Overcoming My Impostor Syndrome

For most of the time since I started on my academic career path, I’ve been dealing with the feeling that no matter what I was doing, it was somehow never going to be either “good enough” or “real enough” to the point where I would one day be a Real Scientist. I’ve had impostor syndrome for quite a long time, although I’ve recently been discovering that it’s been deeply lessened within just the past couple of years somewhat by accident.

My particular flavor of impostor syndrome seems to have come from a few different angles, all of which have led to me feeling out of place in an academic career environment. I grew up in a fairly rural area, where it was expected that most people would continue on the family business after finishing up high school and possibly a few years of college. I’m actually the first of my family to attend and graduate from a four-year college, let alone go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. It wasn’t until I was a grad student, especially when attending some of my first conferences, that I began to realize that most of my colleagues had come from academic families quite unlike mine. Immediately I began to see myself as an outsider. I’m not entirely unused to feeling like an outsider, especially growing up as a queer trans kid in Small Town, USA, although being left out of straight/cis male culture has left me in quite a few awkward situations in my career when the conversation topics or meeting spaces would cause me to be left out.

The pressures of being a grad student also came with the expectations that a Real Scientist does two things: work in the lab, and occasionally sleep. These are often said with a laugh on top, but with the underlying message that the ideal is to spend your life in the lab, only really interact with others in the lab or a nearby lab, and that science comes before all else. Aside from being generally unhealthy, these expectations did nothing but lead to me further convincing myself that since I had a life outside the lab and couldn’t spend all my time in it that I would never be a Real Scientist. Over the years, though (and with lots of outside help), I’ve come to realize how important breaks and rest are. Working 24/7 is useless if you find yourself unable to focus and be productive. By the time I finished graduate school, I knew that I had to get better at time management and spending my productive hours wisely if I was going to make it in this field.

When I started my post doc is when I began to better track my time in earnest. I’d come to understand that I can’t do everything, as there’s just not enough time in a day, but that what I could do is effectively prioritize and carry out the big pieces of my job. I started keeping a daily list of what I did each day so that I could keep on track with important tasks. Eventually keeping track of them by reading an ever-growing list became unfeasible, so I began sorting them into categories. At that point, it made sense to track how they changed over time, so I wrote a small script to keep track of (roughly) how much time I was spending on each category and plot the categories vs time. This let me visually track my progress over days, weeks, months, and now years. It’s been a fantastic tool that I regularly visit to make sure that what I’ve been working on is what I actually need to be focusing on, which has been extremely helpful in keeping me on track and making progress while maintaining a life outside of academia.

By plotting how I spend my time, I can see that I really need to step up light-blue category for the next couple of months as the maroon category comes to a close.

By plotting how I spend my time, I can see that I really need to step up the light-blue category for the next couple of months as the maroon category comes to a close for the year.

This time management has brought with it an unexpected consequence: my impostor syndrome is almost entirely gone. By keeping a daily log of activities and putting together weekly, monthly, and yearly summaries, I now have a list of thousands of items that I’ve done, and when I read through them they’re all things that a real scientist does. In regularly reviewing these items to make sure that I use my time well, I’ve been unconsciously proving to myself that I do all the things that scientists do, and now whenever that little voice pops up in the back of my head I can pull up a massive text file to prove it wrong.

Now as I prepare myself for the next stage in my career, I have the tools not only for keeping focused and managing my time, but also for pushing away my residual impostor syndrome.

Have you been able to to overcome your impostor syndrome, even if just partly? If so, what have you found useful for keeping it at bay?



19 thoughts on “Overcoming My Impostor Syndrome

  1. Wow, this is a very helpful article! I graduated in 2010 with an MFA in creative writing. I also have an MA and BS in creative writing. However, after I graduated, I almost stopped writing entirely. It just seemed really, really awful and hard. However, I did start my blog on which I interview and write reviews of books written by folks who identify as women. Is this not writing? Do I not engage in several reading and writing communities? I do! Maybe if I chart what I do, like you did, I would feel differently, and more positively.

    I’m also an adjunct instructor and have been teaching my own classes for 8 years. I watch as people with less teaching experience get tenure-track jobs. That’s okay; maybe they’ve done something differently from me. However, when I tell people I’m an instructor, I feel like I’m lying. When my students call me “professor,” I feel like a liar. When I tell people I teach and they ask where, I name two schools, which tips them off that I am a fill-in teacher of sorts. It all feels sort of awful.

  2. When I feel particularly like an impostor, I think of other people who I know suffer from this and are clearly excellent scientists. Here’s a great example:


    And then I think about what I tell my students, which is that the people who admitted you thought long and hard about it and almost certainly didn’t make a mistake. If it’s true for my students, then it’s probably true for me too!

    I love your idea of tracking what you do and compiling it to remind yourself of how much you’ve really done!

  3. I have found something similar as an engineering professor. I often feel like hours, days, and months go by without accomplishing anything concrete. Like, I work so hard, where is all of the fame and papers?? While some of my colleagues loathe putting together their annual report, I actually love it. It contains nearly every single thing I’ve done throughout my TT career. All of the committee meetings, PhD defenses, reviewing for various journals, posters at conferences… All of these smaller things that take up our time but we tend to overlook. When the whole package comes together, there are tons of these smaller things in addition to the grants won, papers published, and course scores. Makes me feel much better about what I accomplish in a given year.

  4. I’ve honestly found that having brutally honest conversations with my labmates has helped me the most. From the outside, all my labmates (male and female) look like Real Scientists to me and I feel like I can’t live up to what they do. Once I started having out-of-lab conversations with them about what their average day really looks like, it came out that they thought I worked more than they did and that we were really doing about the same amount of things. Having someone whose opinion I respect tell me that they think I’m doing enough helps a lot even though I wish I could manage that internally instead of needing outside validation. Someday though!

  5. I realized I had imposter syndrome before I ever heard of it, as a graduate student in Biology in 1987. I actually used the terms “mask” and “imposter” to describe to close friends how I felt in my academic setting. I was also a first generation college student, and one of very few among a slew of cousins in that first generation to pursue graduate education. I found that talking about it with close friends helped me overcome it, and having an array of women as mentors, ranging from other graduate students a bit ahead of me to faculty at other universities, really helped me stay in my program and graduate with my PhD. Until reading this article, I had forgotten about those feelings, as they ultimately went away the more I was able to solidify my career path, but I’m glad to be reminded of it so I can help others through the same issues.

  6. Really good ideas here, I often struggle with the idea that I’m not doing anything despite being at my desk for hours on end. I wonder if you could turn your spreadsheet and chart into a template and share it! I’d love to see if it helps me too

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  9. Nice article. I too have found time tracking a useful tool to reflect on what I’ve done and to balance where I should focus next. Have you come across toggl.com yet? Once you get into the habit of clicking the button, it makes time tracking almost automatic. That and focusatwill.com for background music (referral link: https://www.focusatwill.com/fwf/?rc=2439663) are the two websites, I always have open when at work.

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  13. This! I have been experiencing this ever since starting my new job and each time I am in a room filled with majority men and much like I don’t belong sometimes and I am not good enough. I can sympathize as well with being the first of my family to graduate with a BA and now doing my Master’s. I wonder sometimes how I’ve also ended up being so lucky to be where I am.

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