One Scientist’s Approach to the Imposter Syndrome

I recently found myself in the airport waiting to board a plane back home from a conference. While shoveling down a mandarin chicken salad standing up at the crowded gate, I noticed a man who seemed to be lurking nearby. When it was clear that his behavior was not random, I decided to raise my head from my salad and confront his gaze directly. I recognized his face instantly. He was my freshman year physics professor. He had been trying to confirm that I was who he thought I was. When I lifted my head and met his eyes, then heard his single, half-finished question, (“Are you, by any chance…?”), and answered (“Oh my goodness, hello!”), the matter was settled.

Memories of regularly going to this professor’s office two decades ago for help came rushing back to me as we talked: How he told me once that if I went on the class trip to my academic adviser’s cabin for the weekend with the rest of my seminar group I would most likely fail the mechanics exam we were having that Monday; how I’d listened and obeyed, and lived in the library the entire weekend. I’d ended up scoring a full standard deviation above the class average on that exam. But I’d worked so hard for it. It seemed that I’d had to work hard at everything I’d achieved in the sciences. It hadn’t come easily. Not since junior high. Did that mean that I wasn’t cut out for it?

This living history flashed through my mind as my old physics professor and I talked. But the thing was, as I accessed this distant movie reel in my brain, it seemed abstract and fuzzy. Was he my TA or my lecturer? Was that Mechanics I or II? What grade did I end up getting in that class? As we talked about his lab, and my postdoc appointment, and being away from our spouses for ridiculous amounts of time, I realized something: The feelings of inadequacy I had as a freshman were gone. We were talking as colleagues. Faculty and postdoc, certainly. But he was treating me as a fellow scientist, not a freshman struggling through physics with major imposter issues. When I told him I’d gone on to get my PhD in astronomy, he said “I know.” He didn’t seem surprised, and he was not going to hand me a medal. We talked about research. No big deal.

It dawned on me that perhaps things really had begun to shift regarding my imposter thoughts, which had experienced a rebirth when I’d made the decision to go back to grad school in Astronomy in 2009, after leaving the field to get an MFA in Acting and work as a professional actor for a number of years. Having lived with an almost debilitating case of this Syndrome throughout my entire graduate career, I had resigned myself to the fact that, as one of a precious few African-American women in a field dominated by Caucasian males, not to mention a person who also held the Arts in as high regard as the Sciences, perhaps I would always suffer from this affliction. I’d done everything I could to succeed in spite of those feelings of being a fraud, fearing being “found out” as not qualified to practice or teach astronomy, study the climates of extrasolar planets, publish. I’d talked about it with friends, and my other supportive and trusted communities, including therapists. And I had graduated with my PhD. But it wasn’t until I stood there scarfing salad and talking with my mouth full, relaxed as can be, to this once omnipotent, larger-than-life tenured physics professor, that I realized that the Imposter Syndrome – though not completely eradicated from my veins – was now much quieter than it ever had been. And I think I know why. I had started to treat the Imposter Syndrome like a scientist treats a testable hypothesis. I had stopped acting like a victim with it. And I was finally starting to see its justification as seriously flawed.

Here’s the way the old scenario goes: I’m about to do something scary, like submit a paper to a journal, or give a research talk somewhere. Suddenly there is a small place somewhere at the pit of my stomach that does a little flip. Then as if on cue, an ancient tape plays on a distant sound system in my head with endless battery life. The tape says, “You are an imposter. A fraud. You aren’t what you say you are, and pretty soon, everyone’s gonna know it. I mean, come on. You don’t even look like a scientist.” The voice is my voice. And the irony is that I am convinced that what I am saying on the tape is absolutely correct and irrefutable. I’m an imposter about everything else. But about this, I’m totally legit.

This reminds me of a poem I once wrote. One of the lines of the poem is “What do you do when your own mind is your biggest racist?” I still think that is one deep line, and I remember surprising myself when it came out on the page. It scared me, because it was true. And it’s a scary thing to write the truth. Sure, I was influenced by the culture in which I’ve grown up, what I saw, or in my case didn’t see: Light brown, deep brown, ebony faces doing what I wanted to be doing. For over a decade I carried the imprint of an old white prof in my first astrophysics PhD program who advised me to explore other career options. I carried that elephant on my back for over a decade. I internalized his words, and the perceived looks, glances, and judgments of others. It wasn’t my fault, but I had more power than I realized or gave myself credit for at the time. And it’s much harder to overcome an obstacle to success when that obstacle is you.

