Reframing the Imposter Syndrome

Dear Grad Student,

Graduate school throws you in and spits you out, for better or for worse. One thing that a lot of graduate students experience in that time is imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is that feeling you have when you feel like an imposter in your own work. You think, “How did I get here? How did I fool all these people into thinking that I know what I’m doing?” The truth is, so many graduate students feel this way. My experience has shown me that the lessons learned in graduate school by experiencing the imposter syndrome can actually help you in the long run.

Perfecting 20-Questions

Graduate school tests your critical thinking and makes you question everything you assumed was true in undergrad. In undergrad you are told to trust and use the equations that society has accepted to hold up bridges and buildings (I’m an engineer after all) and send astronauts into space. However, in graduate school you are told not to trust anything and to derive the equations yourself. Many times, you are even asked to answer questions that do not have a known answer at all! When you start graduate school, your thought process is flipped very rapidly, teaching you to learn very quickly that you can’t trust everything you are told so that you can think critically and determine the truth for yourself. By doing this, graduate school teaches you to question everything. It is this line of questioning (and not fully understanding) that can cultivate imposter syndrome. Yet, it is also this line of questioning that also can lead you to ask and answer unsolved problems. It is as if you are playing the game 20 Questions over and over until you find the shortest string of clear and concise questions to get you to the correct answer. What many students don’t realize is that this lesson in perfecting 20 Questions can be a grad student’s greatest asset.

One thing that helped me gain confidence in asking questions was having an advisor who encouraged it. The example set by the senior members of our research group to constantly ask questions was unnerving at first. However, when they all graduated from the group around the same time, I found myself needing to fill the silence. This tactic by my advisor clearly worked. The group meetings gave me the opportunity to feel comfortable enough to ask the seemingly stupid questions. I will admit, I’ve asked some stupid questions — they DO exist! Yet, they could also reveal a foundational misunderstanding. By voicing my questions, many times we discovered that the presenter had failed to introduce a key topic. Other times, I actually had some good points that others in the group had not thought about. These questions were encouraged in our research group meetings and led us all to get much better at presenting, particularly in the clarifying language of our talks as well as the wording of our scientific questions. In academia where the scientific method is king, this encouragement of questioning is vital to expanding our knowledge in a specific field. However, it is not always so common outside the ivory tower.

The Scientific Method in Government

In my brief (& virtual) six months in my federal government science policy fellowship I have learned that the ability not only to question, but to ask the right questions is a rare commodity. Within the first few weeks on the job, I was amazed at the responses I received from people “higher up” than myself about the fact that I would ask questions at all and engage in deeper conversations with them about their work. I was doing what I had learned in graduate school, asking questions until I started to understand the thought process of the individual speaking to me. In academia, asking questions is how you prod and expand research frontiers. In government, asking questions could mean that you are questioning someone else’s work, or what has always been done, which could ruffle some feathers. So, they are not asked as frequently, particularly to someone at a higher pay grade than yourself. Yet, so far I have found that questions from a humble, curious perspective are always well-received. Further, time is scarce in government, so the ability to focus a discussion or quickly hone in on an issue is extremely valuable. This realization has made me thankful for the curiosity that my graduate school experience fostered.

One thing to keep in mind is that government objectives are very different from those of academia, meaning there are other things to consider than the scientific method in your work. In government, you are beholden to the taxpayer. Thus, the questions you ask need always be supplemented by: “How does this bring value back to the taxpayer? How does this work relate back to our agency’s mission? Can this process be done more efficiently?” Whereas the latter question would be welcomed in academia and praised in industry, in government it must be addressed with tact. In this question, many Feds hear, “You’re doing it wrong.” Instead, the question must be: “Why are you doing it this way, and how can we build upon what you already have and make it better?” This acknowledgement of the enormous amount of effort that had been done before you walked in and started asking questions is vital in gaining the respect and understanding needed to move forward.

The biggest advice I have for those entering government positions is to question courteously. Don’t ever stop questioning what you don’t understand. Yet, ask your questions from a humble place. Respect those in all ranks around you, and more importantly, respect and understand the complexity of the government system. What works in academia or private industry will not necessarily work in government because of the nature of the organization. It is meant to be slow to change. Thus, the problems are more interwoven, requiring the careful attention to language that my advisor instilled in me in grad school. From my perspective, the government is a scientist’s dream! The agencies I am working with are addressing some of society’s most challenging problems. However, the constraints with which we have to work with are extensive, and the resources are sparse. It takes a talented, complex-systems thinker to solve problems in the federal government. Luckily, academia is breeding those thinkers every day…

Start Fooling Yourself

So, grad student, when you’re down in the dumps, thinking, “Why am I here? How will I ever finish this PhD?” Reframe your perspective. Start fooling yourself into believing that you belong there. Know that this experience, although mentally exhausting, will make you stronger in the long run, and maybe your next line of questioning could lead to a new scientific breakthrough. Questioning is embedded in the foundation of academia, but outside of academia people do not always ask questions. So my advice: rattle some cages, break the norm, ask “important” people tough questions. Innovation cannot happen without it.

Written By: Meredith Richardson

Meredith Richardson is a 2020 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow in the Office of the Chief Data Officer within the U.S. Dept of Commerce. Within this role, she performs two functions: Bureau Liaison to the Chief Data Officer and Executive Secretariat for the Commerce Data Governance Board and NOAA’s Science and Technology Committee (Check out her SeaGrant Blog Post here). She is a Ph.D. Candidate in Water Resources Engineering & Science in the Civil Engineering Dept at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Throughout graduate school, she has been highly involved in STEM/women’s advocacy and took on leadership roles in the Society of Women Engineers, the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering & Research, and the American Geophysical Union (H3S)!

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