Women in STEM, Role Models, and Impostor Syndrome

Today, the STEMinist.com blog was kind enough to include me in their series of profiles of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. I’d encourage any readers here at Speaking Up to check out the rest of the profile series, since it’s full of women making the kind of difference that Google Doodles are meant to celebrate.

In the profile, I wrote about the Speaking Up effort, but also about major reasons that I think it’s important to highlight a broader spectrum of humanity in efforts like Google Doodles: research, and my own personal experience, shows that having role models to look up to is a major factor in students and young professionals being able to persist and see their aspirations through. Today, I want to use this space to delve a little bit deeper into one aspect of that, known as impostor syndrome.

We all, at one time or another, have felt like we couldn’t really take credit for our successes, have doubted our own capabilities and competence, and have worried that our peers, colleagues, or superiors would discover that we don’t belong in our roles. That sense has a name, impostor syndrome. Ed Bertschinger at the Women in Astronomy blog points out that this feeling is incredibly common — especially among grad students, as my colleague Ryan Anderson recently discussed. Impostor syndrome is certainly not unique to STEM or to women, but the women I know in STEM fields are almost unanimously familiar with that feeling of being a fraud. Naming it and knowing about it are two key ways to help yourself manage it.

Starting from my first semester of graduate school, I was hit with impostor syndrome in a major way. My coursework in the physics department, especially my quantum mechanics class, was more difficult than anything I’d done in my undergraduate work, and I found myself thinking, “This is it. I’ve hit the wall, I’ve found my limit, and my scientific career is basically over.” I thought that any day, a professor was going to pull me aside and explain that letting me into the program had clearly been an error.

One day, an older graduate student in my department asked me, in an offhand way, how my first semester was going, and specifically asked how I was handling the physics requirements. When I gave back a simple, “Oh, I’m fine,” she sighed deeply, and said, “Really? I cried every single day of my first semester.”

For me, that story hits on two important aspects of the impostor syndrome: first, it happens to all of us, and second, knowing that first bit helps immensely in being able to combat it and carry on. When I was in that situation, I felt like I needed to pretend that I was doing just as well as I believed everyone around me was doing. That was an awful lot of pressure on top of the academic pressure I was already feeling. When the older student shared her story with me, it was like she gave me permission to be two things at once: someone struggling with a new challenge who was, nevertheless, smart and capable. I smiled with relief and said, “I’m so glad to hear someone say that — me, too!” Does that mean the impostor feelings were gone for me forever? Well, no, but the next day was a little bit easier.

Seeing role models, and having mentors, is so important for the success of people in creative, innovative, research and academic fields, both inside and outside of the STEM disciplines. As I wrote in my profile at STEMinist, I’ve been really lucky to have many amazing role models and mentors to help me develop as a person and a professional. But we can’t discount the importance of role models in the public sphere, those who we don’t know personally — the women and others who are not getting a fair shake at representation in Google Doodles.

One last note: a resource for any readers who are needing their own role model and not finding enough around them. In January 2012,  marine biologist Kevin Zelnio  started an effort to use Twitter, via the hashtag #IAmScience, to get people working in STEM to share their stories of how they ended up in a science-related career. The result is a lot of wonderful storytelling by amazing people who could be the role model you’ve been looking for, so I encourage you to check out the hashtag on Twitter or to look at results of the project, like this video collection of #IAmScience tweets.


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