That’s not a very pleasant atmosphere to create for oneself. And I know a thing or two about atmospheres. This one certainly isn’t positive. Therefore, it isn’t conducive to success.

So I asked myself, “What if I treated myself like one of the potentially habitable planets that I study?” What if I treated this Imposter freakin’ Syndrome like a scientist?

Planets orbit all types of stars, at different distances from those stars. Those planets that lie at just the right distance from their stars that they could have liquid water on their surfaces lie in their stars’ “habitable zones”. We know that on our planet, where there’s water, there is life. So we’re really excited about these planets’ prospects for life.

However, just because a planet could have liquid water on its surface, doesn’t mean that it does. It all depends on the most important factor that can influence the climate of a planet: Its atmosphere. If the atmosphere is too thin, a planet, like Mars, could lose all of its water to space. If a planet’s atmosphere is too thick with greenhouse gases, a planet, like Venus, could be so hot – far hotter than the distance from its star and the amount of light it receives would suggest – that lead would melt on the planet’s surface. A thick atmosphere could also be the saving grace for a distant planet receiving the tiniest fraction of light from its star. A thick atmosphere could give a planet the warmth it needs to keep oceans from freezing over, just as a thick blanket keeps our bodies warm on frigid winter nights.

Just as an atmosphere can make or break a potentially habitable planet’s chances for life, the type of atmosphere I adopt is crucial to my success as a human being. I made the choice to take an active role in creating the atmosphere that would afford me the best possible prospects for success as a scientist.

What was my atmosphere like? Well, like a good scientist, I collected evidence. And this evidence would either support or refute the hypothesis that I was an imposter. What I found was that the evidence was overwhelming and incontrovertible: Passing my qualifying exams, winning that graduate fellowship, passing my general exam, publishing that paper, and then another one, and then speaking there, and over there, and winning that prize fellowship, and then another one, successfully defending my dissertation, answering that question thoughtfully after my talk, and that one too, and yes it did make sense what I said, and wow, I was starting to get the hang of this, and I sure had improved when it came to talking off-the-cuff about the latest papers since way back when, isn’t that something, etc., etc. It seemed that the evidence was in stark contrast to what my brain had been telling me for so long. The facts didn’t match the tapes. And as a scientist, I am all about the facts.

At the conference last week I gave two talks. One was a research talk on a paper I’d recently submitted. The other was the first-ever talk I’d given on my educational outreach work. I was surprised to find that the science research talk was nearly flawless, while the education talk was less than stellar. I think I know why. Science talks have terrified me for years, ever since returning to astronomy grad school after being an actor for so long. In the world of the Theater, there is something called the “The Fourth Wall”. It’s an invisible barrier between audience and performer. The audience doesn’t break the fourth wall unless the performer invites them to. In science – i dare say in all of academia – there is no fourth wall. Questions fly at you like whizzing objects. This was one of the most challenging things for me to get used to when I first returned to the field. But I’ve worked at it. A lot. I’ve drilled, in the same way that a tennis player practices serving to the same point in the square on the opposite side of the court, or the basketball player practices free throws until he or she can do them in his/her sleep (I’ve never played basketball, so I’m totally riffing here), or the same way a golfer practices putting, or goes to the driving range or the 18-hole course over and over (my husband does this, so I do feel qualified to pretend that I know what I’m talking about here). You do something enough times and eventually you get good at it. I’ve gotten good at giving talks about my research, and answering questions at the end of those talks. So those tend to go well. I had never given a talk about my educational outreach workshops. So that one was a bit rougher. Those are the facts. As I do more of those kinds of talks, I’ll get better. End of story. No “Does this mean I shouldn’t do outreach?” emotional terrorist bulls**t. Just move forward.

Also helpful for me in graduate school (and still today) were the following: I kept a notebook with inspiring words from people I admired. I surrounded myself with positive mentors and role models who encouraged me to keep going, shared their personal struggles and how they walked through difficult times, and made sure I remembered that I was not alone on my journey. And because they weren’t always around or available, I became my own mentor, my own cheerleader. I decided that there was no reason that the negative voices in my head telling me “I can’t” should be any louder or more frequent than the positive voices saying “Great job Aomawa! Here’s what you did really well about that talk/test/paper/job interview!”

What if we made a conscious choice to generate – and listen to – the positive feedback about ourselves just as often as we listen to the criticism? I started with that. Then little by little, the positive voices got louder, and the negative voices, that were holding me back got quieter, and eventually revealed themselves for what they were: Old, stale tapes that just didn’t match all of the mounting scientific evidence I had accumulated over time. This evidence indicated that not only could I do it, but I was excelling doing it. Not only was I qualified to be an astronomer and an astrobiologist, but I had become an imaginative, meticulous, innovative researcher with the ability to initiate and organize projects and follow through with results, while collaborating in a team environment. I, as my adviser put it, had “arrived”.

An atmosphere is everything. We who study the climates of extrasolar planets know it. And people who deal in positive affirmations (like Louise Hay or Iyanla Vanzant or Brene Brown) and the art of writing despite the inner critic (Natalie Goldberg) have known it for some time. Let’s not spend our lives putting up roadblocks to our own dreams. Life on this planet is too short not to do everything in our power to create the ideal atmospheric conditions for our success. Favorable atmospheric conditions give rise to a suitable climate not just to survive, but also to thrive, and to become what we were always meant to be. Who knows, you too may find yourself stuffing food in your face at the airport next to someone from your past who’ll remind you of just how far you’ve come.

For more articles on the Imposter Syndrome, visit these links:

Women and the Imposter Syndrome in Astronomy (starts on page 4)

Women in Astronomy guest blog post by Harvard professor John Johnson

Jessica Kirkpatrick’s blog post

By aomawa

12 comments on “One Scientist’s Approach to the Imposter Syndrome

  1. Hi teach in an all girls HS with 99% girls off colour. I will be posting this blog on their Edmodo site because of its great positive message. Thanks for sharing! @learnmath4us

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved the post as usual. I forwarded it to a friend who is both an MIT grad in physics and a filmmaker. I thought he could specially relate to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an empowering post! I’m a current female undergraduate in physics and astronomy and your description of the feelings of imposter syndrome resonate with me completely. Thanks for sharing the light at the end of the tunnel!


  4. This post is doing the rounds up here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I am a graduate student in geophysics/glaciology. Thank you for the empowering words! I definitely struggle with Imposter Syndrome, especially given that I (like you) don’t seem to take the traditional approach to science. I’m always wondering if there is room for people like me in this community. But on the good days, I remind myself that things like a background in dance, and a strong training in writing, DO give me an advantage, when it comes to communicating my findings. So I power on! Thanks for the wise words, and for the great work that you do, both in astronomy and in outreach!


  5. Love this post, and how you called an immediate reaction that you are bad at doing something that didn’t go well the first time “emotional terrorism”. Also, I was struck by your poem (would love to read the rest of it!) about ourselves doing the most damage by internalizing the harmful messages we are given.


  6. Thank you for this post! I’m really glad to read of a method to help overcome imposter syndrome. The advice I’ve heard (once it was allowed and recognized that people have it too) is to just “get over it,” which is not helpful and might even worsen the problem. I relate to your nervousness in presentations and to your acting experience. I *never* got stage fright, but giving a presentation is a horrible, anxiety-ridden experience. Lately, I’ve had some successful presentations (so building on good experience) by putting on the acting hat again. My presenter character is a sales person. I sell my science to my co-actors, the buyers/audience. Everybody is on stage. It’s kinda FITYFI (fake it till you feel it), but it’s working. 🙂


  7. Wow, you really need a lot of courage to write about this.
    Being an person who finished all the coursework in physics but never finished my thesis work and quit all that (my original dream was to become an astronomer) in order to pursue a career in the animation and VFX industry by becoming a partner of my own company, and struggling a lot lately with the Imposter Syndrome I totally feel identified with your post, but even better, I’ve never thought about approaching the problem the way you did, thank you.


  8. Pingback: Plantae | Combatting the Impostor Syndrome in academic science – you probably are as smart as they think!

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