Contributing Editor Daniela Witten writes:
I was in my second year of grad school when I first heard of “impostor syndrome”, the well-studied psychological phenomenon by which highly talented and accomplished people doubt their talent and accomplishments, and live in constant fear that the outside world will discover them as frauds. I remember marveling at the possibility that some of the breathtakingly brilliant statisticians in my department might question their own abilities—had they no self-awareness?!? The absurdity of their impostor syndrome stood in stark contrast to what I knew to be true: that the people around me had their figurative ducks all in a row, whereas I was the real fraud.
Friends, it did not occur to me that I might, in fact, suffer from impostor syndrome, until several years into my junior faculty position. The mental gymnastics required to sustain almost 30 years of relentless impostor syndrome in the face of overwhelming evidence that I’m a smart and capable person are actually quite impressive, since they required simultaneously believing that (i) literally everyone else was much smarter than me, and (ii) I was able to pull the wool over their eyes about my own abilities (a pretty astounding feat, considering how smart they all were). As a statistician who seeks parsimonious explanations for complex phenomena, I can acknowledge the irony of inventing elaborate back stories to account for my success (I was the only person nominated for the prestigious award! The top-ranked journal needed one more paper to complete the issue! The department literally couldn’t find anyone else willing to work there!) rather than accepting a simpler explanation (I’m good at what I do, and am recognized for it).
My “aha” moment came one day while giving a grad student a pep talk, during which I told them that they were extremely talented but, alas, suffered from impostor syndrome. Yes, I discovered that I suffered from impostor syndrome while in the process of explaining to someone else that they suffered from impostor syndrome. You can’t make this stuff up!
My impostor syndrome motivated me to work extremely hard. If all of my accomplishments to date were due to luck and/or trickery, then I had better hurry to accomplish as much as possible before my luck changed and/or my trickery was discovered! I am certain that I would not have achieved the same level of success as early in my career without my impostor syndrome. But, I might have been a lot happier and 90% as successful, and I firmly believe that this would have been enough, for any reasonable definition of “enough”.
(I also acknowledge that impostor syndrome can manifest in different ways. For instance, some people might find themselves unable to complete a research paper due to a fear that others will discover them to be a fraud.)
Over the years, I’ve learned that my impostor syndrome places a burden on those around me. If I believe that everyone else is smarter than me, then I will have unrealistically high expectations for others. This manifests not only in thinking that all of my grad students are brilliant (and in fact, they are!) but also in expecting them to constantly have brilliant ideas, which is clearly a bizarre and unrealistic expectation for someone just beginning their academic career. In fact, my exceedingly high expectations for those around me probably contributed to other people having impostor syndrome (so sorry!!), and so the cycle continues for the next generation. I believe that impostor syndrome explains why junior researchers tend to be the harshest journal reviewers: if you feel that everyone around you is much smarter than you, then you’ll hold everyone around you — and their research — to an unrealistically high bar. (More of those mental gymnastics…)
I am fortunate to have been treated very well throughout my career (likely in large part to my immense privilege ). However, I have on occasion been mistreated in ways that are, in retrospect and from the comfort of my current position, a bit comical. When I recount these instances, people often ask: why didn’t you stand up for yourself, and let the other person know that their behavior was wildly inappropriate? The answer again boils down to impostor syndrome: if someone believes that they are undeserving, then when they are treated poorly, they may think that this behavior is warranted.
I believe that the academic system perpetuates impostor syndrome. When I write a paper, I am handing three reviewers, an associate editor, an Editor-in-Chief, and anyone else with an internet connection a carte blanche to criticize my ideas, and by extension, me. Each paper represents yet another opportunity for those around me to discover that I’m not who they thought I was.
Moreover, the academic system thrives on impostor syndrome: it drives many researchers to work relentlessly throughout their careers (even post-tenure, and sometimes at the expense of their personal lives!). Unfortunately, while anxiety-fueled effort can certainly lead to a local optimum, it rarely leads to a global optimum, either for an individual or for the field.
While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, it is thought to be particularly common among women, younger people, and members of historically excluded groups. However, estimates of its prevalence vary widely. I sometimes imagine that I’m a member of a community of apparent high-achievers who are all, in reality, flying by the seat of our pants. We can call it Impostors Anonymous. I would love to meet the other members!
Though I’ve known for a long time now that I suffer from impostor syndrome, I am still learning to live with it. I recently won the 2022 Presidents’ Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies, the top award for a statistician below age 41, and certainly my greatest academic honor. When I heard the news, I thought — gosh! Won’t it be terrible when they discover that my research isn’t actually that great? I have had to silence those thoughts, and instead make room for gratitude towards the people who have paved the way for my very real accomplishments, which I deserve, no matter what the little voice inside my head tells me.
To love others, we must start by loving ourselves. I am a talented statistician. This knowledge enables me to be a better (and happier!) researcher, advisor, friend, and human. And if I say it enough, then maybe one day I’ll believe it’s true.
Daniela Witten lives in Seattle with her husband, three children, and a persistent but possibly overblown fear of failure. She shares many of her insights on Twitter @daniela_witten.
1. Lest there be any confusion about the intent of this column: I have benefited from immense privilege throughout my career, and I plan to discuss this in a future column. Acknowledging my privilege is not a sign of impostor syndrome, and my privilege does not erase my accomplishments or negate my talent. Two things can be true at once: that I have had a leg up in my career due to my privilege, and that I’m good at what I do. ↩