Friday, June 2, 2017

Image in academia

Not many seminar speakers are introduced with a discussion of their pipetting skills. When we talk about other scientists we discuss their intelligence, their rigour, their personality, above and beyond their learned skills. Most people have an image of what a scientist should be, and judge themselves against this idealized vision. There are a lot of unspoken messages that are exchanged in science and academia. It’s easy to think that the successful scientists around one interacts with are just innately intelligent, confident, passionate, and hard-working. No doubt imposter syndrome owes a lot to this one-sided internalization of the world. After all, you don’t feel like you fulfill these characteristics because you have evidence of your own personal struggles but not those of everyone else. 

"Maybe no one will notice".
The most enlightening conversation I had this year (really! Or at least a close tie with discovering that PD originally was discussed as a measure of homologous characters…) was with a couple of smart, accomplished female scientists, in which we all acknowledged that we—not infrequently—suffered from feeling totally out of our depths. It is hard to admit our failings or perceived inadequacies, for fear we’ll be branded with them. But it’s really helpful for others to see that reality is different than the image we’ve projected. If everyone is an imposter, no one is. There is something to be said for confidence when scientists are presenting consensus positions to the public, but on the other hand, I think that being open about the human side of science is actually really important. 

For those who already feel like outsiders in academia, perhaps because they (from the perspective of race, gender, orientation, social and economic background, etc) differ from the dominant stereotype of a ‘scientist’, it probably doesn’t take much to feel alienated and ultimately leave. Students have said things to me along the lines of “I love ecology but I don’t think I will try to continue in academic because academia is too negative/aggressive/competitive”. Those are legitimate reasons to avoid the field, but I always try to acknowledge that I feel the same way too sometimes. It’s helpful to acknowledge that others feel the same way, and that having this kind of feeling (e.g. that you aren’t smart enough, or you don’t have a thick enough skin) isn’t a sign that you don’t actually belong. Similarly, it’s easy to see finished academic papers and believe that they are produced in a single perfect draft and that writing a paper should be easy. But for 99% of people, that is not true, and a paper is the outcome of maybe 10 extreme edits, several rounds of peer review, and perhaps even a copy-editor. Science is inherently a work-in-progress and that’s true of scientists as well.

The importance of personal relationships and mentorship to help provide realistic images of science should be emphasized. Mentorship by people who are particularly sympathetic (by personal experience or otherwise) to the difficulties individuals face is successful precisely for this reason. This might be why blog posts on the human side of academia are so comparatively popular – we’re all looking for evidence that we are not alone in our experiences. (Meg Duffy writes nice posts along these lines, e.g. 1, 2). And though the height of the blogosphere might be over, the ability of blog posts to provide insight into humanity of academia might be its most important value.


Simon Leather said...

I think you will find that a lot of male scientists also suffer from imposter syndrome - I certainly do and I got my PhD 37 years ago and have published over 200 papers but sill find it weird that people seem to take notice of what I say

Caroline Tucker said...

I think research suggests no detectable difference in the extent of imposter syndrome between men and women, actually.

Caroline Tucker said...

Which is to say, I agree.