opinion
5 mins read 02 Feb 2020

You’re Not a Fake, You Just Have Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can be crippling for many people. Curtin University astrophysics Ph.D. student Kathryn Ross discusses how it impacted her and some handy tips to help others combat it. 

Ruby Payne Scott amongst several men in a black and white photo
Ruby Payne-Scott standing outside Sydney University. Credit: CSIRO ATNF Historical Photographic Archive: B2842-43

Almost daily throughout my academic career, I have felt inadequate, incapable, that I only got to where I am today because I have tricked people.  

I used to believe it and just wish no one would notice me so I could keep silently working towards my dream of becoming an Astrophysicist. 

It was only when I heard the words Imposter Syndrome I finally realised none of it is true. It’s all in my head.

Minorities, like Women In STEM, who already have so few role models to relate to, are more likely to struggle with Imposter Syndrome and often in silence. I so often think of the image of Ruby Payne-Scott at Sydney University, completely surrounded by men. How do you validate your presence when there is no one like you in your field? Imposter Syndrome can be devastating and make career paths in STEM even more challenging for minority groups. 

So we work harder to justify our existence but spend half the mental effort simply trying to justify it to ourselves rather than focus on our work. Bad marks are more than just the number, but evidence of our inadequacy. Even when we finally succeed, our brain forbids us from appreciating the success attributing it to external factors; “I was lucky”, “I had a lot of help”. 

It’s exhausting. 

This evening on my walk home, I was listening to an episode of my favourite podcast, “The Guilty Feminist”, (if you haven’t listened before I highly recommend it! The host Deborah Frances-White is fantastically funny). In this episode, women were discussing things they wish they’d known. Unfortunately, for the majority of my career in STEM, I struggled with Imposter Syndrome in silence. I was embarrassed to admit I was struggling and my worst fear was telling someone about it and seeing them think “Yes, it’s not in your head you aren’t meant to be here”. So instead I battled alone. I wish I’d known that was stupid. I wish I’d known there were better ways to tackle Imposter Syndrome. I wish I’d known I struggled for so much longer than I needed to. I wish I’d had someone who could have given me tips and tricks so I didn’t have to spend years figuring it out on my own. 

So, to build on Deborah’s comments on the “Guilty Feminist”, here it is. Here are the things I wish I’d known when I started my journey into STEM:  

Learn To Recognise It

It can be a subtle thought and easily go unnoticed chipping away at your strength. Little voices in your head when you make a mistake or get a question wrong. Learn to hear it and recognise it for what it is. Then move to discredit it and shut it down.

Accept Your Imperfections

Embrace your average-ness, perfection is overrated. This is probably the hardest thing to come to terms with for me. It’s something I am still working on. I don’t need to excel at everything I do first try. Asking for help is not a bad thing. I should not be expected to know everything immediately. But that does not mean I do not belong here. I celebrate my strengths and embrace my weaknesses. 

Celebrate Your Successes

It’s YOUR achievement, celebrate it as such. Don’t let yourself pass the credit to someone or something else!

Find Your Group

Imposter Syndrome stops you from effectively judging your own capabilities, you put yourself down and tell yourself you’re unworthy and incapable. I have a group of fellow Women In STEM who are invaluable. Having external voices and perspectives who are familiar with the issues surrounding Imposter Syndrome can give incredible clarity. Just this morning, while writing this article, I messaged them for support and was bombarded with aggressively wholesome support for a good hour. When you can’t see your own worth through the Imposter-Syndrome-tinted glasses, find your group who can. 

Call It Out

Most importantly, keep an eye out for your friends, colleagues, students to spot the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. Call it out when you see it and help them with the battle, no one should have to face it alone. Besides, nothing helps you realise how unjustified and silly thoughts due to Imposter Syndrome are like hearing them come from someone else. 

Being a woman in STEM is already fraught with obstacles, I will not allow myself to become my own obstacle too. Nor will I see others suffer alone.

Kathryn Ross

Growing up, Kat used to watch the International Space Station going overhead with her family. Until she learned people live inside it and she became forever terrified of poop falling on her head from space. Thankfully, today Kat’s skills at staring up into the Universe have improved significantly.

She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University studying the baby black holes in the centres of distant galaxies trying to understand galaxy evolution and the history of our Universe. Kat has a background in optical interferometry of red giant stars, dark matter content of galaxies and physics education research. She is an activist for Women In STEM and works as a science communicator when not staring at distant baby black holes or fleeing from space poop.

Twitter: @astro_katross

Kat Ross standing with Coffee cup in front of radio telescope