Fake it until you make it

Why do we always want what we can’t have? Over a couple of months of furious labwork I successfully blogged at least every other day. While waiting over a week for some Brilliant III to surface so I could crack on with my qPCR I didn’t write a single post. When I’m supposed to be doing science I want to write about it, and when I’m writing anyway blogging just seems like a chore. Anyway, apologies for the radio silence.

I have had a bit of a revelation in the last few days about scientists and arrogance and self belief. I, like every other PhD student (except for the ones I’m about to mention) suffer from imposter syndrome. I genuinely believe that I am hopeless in the lab and should have just learned Perl and done a bioinformatics PhD. I am convinced that the people who agreed to not just let me do a PhD in genetics but fund me for one, given that I didn’t pick up a pipette after my first year of undergraduate (thank-you Professor Burns for destroying my faith in biochemistry) were utterly mental and that this whole thing was a tragic mistake on their part. (Note to future employers: This is my inner psyche talking. Don’t judge me on this…) 

Part of what makes me feel so inferior is that I have some friends who just seem to be doing well. In their first year of PhD they’re already talking about important publications. Their supervisors are mentioning Nature and Science. Everybody loves them. Their labwork is going beautifully.

And, to my chagrin, despite being younger than me; less experienced than me; having been to fewer conferences than I have they quite clearly view themselves as being in a much better position than me. And it really irritates me. What I initially put down to starting-PhD optimism seems to have continued. Praise from their department seems to have buoyed them up, not made them feel like imposters. They blithely talk about rattling off department talks in a morning or fudging their upgrade write up because they haven’t finished the work. And they don’t see a problem with it. And they make it plainly obvious that if I do feel it’s necessary to prep hard for a talk then there’s something wrong with me.

But in the last few days it has finally dawned on me that the lack of respect these friends show for me as a scientist is based upon my own lack of self confidence. The constant jibing of one that, entering my third year, I haven’t even drafted my first publication is because I am myself so anxious and nervous about it. I know that not only are this friend’s experiments not going so well – they’re going so badly that other people in the department are talking about it. And yet he talks about his PhD with such importance and self-confidence that in spite of this I end up treating his PhD with more respect than mine.

And so I’ve realised – and maybe this is blindingly obvious to everyone else – that if I want people to treat me like a final year PhD student who knows what she’s doing I’m going to have to start acting like it. Even when I don’t! What I have interpreted as self-confidence and even arrogance may just be a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t dream of being pessimistic in an interview, but in reality as a PhD student every day is like an interview. Every day that I mope and am scared and indecisive in the lab influences the reference that my supervisor will finally give me. Every collaboration I don’t pursue is a missed job opportunity. And maybe, just maybe, if I can tell myself ten times a day that I can do this… Maybe, just maybe, I will believe it enough to actually achieve something.

3 responses to “Fake it until you make it

  1. Boo, have you read this? There’s probably a balance to be struck somewhere between unwarranted lack of self confidence and unwarranted confidence/ arrogance – and there appears to be a gender divide! x

  2. Oh absolutely. I rattled this off in 10 minutes and cut things to stop it being too long, so I missed out the casual observation that all four of the friends I have in mind are men, and three of them work in the same department. I have often wondered if that department imbues them with a sense of false confidence, or whether its success makes them feel they need to live up to the standards of the rest of the department but it’s interesting to see.

    Nice article!

  3. I permanently think that at some point someone will figure out that I have no idea what I am actually doing, and am just winging it in exams/presentations..I think I actually wrote in my blog the other week that I am convinced that I get grades because of quotas, or them feeling sorry for me.

    As long as your self confidence (or lack of) is not holding you back, then it is not a problem, in my opinion. If others underestimate you because you do not appear overly confident, then you have the elephant of surprise!

    I have been told that I should be a little more confident, or that a bit of arrogance would not go amiss, but I cannot be like that.
    I kind of know that I am not as bad as I think as others ask me for help, often on stuff way out of my league.

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