It’s the imposter syndrome… or is it?

I learned one of the most important things from graduate school in my first semester. A senior, tenured, well-respected and highly published faculty member told us something along the following lines:

“You will go through periods where you feel like you know everything, and then you will go through periods where you feel like you know absolutely nothing, and you’re just hoping no one notices. The important thing to remember is that everyone, from graduate student to tenured academic at the top of their field, everyone goes through both of these periods regularly. Prepare for this pattern to happen throughout your career.”

I actually remember what it was like to not really know what she was talking about. As a fresh-faced first year, I had yet to even experience the Imposter Syndrome.  Of course, since then I’ve come back to this message many, many times. It’s been a helpful reminder that the Imposter Syndrome is real, and more importantly, it’s normal.

 

But… what if it’s not just the Imposter Syndrome?

 

I know women who started out their academic careers believing sexism was dead, feminism had won. While, sure, some fields are lagging behind a bit, overall woman are earning well over 50% of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in STEM fields, and are closing the gap on PhDs. The evidence speaks for itself…. right?

In this assumed post-patriarchy, there is no sexism to explain what we experience – we look inward when our confidence is undermined. We tell ourselves it’s the Imposter Syndrome rearing it’s ugly head, that we need to just believe in ourselves and know these feelings are normal…. right?

 

What if they aren’t?

 

For June, the Diversity Journal Club will delve into the Imposter Syndrome and how it intersects with diversity and inclusion. We will be discussing Alexis Hancock’s

How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech

While this was written for an audience in tech fields, it applies pretty similarly to those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) more broadly. Do we use the Imposter Syndrome to explain away how microaggressions make us feel, how stereotype threat undermines our confidence? To help us ignore real reasons for our struggles that may not actually be fixed by believing in ourselves, or working harder?

We hope to expand this conversation to explore the difference between individual and systemic problems – or if that assessment is even important. Is it something I personally need to do differently or work at – or is it systemic bias?

 

Please  join us on Twitter under #DiversityJC on Friday 19 August at 2pm Eastern Time for the discussion!

Emily Klein, Ian Street, and Doctor PMS

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What is the mental toll of science? Guest recap by Ian Street.

#DiversityJC this week was about mental health in academia. For help on this topic, Ian Street was gracious enough to co-host. Ian has been outspoken about his own battles with depression in academia and science, and is an open and welcoming voice on social media on these topics. We were very happy to have him – and have him help out with the recap this week. Here are his thoughts on what was an insightful and importance conversation…


Why does mental health matter in STEM? We rely on our brains in STEM (and other creative/tournament style disciplines) and perhaps more importantly, we prize a good, well functioning mind to dive deeply into our fields of study. Mental illness is under-recognized, not talked about much, and certainly takes a toll on an academic’s productivity and life if not treated.

Major Depression (see Andrew Solomon’s Talk here if you’re not sure what depression is/feels like) ground me to a halt several years ago. I’m moving again, but it’s a long road to recovery. I don’t wish my experience on anyone, but the good news is that depression, anxiety, and many other mental health disorders are now treatable/manageable.

One of the themes that came up in our discussion was the mental health in academia specifically. The long hours, the culture of expectation of always working, just figuring it out and feeling like we can’t talk about our mental health while we’re always at work (and with depression, our own brains tell us to isolate ourselves– that keeps the depression going):

And how the culture (at least in the United States) prioritizes work over people and just how that can affect early career worker’s mindset about “succeeding” in academia:


A lot of us got into science as kids, before any work-life integration issues became apparent. Most of us still love science, but the structural issues in academia that seem to be exacerbated in recent years do take a toll on our minds and bodies. Working harder is not the answer. And things that start out as impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and burn-out that are problems, but manageable ones, can morph into full blown mental illness if left unaddressed.

There does seem to be a combination of work environment plus some traits like sensitivity, keen observation skills, and deep focus/obsessiveness can turn into a sense of weakness, anxiety, and excessive rumination.


One of the biggest things is a sense of not being alone in our experience. And several people said just that in the discussion. It is a really good first step to end the stigma and open up a safe space to talk about these things.

Asking for help is not weakness. And functioning with depression takes great strength. It’s like operating while carrying a huge rock on your back.

Faculty, staff, everyone needs to be made more aware of the resources that are available if you think you have a problem with your mental health, or you are concerned about a friend.

While structural and cultural changes will help, the discussion also brought up things individuals can do, besides seeking out counseling and more mindset changes like

And talked about making time for ourselves and things we enjoy beyond science. Perhaps things that have a shorter term payoff than research at the bench can have.

Not isolating ourselves, getting too wrapped up in our h-index score and all the other trappings of narrowly measured success, at least some of the time, is important as well:

The uncertainty of academia that is pervasive (and may be felt in other professions) may be the biggest factor of all contributing to the rising tide of mental health issues. That may not go away anytime soon.


Experimenting with what works to alleviate or better manage under the pressures of academia, careers, our lives and sharing that with friends or colleagues can foster a community and help drive change that needs to happen. It won’t be easy. At least we’re not alone, there is an ear out there to listen (I’ll listen! Direct Message me).


When I started to really manage depression better, I had to take my uber-skeptic (maybe cynical?) scientist hat off and found some ideas that really worked for me. None are easy, simple solutions, but I offer them here in short form in hopes they may help someone reading this:

Celebrate other’s successes, be kind to each other, be self-compassionate, adopt a growth mindset, practice gratitude, and dare greatly.


Ian Street is a postdoc in plant biology,a  science and postdoc life blogger, and twitterphile.

 

Thank you to Ian for helping out with #DiveristyJC this week, and thank you to everyone who joined us. Mental health is a major concern in STEM and academia (among other fields of course) so please keep the dialogue going – leave your thoughts,  questions, and resources in the comments!