Episode 8 – How to tackle the imposter syndrome

On the outside you appear confident, composed and on top of your game. But on the inside, you are wracked with self-doubt. You feel like a fraud and as though someone is about to tap you on the shoulder and ask you what you think you’re doing. You’re sure you’re not good enough, experienced enough or smart enough to be doing what you’re doing.

This week Jen and Michael chat about the Imposter Experience, better known as the Imposter Syndrome. Listen for our thoughts and advice on how to tackle feeling like an imposter plus tips from two of our UniMelb SciComm students, Stephanie Wong and Charlie Pattinson.

Here are a few good reads to help build your understanding of imposter syndrome and how to tackle it:


Jen (00:00:00)
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:38)
Hello and welcome to this episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Dr Jen Martin from the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team and I’m joined by my friend and colleague Dr Michael Wheeler. Hello, Michael.

Michael (00:00:55)
Hey Jen, I am very excited for today’s episode.

Jen (00:00:58)
Yeah, me too. So we’ve decided that in this episode we’re going to focus on the impostor syndrome. And I guess from the outset you might kind of think hang on, I thought this was a podcast about how to communicate about science, what’s the impostor syndrome got to do with that? But I think if you think about it for a moment, you’ll probably realise it has a lot to do with effective science communication. So this is our first episode in a series that we’re going to do over the coming weeks and months about barriers to effective science communication.
And I think we all know that one of the you know, important parts of effective science communication is confidence and experiencing the impostor syndrome can be massively debilitating. It can hugely undermine our confidence and it can really draw into question our sense of: Do I have the necessary expertise to be talking about this particular topic? So I think we’ll, we’ll chat a lot about that, Michael. But I think once we get chatting, it’s going to be clear that there are definitely other links between science communication and impostor syndrome.
But let me just start by setting the scene. So the first thing to know is that the researchers who first described the impostor syndrome were Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. So they first described this syndrome in 1978. And they described it initially among high achieving women. But they’ve been on the record saying that they actually wish they hadn’t called it the impostor syndrome, because syndrome implies that it’s an illness. It implies that there’s something really wrong with you if you experience that. And in fact we know that pretty much everyone experiences this sense of being [an] impostor, feeling like we don’t belong, feeling like we’re not smart enough or not good enough, expecting that someone is just about to find out that we are inadequate or that we’re incompetent. So they’ve said they wished they called it the ‘impostor experience’ to recognise that it’s a very common experience for so many of us.
And so research suggests that about 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives. And in fact it’s just as common in men as in women, even though it was first studied in women. And contrary to what you might expect, where if you think about being an impostor, I know we find that our students often feel that way and they get really worried about question time when they’re giving a talk about their science. Because they know that there’s someone in the audience with more expertise and more knowledge than them, who’s going to point out how much they don’t know.
We have this idea that feeling like an impostor happens when you’re young or a beginner or inexperienced in the job that you’re doing. But actually, the research shows that in many cases you experience impostor syndrome more the more senior you get as well. Because the more senior you become, the more you have to do new tasks; you have to perform new roles that you haven’t performed before.
So if we think about impostor syndrome, who experiences it… often it’s someone who’s a really high performer, who has somehow convinced themselves that the reason they’re successful is luck, or having known the right people or being in the right place at the right time or some error rather than internalising their success and thinking, Yeah. Actually, I deserve this. I’m good at this.
So people who feel like impostors, may be perfectionists, may struggle with procrastination, which is a topic we’re going to struggle uhh, when we’re gonna struggle… We all struggle with procrastination, but another topic that we [will] talk about. Here I am, not being a perfectionist with my words.
Another thing I find interesting is that people who experience the impostor syndrome tend to really crave acknowledgement and recognition and praise. But then when they receive it, they feel very uncomfortable and aren’t good at accepting compliments because they feel that they haven’t deserved it. And one of these big problems, I think with impostor syndrome is that we’ve all come to equate competence with confidence, and they don’t always go together.
So Michael, there’s lots of research about impostor syndrome. And I think many of us in the science world will think, Oh yeah, I can relate to that feeling of real discomfort around ‘Am I good enough to be here?’ How about you Michael? Does any of this ring a bell?

Michael (00:05:18)
Yeah, completely resonates. And it’s that feeling that someone might tap you on the shoulder and say, “What do you think you were doing?” Which sounds so simple, but it’s also so terrifying at the same time.

Jen (00:05:35)
Yeah, absolutely. What worse thing could there be than someone pointing out that actually you don’t know enough to do what you’re supposed to do?

