The Adventures of being an Imposter

…by Bérengère and Sinéad /  / PhD students at The College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine/

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The first time I encountered the term “imposter syndrome”, I immediately imagined a detective movie. For some reason it was set in the 60’s, full of twists, adventures and mysteries, half way between a James Bond movie and Shutter Island. See what I’m talking about? Glorious days.

When I started my PhD, these words were looming everywhere;“Introduction to academic research: How to manage Imposter Syndrome”. I know it’s meant to be reassuring, but my main thoughts at the time were more like “Why the hell am I doing this…” And so, I waited that inevitable and dreaded day when I would feel crushed by the realisation of my own ignorance.

16 months into my PhD, I can say the day I realised my own ignorance came quickly. On Day 2 or so. Lucky for me, it hasn’t slapped me in the face with the advertised strength just yet.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very aware that I know very little, and I do feel, on a weekly basis, like most people around me know more about what I’m doing than I do.. But I came up with some “trucs” (as we say on my side of the Channel), some ways to be rather OK with it.

First, and this might just apply to my case of course, most people around me, those with a background in Psychology, do know more than me about what I do (which falls under Social Psychology). For the simple reason that I never studied Psychology. At all. So it does make sense that they know more about it. But that also means that I know things that they don’t. And to me, that’s what makes our work together so exciting! It makes me feel like Bilbo (also because I am short): it is like putting all I learned in Biology into a backpack, and going on an adventure in another land. A land where I have everything to discover, accompanied by some wise and curious travellers who have already walked this path. Of course I don’t know much about this new place, but that is kind of the point. To learn.

In any case, one has to come to term with that simple fact that no one can know everything there is to know about everything. Je dirais même plus: no one can know everything there is to know about one field. And this is even more true in interdisciplinary research. So why are you torturing yourself? I would say that the main thing is to acknowledge the fact that you don’t know everything, and more importantly to keep on being excited to learn new things.

Also, you learn as you do as well. For the past 2 years I have been on this “Let’s give it a go” mindset, and as a result I got myself involved into several projects for which I had no qualification whatsoever.

In October 2015, while I had never organised any events bigger than a crêpe dinner party for friends (yes, French people do that), I decided to join the Pint of Science team of Lyon (where I was living at the time), as co-ordinator of a team of 10 people, to organise a 3-day science festival. Strong off that new experience, the following year when I moved to Edinburgh (for my PhD) I joined the local Pint of Science team, this time coordinating a team of 50 people. That taught me a valuable lesson: At the beginning, no one knows anything, you just figure stuff out as you go.

This year, because one does need money to buy food, I also started tutoring for the University. In Psychology. Remember what I said about my education in Psychology? Yep, that’s right: it is non-existent. Some award-worthy impersonation going on here! Well maybe I made a complete fool of myself for that one, I don’t know, you should ask my students. I don’t know how wise that was, but actually I decided to be as honest as possible about that with them. And so, my first tutorial started with “Hi, I’m Bérèngere, I’m your Psychology tutor for this semester. I have never studied Psychology, so if you have questions I cannot answer, we’ll try and figure it out together. Sound good?” Oddly enough, they didn’t switch groups the following week.

So there you go. As you can see I now have a nice little CV of frauds and impersonations. I have been an imposter at organising festivals, tutoring in Psychology, and doing research. I survived the first two, and hopefully, I’ll also survive the third.

So now, go out there, try stuff, make mistakes, and learn. And keep in mind, you are not an imposter, you are an adventurer.

-Bérengère


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