Like a lot of scientists, I’ve got a little bit of imposter syndrome. I’m secretly* afraid that my colleagues will discover that I’m not actually very good at what I do and that I don’t belong in science. (To be clear: strictly intellectually, I understand that I’m not really an imposter; but that has almost nothing to do with how I feel.) I have this worry about my research, about my writing book, and even about my blogging. At some point in the writing of nearly every new post, I find myself thinking “I’ll be embarrassed if people read this”. (A while ago, I connected this to introversion, but I don’t think it’s just that.)
There seem to be two really useful ways to deal with imposter syndrome. One is to admit that you feel it, and I’ve just done that. The other is to recognize good work that you’ve done. I was scrolling down the list of posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel the other day, and I realized there are a few posts I’m actually rather proud of. Three I’d rank near the top:
- “Universities that did not hire me: a chronicle of absolutely normal rejection”. This is mostly a list of the many, many academic jobs I’ve applied to but not gotten. There’s no clever writing or in-depth analysis, just the message that if you’ve been rejected for a job, you’re not alone.
- “Persistence in publishing: the Tubthumping strategy”. This one’s a reflection on having papers repeatedly rejected, and on the strategy that gets them published anyway.
- “Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge”. This piece never uses the term “imposter syndrome” but is nonetheless about it – in particular, about the fear I used to feel about giving talks. It’s the one part of my imposteriness I’ve managed to (mostly) overcome, and I suggest some thinking about the nature of science that calms my fears and might calm similar fears in others.
The first two posts are about failure, and the third is about success, and so they might not seem to fit together. But in fact there’s a common theme: that all of us fail often, temporarily; but that those temporary failures are just a normal piece of succeeding in the longer term. They have to be, because what we’re doing in science is both novel and difficult. I think that’s an important message, and one I could have used hearing a few more times early in my career**. We can all use support and positive reinforcement in the face of our fears and our (short-term) failures. I’m proud that I found a way to enunciate this message, and that I’ve tried (by posting) to spread it as widely as I can.
Those three posts aren’t among my most popular (none is in the top five by all-time page views). But “what I’m proudest of” and “what’s been most popular” is not the same thing. My top-viewed post, by a wide margin, is “Why do we make statistics so hard for our students?”. It’s a decent post and I’m pleased that some folks have found it helpful – but among my statistics posts, I think “Is nearly significant ridiculous?” is much more interesting and makes a much less obvious point. It’s had less than 1/3 the views.
Which brings me to the last post I’ll mention: “Wonderful Latin names: Spurlingia darwini”. WordPress very conveniently displays a list of all my posts ranked by all-time page views, and Spurlingia sits forlornly way, way down near the bottom. And yet I’m actually rather proud of it (although I’ll admit its title is terrible***). It makes an important point about the way science happens, and makes it via some interesting history. I’ll have to return to that point in other posts, I guess, since nobody read Spurlingia. Let’s call that Persistence in blogposting: the Tubthumping strategy.
Anyway: impostery feelings or not, I’ve done some work I’m proud of. I bet you have too.
© Stephen Heard March 20, 2018
*^Well, not any more.
**^Oh, heck, who am I kidding? I could use hearing it a few more times these days, too, and I’m no longer anything close to early in my career.
***^I absolutely suck at titles. I’ve learned to defer to coauthors, to editors, and – if truth be told – to random pulls of Scrabble tiles from a bag. They all do better than me.