Michael (00:05:43)
Yeah, absolutely. It’s something I think we can all resonate with. I definitely have experienced impostor syndrome and probably still experience a bit of impostor syndrome.
But I remember there was a time in my life where I experienced it to such a degree that I actually felt like I was living a double life for, for about 8 months.

Jen (00:06:07)
Wow, oh, do tell, that sounds intriguing!

Michael (00:06:13)
So the listeners might have detected a hint of an Irish accent. And if you have, you’re correct. So I grew up in Ireland and did my undergraduate in exercise science there. Part of that course, we had a work placement. And to go off and do something relevant to what we were studying.
So I came over to Australia, over to Melbourne and I got a placement at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. And I was volunteering there for eight months and it was an incredible experience. It was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before.
It’s a world-renowned Research Institute where you’ve got doctors, researchers, professors, people of all different backgrounds and experiences, but all really smart people. You’re surrounded by smart people the whole time. And yeah, I just felt like a bit of an impostor because I wasn’t used to that.
I had come over and moved into a backpackers. And I lived in a backpackers for eight months which was just a complete contrast. It was, it was a, a 16-bed dorm. And yeah, look, it was a great experience, being in the backpackers. It’s like nobody ever books 8 months into a hostel. So what happens is your book in two week increments. And eventually you figure out who the other long-term guests are. So after a while you’ve got a situation where you’ve got 16 friends in, in the one room. And it might sound terrible to some people, but I actually quite liked the sense of community that we had. But it was terrible for trying to get [a] good night [of] sleep.

Jen (00:08:14)
And were any of the other 15 people doing serious professional work like you were? Or were a lot of people working in hospitality? Like I’m trying to understand this double life that you felt you were leading.

Michael (00:08:27)
Everyone was there for fun. So they had come over to travel, to see Australia, working in hospitality. I was also working in hospitality in the evening and on the weekend and so I was certainly part of that world. And yeah, I would often tell people about the research that I was doing or that I was involved with at the Baker.
And I first started to notice I was doing that in my hospitality job, which if anyone has been to Melbourne and knows Lygon St, it’s a really iconic street where there’s loads of Italian restaurants. And if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know that there’s people who stand outside the restaurant, and their job is to convince people to come in and eat. So that was the job I had. And you probably hate me now because those people are really annoying and I would just say I tried not to be annoying.
My point of difference was I would talk about the fact that I’d come over from Ireland and you know, I was doing this work placement at the Baker and found myself chatting to people about research, which I hadn’t really done that before. And I just loved it. I found it highly enjoyable.
I didn’t realise it was kind of science communication in a way… until actually I started working here at the University of Melbourne with the science communication teaching team. So it was then reflecting back on OK, what was my first experience doing science communication? It was yeah, on Lygon St.
I felt like there was a double life. I would tell people in the hostel or chat to them about research and then when I was at the Baker, everyone wanted to know tales from the hostel. It wasn’t necessarily all negative. I mean, I definitely felt like I shouldn’t be there. But then I, I felt lucky to be there at the same time because I think I was quite different from everyone else being so junior.
But, I got a chance to see the work that was going on there and eventually got a little bit of responsibility towards the end. I remember [I] had a presentation that I had to do, which was pretty terrifying. It was an interesting experience and I think the fact that I, that I felt uncomfortable probably was also a reflection of that I was surrounded by people who knew a lot more than me, and I also learned a lot from being in that uncomfortable situation. So I kind of learned to live with it for a while and it was, yeah, it was a really transformative experience. [It] kind of set me off on the direction I, I went after that.

Jen (00:11:16)
Because one of the things I find really interesting is that we know academia and research. We know that feelings of being an impostor, whether we call it the impostor experience or whatever we call it are absolutely rife. And I kind of often think about that because we know with the students that we work with every day, Michael, that there are often very, very strong feelings of not being good enough and sort of waiting to be found out that they’re somehow not, not a proper researcher.
But I sort of, it really upsets me because you know, when you’re a student, by definition, you’re not meant to know everything. You’re meant to be learning, you’re meant to make mistakes, you’re meant to ask questions, you’re meant to not be clear on a whole lot of things, that’s what being a student is. Yet somehow we’re in this culture where we have these incredibly bright, amazing students, who are anxious and fearful of being found out that they don’t know enough.
And I sort of wonder what can we do about that culture, because you’re not meant to know stuff and, and even, you know, I mean, all through our lives we’re not meant to know stuff. If we’re challenging ourselves to do new things and learn new things, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track, if you don’t quite know what you’re doing, surely.

