This article made me feel feelings big enough for a blog post rather than a Facebook update. I’ll start with the relevant pull quote,
“I was dying to ask if my ability to solve the problem meant that I was good enough to make it as a theoretical physicist. But I knew that if I needed to ask, I wasn’t.”
I identify with this strongly enough that it made me squirm in my chair. To be clear, it wasn’t as stark for me. Unlike the author, I did feel supported by my undergraduate professors, and I have received encouragement at critical points: a professor who sensed my uncertainty and helped me visualize a grad program in my field, start to finish; positive feedback from both “rivals” and “strangers” on my early research results. (I don’t like quotes, but given the tangled socio-professional networks of scientists, neither category strictly applies.)
But I still struggle with that nagging impostor syndrome, and I know other women who do too, women I grab tea with and work on problem sets with and strategize with about competing internship and research offers. While we are succeeding at the business of science – okay except the caffeine-getting, but that’s an important step – we are wringing hands, and then we are made to feel like the act of hand-wringing proves what we are afraid of: that we are not qualified.
There’s a rule of thumb about how many compliments it takes to offset one insult. I think about this when people make me feel crazy for voicing self-doubt. A researcher in the article mentions “’all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses that men get that make them feel more a part of the party,’” and it makes me want to applaud. After “all the little kicks,” no wonder some women need more encouragement.
This is not to say I’m not motivated or passionate about my work. But I vividly remember the moment, a year and a half after graduating from college, when I understood at that deep gut level that I was qualified to apply to grad programs. It took some introspection (okay an insane amount of introspection, because that’s who I am) and encouragement from several people before I felt strongly enough about my ability and my chances for success. You could dismiss behavior like that as not “loving it enough,” or not having the confidence required to make it as a researcher, or any number of things. But if we want to advance fields of science, it might be better to recognize that some capable people grow into those confident shoes, and that a person who needs encouragement at crucial junctions is not always code for a person who isn’t going to be successful.
Even writing this, I feel compelled to hedge about how success still requires hard work and diligence and at a certain point you have to own your work and not take crap from others etc. etc. etc. But honestly, when we talk about people who are capable of success but need some pushing, we are not talking about an entire group of people who lack motivation or a willingness to work hard. The same person you encourage to keep going could be the person presenting strong science down the road. Sure, not everyone you cheerlead is going to get that far, but isn’t it better to widen the pool?
I attended a great conference last week for women in academia, and one of the keynote speakers offered advice for moving past obstacles like impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. Do the thing you want to do, and by doing it, prove to others and to yourself that you’re capable of that task. Once you’ve done it, there’s no longer any doubt about your capabilities. I was happy to see that the article ends on a similar note. A physics grad student describes this succinctly as, “’success is the best revenge.’”
Of course, it’s not all about encouragement, and academia is a very different landscape from industry careers, and on and on. But I know the encouragement factor can play a role, because it still does for me.