My thesis proposal is on Tuesday, which of course means that I’ve been thinking a lot about impostor syndrome. The way I process difficult emotions is by talking about them to my friends, and in this process it’s crystallized to me that impostor syndrome comes in so many different flavors, some of which are much harder to address than others.
“Everyone else is better than me.” I think this one is most common and easiest to address, especially in grad school. It takes some willpower, but it’s pretty achievable to convince yourself that everyone’s path is so different, everyone brings different things to different projects, and their success is totally independent from yours. So comparing yourself to others is like comparing two quantities with different units - it just doesn’t make sense.
“No one cares about what I’m doing; Who would ever care about what I’m doing?; My work is pointless; My work is worthless.” Man, getting zero feedback can be so much worse than getting negative feedback. Our brains fill that vacuum with all of our worst fears. It’s like when you have a pimple on your face and you walk into a room and think everyone is staring at your pimple, when actually they’re just busy thinking about their own pimples. (There’s a better explanation of this, and science to go along with the effects of stereotype threat). I think for this one, it’s important to remember the positive feedback you’ve gotten in the past. I was talking to my labmate about this yesterday, and his face was beaming as he was telling me about feedback he got from a “big shot” at a Gordon conference - he said he actually wrote a journal entry about it, so that he’d remember it. I think that’s a great idea, and I wonder the best way to implement it in my own life. I also think this is where senior labmates can be a really positive force - talking with them about your ideas and your work, and getting that #validation you’re not getting from your advisor. A handful of senior post-docs kind of adds up to one PI, so it can feel really good to get that feedback.
“I’m not good enough to be here. I don’t belong here.” Oof. This is the big one. I think people tend to address it with platitudes like “but you are here, they picked you for a reason, they wouldn’t have accepted you if you didn’t have what it takes” and I don’t know a single person who’s been comforted by those words. I think here, it’s just about getting through it. Waking up tomorrow and going to work. Talking to your friends about feeling shitty until you don’t feel shitty anymore. shrug
That’s where I’ve been for the last week and a half. More specifically, “the one thing the thesis proposal is evaluating - my ability to be and think like a good scientist - is the one thing I don’t think I’m any good at. Well, shit.”
I feel a little better now, which happened in two waves. First, I was talking to my best friend, who is also a PhD student who struggles with impostor syndrome, and she realized that “nothing they could say would make us feel better about ourselves.” It’s true - nothing my committee will say, apart from straight-up “good work” - will make me feel less shitty. So it’s got nothing to do with them and their approval, really. The second wave was last night, talking to a friend who, after I said I’d probably just feel shitty for a while and then be fine, challenged me to “not feel shitty for three weeks after the proposal - maybe one week”. Zero impostor syndrome isn’t the goal, because it’s not achievable - but reducing its extent could be, and is also valuable as a goal. Okay, fine. Challenge accepted.
So nothing they say will make me feel better, but at least I can try to feel less shitty for less time. That’s a pretty positive goal, and achievable too. So I’m redefining success: I want to feel good about what I made, knowing that I digested feedback well and that my final product is an improvement on what I originally could have done. I don’t expect my proposal to go well or to feel good. Instead, I’m motivated by making it less-bad, better than I expected. I still don’t think I belong here, or that I’m “good” at “being” a “scientist” (by the traditional definitions of “good”, “being”, and “scientist” - the measures that are judged at formal checkpoints like thesis proposals). But I think if I can demonstrate adaptation and improvement, then maybe I’ll prove to
them myself that I could, just maybe, one day actually be “good” “enough” to not be an impostor here.