Michael (00:12:19)
Absolutely, it’s absolutely comforting to think that impostor syndrome is completely normal.
Yeah, I still feel a little bit of impostor syndrome today. I actually did an impostor syndrome test, Jen.

Jen (00:12:34)
Oh, I did the same one, so let’s compare. This is the original impostor test that was put together by those original researchers that I talked about.
So yeah, let’s compare. It’s how many? 20 questions where you have to, you read a statement and then you say whether you don’t feel that at all or you feel it rarely or sometimes or often, or it’s very true. So an example, “I’m often afraid that I may fail at a new assignment or undertaking, even though I generally do well at what I attempt”. We’ll provide the link in the show notes. There’s a whole lot of questions.
But yeah, Michael, what did you get? Let’s compare.

Michael (00:13:07)
A drumroll. I am currently sitting on 63 out of 100 for the impostor syndrome test.

Jen (00:12:58)
There you go, so it says: If you get a score of less than 40 then the person has very few experiences of ‘impostorism’. If the score is between 41 and 60, you have moderate experiences of feeling like an impostor. A score between 61 and 80 means you frequently have the feelings of being an impostor. And a score above 80 means that you often have intense feelings of being an impostor.
So, so what did you say? 60 something.

Michael (00:13:45)
I’m 63.

Jen (00:13:46)
There you go, so I came out as 54, so absolutely still experiencing feelings of being an impostor.
So how normal are we, Michael? Don’t you feel good? We’re so normal.

Michael (00:13:58)
We’re, we’re, we’re so normal, we’re so normal. And I mean, Jen, have you any experiences with impostor syndrome that are particularly notable?

Jen (00:14:10)
I think for me, I started feeling like a real impostor probably in the late stages of my PhD, when I started to work out that I didn’t think research was my thing. Not because I didn’t love research and not because I don’t obviously hugely value research; my whole job is still based around research. But when I realised that maybe that wasn’t going to be my calling that I kind of, you know I, I’d worked out that telling stories about science and, and about other people’s science is what I loved.
And I had this really deep sense that communication was a really important contribution that I could make. And also just that I didn’t think there was anything in the world that I was so deeply fascinated by that I would decide to study to research just that thing. I’m interested in a million things, so communicating about science is really great for me.
But I think, you know, when you work at a research-intensive university and you’re a teaching and research academic. And all of the kind of metrics that you’re scored against are doing research, getting grants, publishing papers, being cited, high impact factors, all of that stuff. And on the inside you’re thinking, actually, I don’t know if I really want to do research. I think I want to do teaching and other things. I think I absolutely started feeling like an impostor, and to some extent I still do.
You know, full disclosure, you and I work at a very research-intensive university and I love the university that I work at. But as someone who’s actively chosen to make contribution in ways different to doing independent research. That brings consequences to how I feel and how I think other people see me. So yeah, I definitely feel like an impostor, for sure.

Michael (00:15:50)
It’s an interesting one because from my experience it’s uncomfortable, but it’s not necessarily a negative experience all the time.
So yeah, I mean, would you agree with that?

Jen (00:16:03)
Absolutely, and I think for me, one of the things I think we really want to talk about in this conversation is what can you do about it? ‘Cause we can go round and round in circles about we wish we didn’t experience it, but we do and it’s normal so it’s OK. But you are caught in this really difficult self talk around… you’re telling yourself stories that you’re not good enough and you don’t belong, and that’s become really chronic for you or really debilitating for you, what can you do about it.
And one of the things that I’ve really tried to convince myself of is that feeling like an impostor is actually a really good sign. It’s a sign that I’m challenging myself to do things that I’m stretching myself, that I’m pushing myself in directions where I don’t necessarily have a whole lot of confidence yet.
But that’s a good thing, right? Like who wants to do the same thing day in day out, year in year out for the rest of your life? So I’ve tried to turn it into a positive sign that if I don’t ever feel a sense of impostorism, and then maybe that’s a sign that I should shake things up a bit.
I don’t know, how do you feel about it, Michael?

Michael (00:17:04)
Yeah, I kind of feel the positive aspect of it comes from chatting to other people about it and then realising that they feel like an impostor too.

Jen (00:17:12)

Michael (00:17:14)
And then you have a shared connection, so we’re the same.

Jen (00:17:20)
Absolutely! We are all the same and I think for me, you know, I spend a lot of time thinking about – is it good that we label ourselves as experiencing this impostor experience, or is it indicative of the fact that we work in structures and systems that actually are a bit flawed?

