By Kelly Strzepek

There is no need to call security, the imposter in my office is yours truly. Like many graduate students across the world, I am presently terrified that security will come through my door and demand my keys back, accusing me of being a fraud. They will ask  me to pack my things and leave because I am not smart enough to be here. Perhaps I should pack up now and avoid the humiliation….drat I just moved office, I should have kept the boxes!

The Imposter Phenomenon was a term first coined in 1978 and used to describe high performing, but inwardly anxious individuals that didn’t believe they merited their professional position. They believed themselves to be ‘imposters’ in the crowd and it was only a matter of time before they were found out. Since then Imposter Syndrome is synonymous with attaining a PhD, with graduate school and early career academics.

I first heard about the syndrome a few years back in my honours year when I was wailing to a friend (and wonderful mentor) about not being clever enough to warrant a place at our research school. He told me about Imposter Syndrome and how he had seen it manifest the most acutely when he was a post-doc……at Harvard and MIT. All those incredibly bright minds, all thinking they didn’t deserve their place. The only person who didn’t, as the story goes, had Asperger’s Syndrome which has its own set of issues. Unfortunately for my friend (yes you know who you are) that was not the only time we have had to have this discussion. Not only am I an imposter but I am also a slow learner!

Originally it was thought that the syndrome effected women more than men however more recent studies indicate that many men feel the same, but are less likely to vocalise their concerns. So it would seem that  EVERYONE feels like they are not smart enough at times. Just the other day I was having this very discussion with another friend  and her first reaction was exactly the same as mine had been. She smiled and nodded and then said something along the lines of “yes I see your point, but in my case, I really am a fraud”. She is most definitely not and imposter (yes you also know who you are), she is just about to write her final PhD thesis and she will go off in to the world and do wonderful things (yes you will).

There was a wonderful article in Science Careers some years ago (see here) that describes the root of the problem being “very unrealistic notions of what it means to be competent” and “setting the internal bar exceedingly high”. Sound familiar? Really you should read the article (click here). It also describes strategies to overcome what can lead to negative behaviours such as procrastination and perfectionism. My current bout arose after reading the abstracts for the Ocean Sciences conference that I described in my last post. After seeing what other people in my field are achieving, I KNOW I’m a fraud. Perhaps I should reread that article…… (click here Kelly).