Researchers Assemble! Defeating Imposter Syndrome through cosplay (sort of).

Researchers Assemble!
Researchers Assemble!

I work with postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers to support their professional and personal development, to help them achieve their career aspirations. As you might imagine, that involves actually talking to them about their experiences, needs and priorities, rather than assuming blithely that I know best. People who think they know best always freak me out a bit, if I’m being honest.

From talking to researchers and from lurking around all manner of blogs, I’m struck by how often the subject of feeling inadequate/not up to the job/not ‘good’ enough for academia comes up. Bearing in mind that I’m lucky enough to be working with some of the brightest, most able researchers around, that might seem odd; but if you’re surrounded by people as talented and passionate as you are, I guess that becomes your norm, and may be one reason that Imposter Syndrome is very much alive and well in academia!

Now, I’m not going to give you advice that will change your life immediately, vanquishing all self-doubt and worry. For a start, if I could, I’d be bottling it and selling it for truckloads of cash, but, more importantly, I don’t know best (see above). I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, but lots of people have written compellingly from their own experiences of Academic Imposter Syndrome, its effects and how to combat it.

My experience, though, was crystalised by last weekend’s Sheffield Film and Comic Con (stay with me!), which rolled into town with more fabulous sci-fi and fantasy nerdery and shiny tat than you can shake a lightsabre at. Quite a lot of people turned up dressed as their favourite character from the genres – or, in one case, a terrifying hybrid of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones and Elsa from Frozen, complete with the sign bearing the legend: You know nothing…so let it go. Genius!

Unsurprisingly, superheroes, were a popular theme, and as I gawped in admiration at the bravery and effort that had gone into some of the costumes, it occurred to me that, really, we all do our own little bit of cosplay (dressing up as characters) every day. We might not always feel like proper grown ups, or experts, or carers, but we show up and turn it on when we need to. And we get through it.

I’m not a particular fan of the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it”, because it seems to me to buy into the idea that we’re all imposters, faking and conning our way to success through luck and artifice, but a “con” is really just shorthand for “confidence trick” – and who couldn’t do with knowing a trick to get more confidence?

Okay, so maybe you’re not actually an academic superhero (yet…) but maybe, in order to counter the negative effects of Imposter Syndrome, you could do worse than thinking of yourself in those terms. Now, I’m not suggesting that you rock up to work tomorrow with your undies over your jeans (unless that’s your thing, in which case, who am I to judge?), but there’s evidence to support the role of positive self talk in defeating the super-villain of Imposter Syndrome. While some people recommend using positive self-talk as a mantra, it seems to work better for me if I consider the whys behind the words and think of examples to “prove” the sentences. It makes sense to think of your own self talk phrases appropriate to your personal situation, but here are a few that might help to start with.

  • I have worked hard for my achievements and deserve my success.
  • This institution can take its pick of researchers; it chose me.
  • I am an expert in X and my opinions about it are important.
  • I have more to learn and that’s okay.

All this can feel a bit uncomfortable, but if you can find phrases that resonate with you, you could be on your way to greater wellbeing and success in a, um, Flash.

Photo credit: Pat Loika

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