You ARE an Impostor. Six Life Altering Steps to Fix That.
Impostor Syndrome. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the nagging to overwhelming feeling that you are not as you seem. You’re an impersonator, imitator…you are masquerading as something you are not. Impostor Syndrome has had some thoughtful and powerful things written about it. About how feelings of inadequacy will cripple you into times of deep doubt, isolation, and immobility. Indeed, Impostor Syndrome has driven very talented people of color, LGBTQ folks and women out of careers STEM. This blog is not for them. This blog is for the ones who are still in STEM. Who just got some awesome opportunity and are freaking out they aren’t qualified.
The way I see it, if you think you are an impostor, you are. And you’re probably a bad one at that. You are young, you are a woman, gay, or you are a person of color, and you look nothing like the thing you seek to emulate. Because that ‘thing’ is an older white male. STEM is dominated by them. If you are trying to imitate that, it will go poorly. I know a thing or three about being an impostor. I’m not even a squirrel and I get paid by Edge for Scholars to be one.
Statistically, the fact that you have remained in academia is a near miracle. Society has set you up to be insecure in your qualifications since before you were balancing chemical equations. Recent studies have shown
- Girls face unconscious bias favoring boys from teachers from elementary school on up.
- Women, hispanics, and blacks earn 20-45% less than white men for doing the same job.
- Women and minorities have abysmal representation in important administrative roles in universities.
But you’re here. And you’re hanging tough and it is HARD. Every day it is so hard. I see you. Now you’ve been invited to chair a session, take over a leadership post, be on an editorial board or study section and now you’re freaking out you aren’t qualified?
Now you’re freaking out that you are an impostor and someone will figure it out. That’s going to happen. Breath. Then do these six things:
1. Thank the person who offered you the job/opportunity/appointment.
2. Ask what they need from you specifically and decide if you want to do it. You are doing no one any favors by taking a job you don’t want. Figure out what makes you feel most satisfied. What is most rewarding. Then do that.
3. Get the expectations in writing with milestones, information on who you report to and what the resources are that are being made available to you. I just told you to get things in writing, but in reality, writing means nothing. I’ve rarely seen anyone go back to a Dean and say ‘but you said…’ and lobby successfully. All it means is that they know what they are looking for and you are serious about your commitment and responsibility.
4. If you take the job or opportunity, tell them you need a hella pile of cash to make that happen. I call this the ‘you never paid my people enough’ tax. You’re going to need to get yourself to some national meetings, buy some leadership books, take on some folks to mentor, add on staff to pick up time spent on your new responsibilities and buy yourself some big girl pants. I recommend these. None of these are cheap.
5. Get a posse. Get some folks who may or may not be in your field but are brutally honest. I mean bone crushingly honest. I’ve seen some of the best intentioned groups turn into pity parties. You don’t want a bunch of folks telling you how you have been wronged. Because you will be wronged. You want people with clear heads and presence of mind to tell you to get back up and go around, up, over or through that obstacle that just knocked you on your ass. Because you are going to get knocked on your ass. Word to the wise: Don’t discount smart white male allies as you are forming your posse, particularly ones from other institutions. These mensches can have all the experience and none of the institutional baggage.
6. Start mentoring other women and minorities and junior scientists immediately in your new role. Tell whoever offered you the promotion/position/opportunity that you consider this an essential part of your charge and, by the way, they’ll have to pay for that as well. Offer to let them host a blog or newsletter interview with you or do some other feel-good bit of media in exchange. Just so we are clear, when I say you’re going to start mentoring, I don’t just mean you’ll be mentoring one or two people. Reach back and pull up medical and graduate students, undergrads and young faculty. These folks need to know what’s happening in academia today and be brought up to speed on challenges and opportunities. And friends, I don’t believe in only mentoring other minorities, queer folk or women. Pull from these groups heavily but grab some awesome young white guys. We need them too. You’ll be buying these kids a lot of lunches and handing out a good number of kleenex and they will be as much help to you as you are to them. They are your boots on the ground. Your little birds who know how systems are working or not working for teams.
Some final thoughts: Let them call you “the spousal hire.” The “gay hire.” The “minority hire.” You didn’t want to be friends with them anyway. People who say these things are scared, small, and in your way. They just did you a great favor by identifying themselves as petty and not worth your time. It’s time for you to blaze some damn trails.
Figure out what makes you feel most satisfied. What is most rewarding. Then do that. Under zero circumstances should you seek advice where mediocre people are telling you how to be more like them. Seek joy. Seek mentors who help you discover who you are. You are on the field and have the ball. Move it forward. Let’s kill this ‘Impostor Syndrome’ with our generation. Know your earnest effort at being the best you around helps the next woman, person of color, or member of the LGBTQ community be less angst-ridden and overwhelmed pretending to be something they aren’t.