Imposter syndrome is a difficult one to battle and it can take many forms. It is crucial for students to feel like they belong in science, but that can be a difficult thing to teach especially if you feel like you don’t belong. These are a few things that I do to battle my own imposter syndrome and also to help students battle theirs.
Step 1: Identities. The first thing to recognize is that imposter syndrome can be a lot worse for students who are from an underrepresented background in your field. If they do not see anyone who looks like them or see anyone who is open about being like them in some invisible way, they may feel like they shouldn’t be there. For that matter, you might too. The most important thing you can do is help the student feel like they can find mentorship from someone who matches the student’s identity in some way. I am a first-generation student and come from a low-income background. I am often very open about this with my students and it has helped some students feel like they can talk to me about the difficulties of having those identities. Many times, I have had a walk around the building while discussing the difficulties of getting your financial aid on time, the costs of textbooks, how to pay rent on a budget, etc. Being open about struggling in the same way as an undergraduate, and even now as a graduate student, can help students realize that struggling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there. I gained a lot from mentors who were open about the things they were dealing with as well. If this is within your personal boundaries to do, I really encourage you to.
When you don’t share identities with your students, I encourage you to help them find mentors who your students can identify with. This may be in your department or in your school, but it can also be through connecting them to societies like SACNAS, AWG, IAGD, or with the amazing work happening on Twitter through the #BlackInScience and #BlackInTheIvory posts and associated posts on scientific fields (to name a few). Be careful of asking already overworked folks to do work for you, but there are many official mentoring programs through societies and many generous people that students can take advantage of. Additionally, helping students learn about scientists with various identities and backgrounds can help students feel like they belong, even if they don’t want to or can’t connect with that person for one-on-one mentoring.
Step 2: Criticism. One of the biggest difficulties in academic science is learning to take constructive critiques well. I am not talking about racist or sexist criticism or gatekeeping – which your students should NOT “learn how to take.” I am talking about critiques that will help your students learn or succeed, which can still be difficult to hear and can also be difficult to learn from. When I began in graduate school it was hard for me to see all of the “red” on a draft of a conference abstract or grant application. It caused me to feel like I didn’t belong because I couldn’t write well. My advisor at the time did two things to help get over my imposter syndrome that was triggered by receiving feedback. First, she sat me down and explained to me her editing style, that she wouldn’t have spent the time to make all of the changes and comments if she didn’t already think that it was getting close. It is crucial to help students understand your editing style, so that they know where they stand based on your feedback (how to give feedback is below). Second, she gave me the reviewer comments of one of her manuscripts and told me to read through them. It was then that I learned that this person who I respected quite a bit, still came out with “a bunch of red on her drafts,” even though she was a professor. In that moment, I realized it wasn’t me who was receiving the red marks, it was the writing -- everyone goes through that. I harken back to that moment every time I open a document that someone has edited.
To pass this forward, I share the anonymous reviewer comments I receive with my students to highlight to them that they are not alone in getting their writing critiqued. There is no “perfect” draft and if you don’t write perfectly then you are in good company. This could be applied to many things, talks, lab work, etc.
Step 3. Giving feedback. Although you may know that you are giving your time to the students in your lab because you care about them, they do not know that, and you need to remind them all of the time. Remember to give students positive feedback to start off with, something like “The introduction did a great job setting up the problem” or “The first sentence really brings the reader in.” Why should you do this? Well, do you think your student’s writing is a total failure and a waste of time? No? Well, then why haven’t you complimented one thing that they did correctly? (I’m mirroring here a common thought process by students who seem to be suffering imposter syndrome, and also my experience). By not telling students directly that they have done something right, they will think they have disappointed you and waisted your time. One compliment on something they did right will go a long way them feeling like they deserve to be in the same space as you.
If you are a graduate student or someone who was recently a graduate student, I urge you to not mirror your advisors editing style without first analyzing it. Does it make you feel terrible? Does it make you feel great? Does it make sense? Then, once you have analyzed it, create an editing style that works for you. Solicit feedback from your students to make sure that they can get through the edits.
Step 4. Open yourself up to critique from students. So far you may feel like I am asking you to put yourself way too far out there. You are embarrassed by the reviewer comments on your last manuscript, you don’t have time to find a positive thing to tell your students. Well buckle up because I am going one step further: invite your students to give feedback on your work. This could be anything, a grant application, a talk that you are practicing for a conference. I promise this could be helpful to you in many ways, but by flipping the table you are showing your students that there are a lot of things that everyone can improve upon. This will give them a framework for the feedback you give them in return. Not only that, but it will help them be better writers and speakers if they engage in helping other people become better writers and speakers.
Step 5. Above all else, defend the rights of the students to be in that space. If you ever see or hear about aggression to students in your lab/ department, racist or sexist feedback, or anything else, defend your students head on. Do not let it slide. By letting it slide or not addressing it, you are reaffirming that the aggression that student felt toward them was reasonable and a part of academia. By doing this you are reaffirming that they are not supposed to be here. Students, you are supposed to be here.
Finally, are you experiencing imposter syndrome in one of the above forms? I encourage you to reach out to a mentor and ask them to share with you their reviewer comments, or to share with you an experience that they had when they didn’t feel like they belonged. We have all been there, some more so than others, but it is crucial to form community to address imposter syndrome head on. If you need help, please reach out!
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.