Michael (00:17:38)

Jen (00:17:38)
For us, we work in a system where there are very clear metrics that you’re judged by. And those metrics aren’t necessarily always indicative of a person’s value.
We also work with people who may not be super confident when it comes to speaking up or putting themselves out there on social media or whatever it is. Does that mean they’re not competent? Not at all.
And, and until we have workplaces that are really truly inclusive and diverse and where racism and discrimination of all kinds are called out and people feel like they can speak openly about what they don’t understand and the mistakes they’ve made and where we’re not doing things well is normalised and encouraged.
We need to fix all of those systems and then maybe feeling like an impostor wouldn’t be so common. So I sort of think it shouldn’t, we shouldn’t have to fix the people, we should fix the system. But if you’re in a system that you can’t directly change and you’re feeling like an impostor, and it’s making your job harder, then that’s where I think it’s worth thinking about what you can do about your own feelings.

Michael (00:18:40)
Yeah, absolutely. I think the system that you’re in has a very powerful influence on your mindset. Something that I’ve found personally helpful is for me, I think the source of my impostor syndrome came from… where it still comes from comparing myself to other people. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a useful comparison to make.

Jen (00:19:08)
Are you sure? I reckon you’re right.

Michael (00:19:13)
I think that’s the source of impostor syndrome for me anyway. So something I try and tell our students is that those kind of comparisons are not helpful and rather a more helpful comparison is comparing yourself to yourself. So asking yourself questions like: Am I growing? Am I learning? And I found out a much more helpful mindset.

Jen (00:19:37)
Yeah, absolutely, and there’s you know, [maybe] we might do another episode on this whole idea of the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset, which is partly what you’re talking about, this idea that you focus on everything you’re learning, rather than how you’re performing. So maybe you didn’t get the grant, but was it a useful process to write it and to learn about it? Yes, yes, it’s gutting to put all that work in and to not have it rewarded, but it doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time, and it doesn’t mean that you or your work aren’t good.
I think for me it’s also been about recognising this negativity bias that we tend to focus very strongly on the times that we haven’t succeeded, or on the times that we’ve received negative feedback and we take that to heart and we tend to just gloss over the times that we have done well or we have received positive feedback.
So for me, you know, I don’t know how it is for you, Michael, growing up in Ireland. In Australia, it was the tall poppy syndrome. We’re brought up, you never big note yourself, you never kind of boast about your achievements. And so for me it’s really hard, but at least in my head I try… If something gone well and I’ve received some accolade or some successful outcome rather than just immediately moving on to what’s the next thing I need to do to prove my worth, is just stopping for a moment and saying actually I’m really proud. I’m really proud that this happened, that, that recognises that I’ve worked hard and that in this, whatever this system is that I’ve just been recognised in, that’s a good thing.
And accepting compliments; so easy to brush it off when someone says well done, that was a great talk or I really enjoyed that article. It’s so… If someone tells you something they didn’t like about it, you remember it, and you ruminate over it, you stress over it. If five people say that was great, you just forget all about it. So actually saying “thank you, I’m glad that that was useful” or “thanks, I’m so glad you found it interesting.” That’s been really useful for me too.

Michael (00:21:26)
Yeah, absolutely. And if you consider that as evidence, that really contrasts then against the feeling of impostor syndrome. If you can, yeah, recall that evidence. So yeah, I completely agree.

Jen (00:21:40)
Yeah, and I think also if you do work that you really believe in and that’s important to you, I think we have to accept that there will be times that you do feel a sense of discomfort and combating this sense of oh, I’m going to be found out that I’m not as good as people seem to think I am.
I think it just takes some resilience. It takes being kind to yourself recognising that this is really hard. But I do think it’s a sign of being on the right track and I think yeah, if you never feel that sense of maybe this is feeling a bit uncomfortable, I’m feeling like people might be judging me.
Then I don’t know. It’s not like anyone ever likes being judged. But maybe it’s, it’s a sign. Try new things, see what your fear and anxiety is preventing you from trying I guess.

Michael (00:22:26)
Hmm yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of about being that comfortable distance outside of your comfort zone and realising that that’s OK and that’s normal, and that you are trying new things, you’re going to be feeling a little bit uncomfortable sometimes.
And actually, I went to umm, a really interesting talk before. I don’t know why I was there, but it was this motivational speaker. The Melbourne Convention Centre. It must have been part of a conference.
And I can’t remember anything that speaker said except for this one thing where they said OK, I want you to look to the person beside you and I want you to tell them something that you’re really proud of. I can’t remember what I said, but I [had] my friend beside me.
And once everyone had finished, the motivational speaker said hands up, who said something to the person beside them that was really difficult and challenging and uncomfortable at the time. And every single person put their hand up, and it was kind of eye opening, you know. It’s like the things that you’re most proud of will be things that were difficult at the time.

