Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Imposter Syndrome

I went to a seminar today which was for grad students who felt inadequate academically. Either they did not feel as smart as their peers, felt like they could not contribute to their research, or just generally felt uncomfortable as a grad student. I have felt these feelings before and was curious to get a sense of what other graduate students felt. This is what I learned about the "Imposter Syndrome."

There were essentially two types of grad students in the seminar, those who were doing research and those who did not. Those who did not complained about how their professors were mean and how they often felt embarrassed due to a lack of knowledge. People doing research felt similar concerns, but in a different way. Either their research was too open ended, or they felt like they were not contributing something important to it. While listening to the other graduate students, it made me think how essentially all of these problems related to the fundamental lack of flow in graduate school.

One girl doing research said that she barely sees her adviser and feels like her work is unimportant. She mentioned how she has no feedback and no clear goals. This is certainly not a conducive situation for a flow experience, but this is, however, often the nature of research. In my own research, I have often wasted weeks and even months on problems which end up not having a real solution or some inconclusive results. This leads to long periods of uncertainty and frustration, often with feelings that I am wasting my life or not doing anything important. I actually suggested to this girl to consider writing pedagogical papers on the topics she is studying. While these may not be productive in the dog-eat-dog research world, by having produced something, it would likely help her cope with her lack of feedback and well defined goals. In general, if you can small chunk a big project into pieces, it is much better than always obsessing over the end result.

Many people commented on feel the lack of a sense of belonging or community. Grad school and especially research can be an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. This can lead to even more intense feelings of inadequacy due to the natural tendency of people thinking everyone else is doing well while they are doing poorly. One graduate student expressed how he simply could not do the homework for one class. However, he had not even tried to work with other students. While I barely talk to the people in my study group from my first year from grad school anymore, I fondly look back on it as a fight we went through together and succeeded in. However, once people stop taking classes and go their separate ways, it is hard to find a good grup of people who you can relate with.

The counselors at the meeting encouraged people to try to maintain a good balance between work and social. I challenged this and said that because graduate students are usually extremely focused people, it is often not really possible to switch from one mode to the other, that is, to go from working hard on extremely analytical problems (many of the students were scientists and engineers), to going in to a "normal" social mode. It is not surprising that many scientists are not extremely social. What they do does not access the same parts of the brain that helps in social situations. Therefore, it is really challenging to maintain a real balance. It is easy to write down on a planner time for work and time for play, but it is a much greater challenge to be mindful of both.

So what did I learn from this seminar? There are a lot of grad students who identified a lot of problems similar to what I and my friends have felt. Many of these are related to the lack of flow in grad school. Especially while doing research, there is generally little to no feedback and the challenge is often unknown or too great. There is also the problem with upward comparison, in the sense that many are surrounded by brilliant people all the time who are experts in the field. In fact, as soon as I left the seminar, I went to a meeting with my adviser and a postdoc, where they essentially talked about something for two hours which I understood very little about. I do not even have any real direction to obtain that understanding. It can be very tough psychologically to ignore these types of things. I think grad school can potentially be a very rewarding experience, but it will take some fundamental changes in the way professors view their students, in both classes and research, as well as many personal changes with the grad student himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. The impostor syndrome is common among students because of how often they are measured and tested.

The Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that you are not as smart, talented, or attractive as people think you are. It's the feeling that you are a fake and have been getting away with something and are about to be found out. It affects 70% of adults and is especially prevalent in high achieving women.

I've spent the past two decades living with and learning about this common condition.

The Impostor Syndrome is a fascinating topic and the subject of my new book.

John Graden
Author: The Impostor Syndrome
Bio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTeeNXwICk8