Photo: Creativeart, Freepik
A shiny white labcoat on, test tubes in her left hand, while using her right to press all kinds of buttons on a complex-looking machine. PhD student Katrin Heidemeyer seems to have everything under control. Even though she gets the job done, obtains results and her colleagues are very fond of her, she doubts her own capabilities. 31-Year-old Heidemeyer suffers from imposter syndrome: ‘I am afraid that people will think that I am not smart enough’.
The feeling that you have no idea what you are doing, that you are not as competent as others might think: the imposter syndrome. Self-doubt comes in all shapes and sizes but is overall much more common than you may think. At the university where Heidemeyer works, 19 out of 32 PhD students indicated they experience imposter syndrome. About time to hear the story of one of them: Heidemeyer opens up about her experiences.
What does imposter syndrome feel like?
“To me, it feels like my colleagues are better at their job than I am. They seem to present new findings every week like it comes easy to them, while I work my butt off and struggle to get results. And no matter how much I know of my own topic, I feel like others know better. I have a fear that they will realize that I am not smart enough, that I am an imposter.”
“I suddenly start doubting whether I understand the topic enough”
Do you have this feeling of doubt all the time?
“Whenever I perform experiments, I feel confident. It is afterwards, when discussing the outcome of the results with my colleagues or boss, I suddenly start doubting whether I understand the topic enough. Everything I know seems basic to me and I feel stupid for not knowing more.”
Do you look up to your boss and colleagues?
“While I feel comfortable around my colleagues and boss, I do look up to some of them. In fact, my boss is my role model: he is extremely smart, understands new topics quickly, seems to know all literature by heart and is able to connect all these things in no time. That success also shows in the amount of professional achievements, such as publications and grants. On top of that, he is a kind person with excellent social skills. From day one I looked up to him: I wanted to be like him.”
That is quite a high expectation
“Yes, in hindsight I set the bar too high and that was adding to the stress of my work.”
“I thought bad results meant that I was bad at my job”
Does the imposter syndrome affect your work?
“In the past, it did. Probably that had to do with my high expectations. I wanted to be as good as everyone around me and obtain lots of results. When I did not achieve the goals I set, I felt bad about it and I took those feelings home. As a result, I did not sleep well, which led to less focus the next day and more mistakes. A vicious circle.”
So, the imposter syndrome was linked to the results you obtained?
“For me it was. My very first experiment failed and I assumed it would get fired after my probation period because of it. I thought those bad results meant that I was bad at my job.”
“Sometimes smart people around me make mistakes too”
You are still a PhD student. So I assumed you did not get fired?
“No, when I brought it up, my boss laughed at me. Not in a mean way though. I think he was just surprised and confused about my way of thinking. I remember feeling relieved, but I regret not discussing it more at the time. Because it took a few years before I learned that my results do not necessarily reflect my capabilities.”
“It helps knowing I am not the only one suffering from imposter syndrome”
Do you experience the imposter syndrome less these days?
“Yes, it is definitely less than a few years ago. It has nothing to do with gaining experience or knowledge over the years, but I learned to deal with it. I tell myself: ‘nobody cares’. Sometimes smart people around me make mistakes too. Then I do not think they are stupid, just that an intelligent, capable person did or said something not so smart. Now I reflect that on myself: whenever I say or do something stupid, I do not assume my colleagues think I am stupid. It also helped me to openly discuss the imposter syndrome.”
Who did you talk to about your doubt?
“Almost everyone. Nowadays I am really open about it. I discuss my doubts with friends, colleagues, my partner and my boss. For me, being open about it to colleagues has helped a lot. Especially talking to fellow PhD students, as they are facing the same problems and some of them even have the same doubts. It helps a lot knowing I am not the only one out there who suffers from imposter syndrome.”
“While it is scary I recommend others to be open about their doubts”
Do you feel comfortable showing your ‘vulnerable side’ to your boss?
“When I just started working there, I did not feel comfortable talking about my feelings, stress and struggles to my boss, because it felt like a weakness. But after a while I opened up and now I talk about it, whenever the feeling comes up again. My boss then puts my mind at ease and reminds me that (almost) everyone encounters the same struggles.”
It seems like you are well on your way to overcome imposter syndrome. Do you want to continue in science after obtaining your PhD?
“Science has taught me a great deal, and I am happy with the experience. But I do not want to continue after obtaining my PhD. Getting good results in science is hard and the small rewards, the results, are not worth the effort I put in.”
What would you recommend to other people suffering from imposter syndrome?
“While it is scary: be open about it. You do not have to go around and tell everyone. Find someone you feel comfortable with: a friend, a colleague, your partner or even your parents. You will notice, you are not the only one struggling with imposter syndrome.”
Read more about the imposter syndrome
Do you know that feeling that everyone around you knows exactly what they are doing, while you’re just muddling on? Many people, in all kinds of professions, suffer from this so-called imposter syndrome. Even scientists, and especially PhD students, struggle with this.