Jen (00:23:28)
What a great activity. I think we might need to start using that one in class.

Michael (00:23:44)
Yeah. It just popped into my head just there, but it’s, I sometimes tell myself that if I’m going through, through something difficult. I’ll tell myself, well, maybe if I get through this, I might add it to the list of things that I’m proud of.

Jen (00:23:57)
The most proud list. I think that’s fantastic Michael and I think it just constantly comes back to we’re normal, there are some positive signs, it’s uncomfortable.
But just to end I always come back to my favourite quote on the impostor experience, which is a quote from Associate Professor Jessica Collett, and the quote is this: “Imposterism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.”
So how’s that to finish with? The idea that if you do experience this feeling, it’s most likely that you’re really talented and capable and you’re achieving really highly and you just need to go easy on yourself a bit, ’cause if you really were an imposter, you wouldn’t feel like it.

Michael (00:24:42)
Yeah, it’s so great hearing other people share about their impostor syndrome experiences and tips as well. Which is, you know why I’m really excited as well to have some student tips that we can share with you now. Some of our current students have been thinking about impostor syndrome.

Jen (00:25:02)
Absolutely. We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to share a whole lot of our students and alumni’s ideas and tips and advice with you and our podcast so we will finish up and hand over to them to have the last word.
Thank you for listening.

Steph (00:25:24)
Hi guys, I’m Stephanie. I’m an aspiring environmental scientist and a graduate student that studied science communication. I was on the phone with a friend the other day talking about a recent academic accomplishment of mine, when I made the comment, “Oh, I just got lucky.” She replied sternly to me, “No Steph, you earned it. You worked hard” or something to that effect. It was only later, on self-reflection that I realised that the impostor experience was seeping into how I thought and act in, both riddled with doubt and fear of not being good enough. It struck me how subtly, but powerfully, in a negative way that the impostor experience can tarnish our science careers.
My top tip for women in science, wrestling with imposter experience, is to find role models of success with whom you can connect with and learn from. An interesting opinion piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association points to studies which show the gendered ways in which women are socialised to act, that affect them from being adequately recognised for their merits. And this can cement a negative cycle of self-doubt in their own competence and a heightened imposter experience.
Listeners out there that are women in science, perhaps you mask a brilliant suggestion as a question to not come across as too assertive. Or you lower your career goals to maintain good rapport with colleagues in a mixed gendered setting. Finding mentors, so successful women in science with whom you can discuss these issues with can be enlightening and inspiring as they’re unlikely to have overcome these challenges themselves.
I’m Stephanie, that’s my top tip. Thanks for listening.

Charlie (00:27:11)
I’m not who you think I am, I’m not who I think I am. What I am is probably something in between. I’m Charlie and I’m definitely a masters student, passionate tutor and aspiring science educator. And the thing that helps me most when tackling impostor syndrome is realising and maintaining an awareness of those two startling statements that for me, sum up two sides of impostor syndrome.
I’m not who you think I am. The idea that no one knows me in the many flaws that I may be hiding is how you might feel. And to an extent you’re right. None is going to know all the mistakes you’ve made in your life. But no one needs to because everybody understands that no one is perfect. Making mistakes and learning from them is a never-ending process that for many us will continue throughout our entire life. Realising that others know this too, with their own flaws and mistakes to hide can be an empowering way to tackle thoughts of feeling unworthy.
I’m not who I think I am. We know that other people don’t have the full picture, but often we’ve got a distorted image of ourselves too. As humans, we downplay our achievements and abilities and focus on our weaknesses. This is called the negativity bias. The negative dialogue can then drown out the tremendous contributions that we have made and the things that honestly demonstrate our worth in being where we are today. We need to cultivate a voice which can remind us of these things and we need to chat to this voice when we feel like we don’t belong. This voice is sometimes best found in supportive friends and colleagues too, who can help you to remember you’re not thoughts. You are who you are.

Michael (00:28:50)
Thanks for listening. You can reach out to us on Insta and Twitter @LetsTalkSciComm and Let’s Talk SciComm Podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.

Jen (00:29:02)
And that’s the end of season one. Thank you so much for listening.
We’re really grateful to all of you for getting on board with our new podcast and special thanks to everyone who shared an episode, giving us feedback on social media, maybe encouraged your colleagues to listen or helped in any other way.

Michael (00:29:24)
That’s right. But we’ll be back with Season 2 in February, so stay tuned, for more great interviews and advice on how to communicate your science more effectively.
And in the meantime, we’d love you to help spread the word about Let’s Talk SciComm.