Getting Personal (1): That Bitch, Impostor Syndrome

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A few weeks ago, a professor at my school gave a talk on impostor syndrome. It was a talk that was incredibly refreshing because how often do people in advanced positions in their careers talk about their failures and their feelings of not fitting in? Rarely. This talk for me was thought-provoking because it got me to reflect on the times that I have myself felt like a complete utter failure in my academic journey. This post likely does not even fit with the tone of this romance book blog, but I'm trying out a new avenue where I share more about myself, so I do hope you don't mind this new blog addition.

To start with, what exactly is impostor syndrome?

According to an article in the Time, it's this idea that you don't belong, that you don't deserve any of your achievements, that you're a fraud. When the concept was originally presented in the 1970s, it was thought to be a condition that only women experienced. Since then, there has been a ton more research that has shown that men too can experience impostor syndrome. It tends to affect people from all kinds of backgrounds and at all stages of life, but it particularly seems to be rampant in graduate students.

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I first experienced impostor syndrome in high school. A little bit of background on the secondary schooling system back in my home country. We all attend primary school until grade 6. At the end of the 6th grade, we take a secondary school entrance exam. Your results at this exam determine what school you attend next in your residential region. Generally, students that do well end up at the same school. In grade 10, you take another important exam called GCE O'Levels. If you do really really well at O'Levels, you have the opportunity to move from your school to what is known as a "star" school - think of it as the Ivy League of secondary schools. I did well enough to be accepted into one of these star schools. Of course, I was super proud of my achievements, but I was extremely hesitant to leave my friends and school behind because I loved my time there. At the insistence of my parents, I ended up going to this star school. 

I absolutely hated my time at this new school. It was a whole bunch of competitive, high-achieving, and extra smart students all competing for 3 national scholarships. I was miserable because I didn't know if people really wanted to befriend me or if they simply wanted to get close because they wanted to see if you were a competitor to watch out for - it sounds ridiculous as I type it now, but it wasn't unheard of. I tried to focus on my studies and moved through my daily life almost robotically because I was simply looking forward to the 2 years being over. No matter how hard I studied, I only got Bs, Cs, and even the occasional F as grades. To this usually A-student, those grades sucked and I fell into this state where I thought I was not good enough and that I didn't deserve to be at this prestigious school. On nights before term exams, I would cry all night because I just knew I was going to fail. I was too dumb for this school, after all. It didn't help that the teachers at this school only cared about the students that excelled because it would be their names indirectly connected to the scholarship winners. It truly was one of the most demotivating times of my life

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By the time it was time for me to take my next important exams, a university entrance exam, this time, my parents had become much more understanding and they insisted that no matter how I ended up doing, they would still be proud. Perhaps that's what gave me the push to do as well as I did or perhaps it's the fact, that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was. I didn't win one of the national scholarships, but I ended up ranking 28th in the whole country and ended up with all As. Dealing with the impostor syndrome at that time felt overwhelming, but it did teach me a few lessons, the most important one being that I wouldn't go to a university with that many high-achieving students (a.k.a. no Ivy League or the likes) as I didn't think my mental health could go through that sort of environment.

Undergraduate was a pretty smooth path for me. I did well in classes, I enjoyed my classes, and didn't have another encounter with impostor syndrome again. That is until I began my first master's program. Early on in secondary school, I had decided that I wanted to be a cancer researcher. I was fascinated by the field and it was so dynamic, I knew it would be the perfect fit for me. My first step towards this career in cancer research was a research Master's program. My undergraduate college funded for me to attend their program, so I readily agreed, especially after hearing all the praise the department chair had to say about me. There wasn't anyone working on cancer at the school, but the 2-year program would make me competitive for a Ph.D. program. I was encouraged by the chair to work with a new. young faculty member, who was very up and coming in the field of HIV research. I didn't know the guy, but I trusted my chair, so I started in his lab. I was so excited to start this new phase of my life. 

I lasted a whole month in the program before impostor syndrome hit me for the second time in my life. I wasn't doing well in the lab, I felt like I couldn't understand any of the work the other students were doing, I could barely understand any of what my advisor was saying to me, and reading scientific papers made me want to cry. No one truly prepares you for the transition between undergrad, where you are told what to do, and grad school, where you have to find what you're supposed to be doing, but do it really well too. I was so lost. I also wasn't spending as much time in the lab as other students were because most of my experiments had to be left untouched overnight and sometimes for days. Add to the fact, that a lot of my experiments were failing. This isn't as abnormal for the sciences, but I didn't know any better at the time. Then, one day, my advisor sent an email to me and to the other graduate students in the lab, basically saying how disappointed he was in some lab members who weren't working as he was expecting, how grad school wasn't a 9-5 job, how we were supposed to be working late into the night, and during the weekend. My first thought after reading the email was: He's referring to me. It got worse when he talked to other professors in the department about how some of his graduate students were lazy. I spiraled. I was upset and just kept getting worse at my job. I couldn't focus on anything. All I could think about was this man's words and I let them affect me to near self-destruction. I stopped eating, stopped talking to people, and I stopped caring. I just knew that I would never be a good cancer researcher. I would never be good at my dream career. I was a fraud. That moment was probably one of the saddest moments of my life. I quit the program after my first quarter and left school without even saying goodbye to anyone. I wrote an email to the advisor telling him I needed to take care of mental health and I left the US for home. 

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This time, impostor syndrome lasted close to 6 months. I spent my time at home not doing anything because I was wallowing. I constantly fought with my parents, and I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wouldn't even be able to find a job because no one is hiring someone with an undergrad in Biology. My whole life and my goals had been upheaved. At some point during this stage, I finally found the courage to google potential career routes I could do. This is how I was introduced to biostatistics, a field I had never even heard of. I researched the area and found that it combined two of my loves: mathematics and public health research. I applied to 2 Master's programs and went to the first that accepted me, in a new school in a new city. You can't imagine how terrified I was to start this new program that I had almost zero background in. I was still plagued by my old advisor's comments, but I knew that I had to push them aside and move forward. Now, here I am, in my second year of a Ph.D. program in Biostatistics, still stressed as always, but also somehow content with life.

In retrospect, my experience with my old advisor was likely due to a lack of fit between the two of us, but also, a lack of proper research into the program on my part and a complete lack of confidence in my abilities. I also have no way of knowing that he was talking about me and I never will as I've cut all ties with the school. Should I have abandoned the program and my goals? No. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. I've found a new career goal, one that I'm certain I will enjoy much more because it will allow me to lead a more balanced life. I've found a great school and a supportive department. I have nothing to complain about. I know that that bitch, impostor syndrome, will show up again, especially as I'm gearing up to start writing my dissertation, but I also know that I have so many supportive people who genuinely want me to succeed, and I have some experience with it, so perhaps, I will be more prepared this time.

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All of this to say, if you too feel like you're not good enough for whatever it is you are doing. You're not alone. It's not you. It's our stupid brains being extra annoying. Just know that you're smart, capable, and talented. You deserve to be where you are and you deserve your success.

Have you ever felt like you don't fit in? Have you had any experience with impostor syndrome? How have you dealt with the feelings?
Let me know in the comments below!

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