Imposter syndrome - A researcher’s perspective on how to overcome it and make career progress

Do you often feel like an outsider in your workplace, not competent enough for your job? Did you just get that long-awaited promotion that you feel you do not deserve? Has your research landed in a high-impact journal through ‘sheer luck’? Have you been in a meeting where you felt you were not following along, and fearful that you will be exposed as a fraud? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you are going through the Imposter Syndrome. What’s more, you are in the company of the best in any field.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is a term coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, and refers to the feeling that you are unworthy of the success you have achieved, despite evidence to the contrary. It manifests as the fear that you will be ‘found out’ and exposed as a fraud. Surprisingly, it afflicts high-performers and overachievers, especially researchers who are trained to be competitive and (self) critical. The good news: there are ways to combat this debilitating condition to make progress in your career. Read on to find how.

Say YES to the zone of discomfort

Identify the reason that is causing you to feel the imposter syndrome and use it to your advantage. Pinpoint the first time when you felt that you were not good enough to be successful. Ask yourself what it is that is making you feel inadequate, then list out the measures you can take to improve in those areas. Remember that the zone of discomfort is a place of growth and opportunity. Be a work in progress; leverage your weaknesses and embrace lifelong learning to explore new areas of knowledge and you will soon find yourself bringing creative insights and solutions to the table.

Say NO to being an expert

Today’s world demands measurable outcomes to evaluate our value as individuals. Learn to overcome this performance mindset to recognise that there are benefits to being a novice in the field. Keep in mind that quite often it is the least experienced who comes up with the most creative approaches to problem solving. The billionaire American businessperson Sarah Blakely says, “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”

Say NO to perfectionism

It creates the ultimate barrier to creativity, growth and self-confidence. It leads to the twin habits of procrastination and paralysis by analysis that will keep you from your goals. Keep in mind that the perfectionist usually creates mediocre outcomes by setting impossibly high standards and delaying action until it is too late. Do not let yourself be trapped in this vicious cycle. To quote Sheryl Sandberg, “Done is better than perfect.”

Reframe your narrative

The belief that others are more capable than you are forms the core of the imposter syndrome. Well then, use this belief to accept that they judged well when they recruited you for a job, or selected you for an exciting career opportunity. Do you know about the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi that celebrates imperfection in life and art? As Leonard Koren explains in his book Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, “It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” This philosophy inspires the tradition of Kintsugi where artists mend back shattered pieces of pottery using gold lacquer to create unique pieces of art. Never forget that your experiences and insights are what make you valuable to others and use them well to create your unique Elevator Pitch.

By Surayya Taranum
Surayya Taranum did her PhD in cell biology at the University of Cologne and now works at the Institut Universitaire d'Hématologie in Paris as a researcher.


published 18-Jul-2018


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