charge to them or continually replaying a monologue in your head about how you should have done better, or how someone else would have done so. If the route of self-kindness means pushing back against a lifetime habit of feeding a toxic inner critic, you’ll need to do extra work outside the lab and could possibly benefit from consulting a mental-wellness counsellor, virtually or otherwise. Granted, this is easier said than done, but it’s essential that you develop tools to help you believe in yourself.
Stop comparing your work with that of others
It’s understandable to want to compare your research progress with a lab-mate’s. But it’s also practically guaranteed to stress you out and induce feelings of impostor syndrome. And it won’t provide inspiration if they’re having a string of successes and you’re, well, not.
There are numerous differences between research projects — so it’s unhelpful to even try to measure your progress against someone else’s. Project fundamentals vary substantially in several categories, among them the amount and type of preliminary data, the time needed to complete research objectives and the overall project goals.
Next, consider the differences in professional responsibilities and roles. If you’re mentoring or training a new lab-mate, your productivity will take a dip. Ideally, that investment will pay off in increased productivity later, but that doesn’t always happen. Another factor might be teaching responsibilities. If you’re a graduate student on a teaching-assistant contract, or a postdoc developing coursework and teaching, you’ll be balancing those obligations with research.
Finally, your personal life doesn’t simply run in the background. You have personal goals that require your participation, and relationships that require your presence. And if you’re struggling with a personal issue, sometimes the best solution is to take time away from the bench to resolve or learn how to manage it. This might delay your research project for the time being, but not everything can be fixed by trying to ignore or push through it.
The take-home message is this: no good comes from judging yourself and comparing your progress with a lab-mate’s. Doing so will absolutely kick-start a round of impostor-syndrome symptoms. So focus your energy on what you can control — creating strategies to achieve your research goals in a time frame that’s realistic for who you are and for the parameters of your project.
Accept congratulations on your achievements
Most people don’t offer congratulations just to be nice: they do it to show support and to acknowledge an accomplishment. So when a mentor, lab-mate or anyone, really, congratulates you on a presentation, a troubleshooting strategy for experimental design or any professional achievement, embrace it as a genuine act of support.
When congratulations come your way, if your first instinct is to deflect them — to make out that what you’ve achieved is not a big deal, or is unworthy of praise — stop yourself mid-sentence to say, “Thank you.” And if you finish the entire sentence having done nothing but downgrade your accomplishment, immediately start a new one to say, “Actually, thank you. I appreciate your support. “
Then work on making ‘Thank you’ your go-to response when someone congratulates you on a professional win.
Also, when you accomplish a goal, beware of any self-destructive tendencies to minimize your contribution. After publishing a first-author paper, for example, you might be tempted to downplay your role and give a co-author or mentor more credit than they earned. But telling others anything along the lines of, “Oh, my mentor told me what to do,” or “I’m not sure why I’m first author; all I did was some bench work,” will fast-track a new round of impostor-syndrome symptoms. When you trivialize your efforts or achievements in front of others, you risk believing what you’re saying, which leaves you wide open to feeling like an impostor.
I’m not suggesting that you take credit for accomplishments that aren’t yours. Rather, always remember that you’re the driving force behind every goal you achieve, and that you should give yourself the appropriate credit for it. There are, and will be, plenty of others throughout your career who will happily accept the credit for your success. Acknowledge, recognize and rejoice in your own accomplishments and achievements.