Opinion

Putting my imposter syndrome to work

When I started graduate school I had pretty low self-esteem. I wanted to study mathematical biology, but I still held on to some sexist self-directed beliefs about being bad at math and programming. This resulted in pretty strong imposter syndrome.

I’ve had to teach to support myself through grad school (except a spring/summer semester). I felt pretty overburdened with teaching, research, and constantly challenging my own beliefs about my competence. I thought that if only I didn’t have to teach I would be fine.

I was complaining to a friend about how there were no opportunities available & how certain my eventual failure was. She challenged me to apply to a fellowship, and I did a quick Google and found a dozen. I ended up being eligible for only 1 or 2, but at that moment I decided that I was going to apply to *literally everything* that I was remotely eligible for. I expected to get 90% rejections, and reinforce my beliefs about how screwed I was.

In 2017 I applied to 50 things, and my acceptance rate was right around 50%. It was a lot of travel awards, and I went to a dozen conferences/workshops. So far in 2018 I’ve applied to 48 things, and my acceptance rate is still sitting around 50%. I’m trying to be a LITTLE more selective, but I haven’t quite shaken that feeling of “who cares, I won’t get it anyway”. Its definitely been an exercise in dismissing imposter syndrome – if I give in to that feeling, I’ll be travelling every other week!

I feel like I hardly have any time to do research anymore, but somehow I’m more productive than last year. A good bit of research suggests that with more commitments you tend to rise to the occasion – teaching, women with kids. I’m forced to be more active with my stress management, and that ends up working in my favor.

An additional, unexpected benefit of this experiment was a huge decrease in my social anxiety and completion anxiety/perfectionism. When I started, I would stress out about every little award application, and get all my friends to read it multiple times. I would flail about trying to write something positive about myself, I would have absolutely no idea what to say about my research or teaching goals.

As I wrote more and more applications, I was able to pinpoint deficits in myself. This gave me ideas, which led to productive solutions. For example, I had very little to say about my teaching goals, but I had a lot of feelings from seeing how much my students struggled with math, and how little they knew about data analysis. I realized that I could develop things that helped them, and ask them to use them for bonus points since I was their TA. This led to me developing 3 simulations this semester. More work, but ultimately helping me find myself as a researcher and a teacher.

In hindsight, most of this motivation came from my imposter syndrome, as opposed to some inherent state of existence resulting from being a TA. And in that sense, applying to everything was a great, productive way for me to combat those fears.

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