A Younger Chemist’s Guide to Overcoming “Impostor Syndrome”

You’re a first-year graduate student and have gathered in a conference room with your colleagues. As everyone has been asked to present their research, you wait for your turn, feeling queasy and wondering why you’re even there, believing there is no way what you have to say can compare with what your colleagues have presented. Here’s another one: imagine you just got a job at a top 10 global chemical company and during the first month, you’re at a meeting, but you choose to sit at the back. Someone notices and encourages you to speak up saying, “you’re not in grad school anymore.”

This is what psychologists refer to as impostor syndrome!

I first learned about impostor syndrome when I visited a psychologist on campus at a time when I was very conflicted. I was not making any progress in my research, yet at the same time, I had been elected president of my University’s Graduate Student Senate and was doing quite well in that role. The fact that I was throwing myself into graduate student projects and activities but at the same time, not getting any research done, told me that my competence was not the issue and that it was mental. This was when I decided to seek help. More on that later.

That state of feeling inferior to one’s peers can often be paralyzing, as it gets in the way of objective thinking and problem solving. It is also not surprising that it hits young scientists pretty hard (however, it is not limited to this group), given that we are trying to accomplish big goals- like trying to develop an entirely new aspect of science or working on a multimillion-dollar project-very early in our careers. These are endeavors so great that their enormity can easily make you feel inadequate.

Following now are some tips to help younger chemists overcome and maybe even thrive in the face of impostor syndrome.

Admit the situation

At the Spring 2018 National American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans I had the opportunity to listen to a young Chemistry Professor from Columbia University give a guest lecture about his life and career and I was a bit shocked that afternoon to hear him say, “I still suffer from impostor syndrome.” This came from a guy who had a great job with 14 students reporting to him, was performing cutting edge research, and had even been selected as one of C&E News’ “Talented 12.” What I noticed was that this open admission kept him at peace with himself and he was then able to focus on being the best he could be at all times. Personally, I think that’s what we should all strive for.

Talk to a professional

Like I mentioned earlier, talking to a psychologist really helped me and I think it would do the same for anyone else in a similar situation. The good thing also is that such services are not as out of reach as you might expect. Many universities, like the one I attended, offer free counseling services to students while a number of employer insurance plans include some coverage for mental health. For those who are in-between jobs, there are government programs that offer counseling services either for free or at a very discounted rate. Basically, services like this are fairly accessible and I urge anyone who needs them to embrace them.

Try to spend time/share experiences with your peers

I had no idea what impostor syndrome was until I met my counselor for the first time and I was shocked when he told me that it was a very common matter. How come I had never heard of it? Apparently, many of us go around with our issues and don’t talk to each other. When you think a problem is unique to you, the entire situation becomes hopeless and makes things more complicated. However, if you share your experiences with your peers and understand that they are something many people go through, then you start feeling better about yourself and work to find solutions to your concerns.

That is why I’m writing this!

To be honest, even without talking about research or work, I always look forward to the two times each year that I get to go to ACS meetings and meet with my fellow young chemists because for some reason, I just feel better when I get back and I’ve actually had some of my better moments in the lab after such meetings.

Be confident in your abilities

The other piece of advice my counselor told me during that fateful first meeting was that I was missing a very big point. What I was failing to see was that as a Ph.D. student in STEM, I was already in the top 5% of society in terms of intellect and that any thoughts I was having about not being smart enough were just false. This really blew my mind, but it was true.

Even if you don’t have a PhD, do you know there are many people who say they have never met a scientist before?  The truth is, just passing through the gauntlet of an undergraduate degree in chemistry means you’ve got a lot to offer so don’t let anyone or anything convince you otherwise.

In conclusion, navigating life as a young professional comes with a lot of obstacles and such obstacles can easily consume us if we don’t anticipate them and take steps to mitigate them. There are, however, a lot of tools that we can rely on to help overcome any issues we are facing and obtain the best for ourselves.

Note:

I just realized that by sheer coincidence, the day I finished writing this was World Mental Health Day!! Please be conscious my friends and never be ashamed to ask for help.

Avatar

Article by Wasiu Lawal

regional affairs working group. He is a chemist and environmental scientist who is passionate about helping people and about promoting cultural diversity and inclusion. Wasiu is very active in ACS’s minority affairs committee. Wasiu received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from The University of Texas at Arlington, his M.S. in Chemistry from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and his B.S. in Chemistry from Lagos State University.