Think like an impostor, and you'll go far in academia

Most research isn't rocket science, so just do your best, says Beth McMillan

April 18, 2016
Elvis Presley impersonator in Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Being an ‘impostor’ can get you a long way

Impostor syndrome is rampant throughout academia. Many of the most respected academics in the world wake up every morning convinced that they are not worthy of their position, that they are faking it, and that they will soon be found out. These sentiments can be found at every level, from undergraduate through to professor.

Surely, some of these people – immersed in their disciplines and fully aware of the skills required – must be right. Perhaps, among the hordes of people suffering from impostor syndrome, there are a number of real, honest-to-goodness impostors. Perhaps you are one of them.

Much of the advice for overcoming impostor syndrome centres around recognising your own skillset, in not diminishing your accomplishments, and in convincing yourself that you have earned your position.

This is, for want of a better term, too much like hard work: especially if you have plausible reason to believe that you, in fact, did not earn your position, and have merely been the lucky beneficiary of a series of errors.

What is far easier, on a day-to-day basis, is to think like an impostor. 

Did it matter that Anna Anderson had no hope of successfully impersonating the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov to her own relatives? Did Ferdinand Demara let his lack of a medical degree stop him from performing surgeries? Did Wilhelm Voigt sit around worrying about his personal worth instead of commandeering soldiers? No! All of these people achieved their objectives: fame, mischief, brief military control of a small city in Prussia. Best of all, you're far less likely to be arrested for your impersonation of a competent researcher.

What are your objectives for your research or studies? To learn? To investigate the mysteries of the universe? To create new and wonderful things? An impostor is perfectly capable of all of those objectives, and more. As they say on the internet: "Just because you're trash doesn't mean you can't do great things. It's called garbage can, not garbage cannot.”

If you were a spy who had somehow managed to get right into the heart of the enemy's regime, would you waste time feeling guilty about tricking your way in there, or would you get on with the business of leaking nuclear secrets, taking photos with tiny cameras and poisoning the soup of important diplomats? A spy doesn't worry about their suitability for their day job because it helps them to achieve their ulterior agenda. Presumably, you have your own agenda behind entering academia – albeit probably quite a benign one. Perhaps you feel like your area of study deserves greater attention, that your research could save lives, or just that you'd quite like to call yourself "doctor". These things are your goals and you are in a position to achieve them.

In all likelihood, everyone knows you're an impostor. This gives you a great deal of freedom to ask every stupid, embarrassing, completely idiotic question that comes to mind – questions that display your ignorance for the world to see, questions that a non-impostor couldn't ask for fear of sounding incompetent. Being an impostor means that you can publicly crack open a GCSE textbook when you don't understand a concept, that you can be that person in a seminar asking for clarification on a simple point.

Without dismissing the expertise of professional academics, research isn't rocket science (except rocket science, I suppose). Yes, it requires a lot of thinking, but it's still fundamentally a set of actions. You pick up the pipette, you take up a small amount of colourless liquid, you mix it with some other colourless liquid. You pick up a paper and read the words, then pick up a book and read the words, and then write down some words about what you read. You must be able to perform at least a simulacrum of these activities, or you wouldn't have gotten this far. Like Wilhelm, you have the uniform and some vague idea of how to do your job, so you must be like Wilhelm and act accordingly. He didn't earn his captain's uniform, but he acted like a captain would – deploying troops strategically, keeping law and order, and even writing receipts for the fines he imposed. You probably know what you're supposed to be doing – and if not, you probably know who to ask.

Even though you're completely and hopelessly inadequate, you are still in the best position to excel – you're surrounded by experts, equipment, and relevant literature. You have all of the tools you need, and like any good impostor, you're not going to examine your worthiness to use them before you grab them and get going. Be like Ferdinand with his scalpel and just do your best. In the end, that's all any of us are doing.

Beth McMillan is a doctoral student in computational biology at Somerville College, Oxford.

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Reader's comments (3)

I find this very hard to believe given that I am surrounded by extremely competent colleagues. From my point view, it is the opposite problem - I am hoping to be (believing that I should be) promoted and am chasing more money as the last piece in the jigsaw. Many academics were outstanding students who are a good fit to the life of study so have no difficulty with their position as they have spent most of their lives at or near the top of the results lists.
By implementing the proper study strategy, one can make the first semester better to learn and enjoy the life. To take the burden of if you have the skill to make it easy
Having researched the Imposter Phenomenon for my MSc, the key message is that those who have imposter feelings are NOT real imposters. Likening them to fraudsters is misleading. Those experiencing the imposter phenomenon really are good at their job, they just haven't internalised it. While you suggest it may be too much like hard work to do so, it is one way to start to overcome the feelings. Recognising positive feedback as valid and not dismissing it can help. The biggest problem with Imposter Phenomenon is that it can hold those who are great at their jobs from being successful, putting themselves forward for the next promotion, reaching their full potential... plus it can be stressful to live with.

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