A Scientist Looks at Imposter Syndrome

Andrea Ray

“You could be doing more, should be doing better, and really, what does that recent failed experiment say about you as a scientist?”

That nagging little voice is colloquially known as imposter syndrome, but it could just as easily be called false guilt, or fear, or even pride. One day it’s reminding me that someone down the hall is working more hours than I am, and it suggests that if I really were dedicated to science, I would be working more as well (false guilt). The next day, it’s telling me my CV is deplorable compared to my labmate’s, so clearly I’m not in the same league and probably never will be good enough to reach my goals (fear). Then, it flips around and reminds me I’d better make sure no one knows I didn’t have stellar credentials coming in because then they’d know I could never transcend that (pride). My acquaintance with this little monster is long-standing and recurrent. Much like the bacteria I study, it is a hardy little rascal, who seems to regularly develop tolerance to the treatments I develop against it. I’ve developed a few “treatments” against bouts of imposter syndrome though, and I hope sharing them will help others combat this voice.

Faith during the “not yet”

In one especially difficult season of graduate school, when I was convinced I didn’t have — and could never develop — the qualifications to succeed as a scientist, I read about Abraham. Abraham, childless and with no reasonable hope of his wife giving birth, “grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” — in this case, to give him a son (Romans 4:20-21). I picture Abraham’s “giving glory” as a combination of faith and gratitude for what had not yet happened but had been promised. God, after all, is described as the one who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

Arguing with imposter syndrome is exhausting. But knowing that I am in the service of the God who made a childless couple the parents of multitudes, the accusations of imposter syndrome — “you aren’t a successful enough lab researcher, you’re bad at department politics, you need too much sleep to ever be a professor” lose their power. After all, how hard is it for God to build a CV or to build stamina when he has already created a child in a post-menopausal womb?

Embracing humility

Imposter syndrome frequently tells me that my problem is I’m not special enough to be wherever I am. It suggests that being special is the key to a good life, and if I could just become special enough, imposter syndrome would vanish. However, in the gospel’s inversion of the status quo, I am reminded that God specifically chose “what is weak in the world...what is low and despised, even things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Rather than trying to become more special, I am instructed to be like Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). By embracing humility, I can focus less on myself and my own desire to be special and instead turn my attention to Christ.

Trust in God’s faithfulness and compassion

Imposter syndrome taunts and terrifies with a vision of shame: “Someone will see under the veneer and realize what you really are — sub-par at best, a failure more likely — and your life will be ruined. Forever. The End.” Yet Scripture speaks over and over of a God who defends his servants from shame. While clearly not written with me in mind, there are several passages in Isaiah that have helped me in the past.

The Lord’s servant was discouraged: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (49:5). While I am clearly not the servant being addressed here, I know that God is just, and will justly reward the work I have done in his service, as is reiterated in Hebrews 6:10: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name.”

God speaks to his people who have succumbed to hopelessness: “I am the Lord; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame”(Isaiah 49:23). Much as Israel could trust that God’s promises of hope and redemption would come true, I can trust that God will not disappoint my confidence in his goodness or abandon me in my pursuit of his will.

Finally, I love the bold assertion of the Lord’s servant in response to opposition: “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced...and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? ...Behold, the Lord God helps me” (50:7-9). When imposter syndrome floods my mind with fear and insecurity, I remind myself that there is one judge, and if I please him, then no one else’s judgement of me or my work ultimately matters. He is, after all, the one who will ultimately determine my work’s worth, beyond its academic value.

When research and work haven’t gone well and I am terrified of being “unmasked” as a failure, or my adviser has made a slightly negative comment I’ve construed into a sign of calamities to come, I can recall that my ultimate judgment belongs to God, who alone knows the whole truth about me. When I am convinced of my need to be special to be of worth, I sternly yet gladly remind myself that God delights in the ordinary and the broken. When I am convinced that my life will be worthless without academic success, I remind myself of the tremendous suffering present in the world, and how little of it I truly experience.

Even though I don’t know whether I will ever truly be free of imposter syndrome, I have evidence that its message is a lie. I have seen God form in me the skills I lacked at the start of graduate school. He has helped me battle doubt and discouragement when some (including me) wondered whether I should continue. My low stamina has grown somewhat better and, more importantly, I’ve found ways to work around it. My CV may not have pages of honors and awards, but it contains evidence of honest, quality research and teaching. I would encourage anyone struggling with imposter syndrome to hope in God, lay before him the fears and doubts of imposter syndrome, and continue on in faith. It may be that God will grant academic success, or he may redirect elsewhere, but he will be faithful and he will be kind regardless.

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Andrea is a PhD candidate in Food Science at a Big Ten university, where she studies adaptation to stresses and the resulting effects on virulence in Salmonella enterica and Listeria monocytogenes. In addition to her thesis research, she is involved in leadership in the local Graduate InterVarsity chapter, where she leads the women’s group and assists with one of the weekly Bible studies. A native of the Midwest, she hopes to eventually escape to a place with mountains and good hiking as well as tenure-track jobs.

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