Last winter, I had no idea that starting my own research project would create the most frustrating, confidence-destroying experience of my undergraduate career. Like many typical STEM students, I previously measured my success by how well I performed in class. The courses I took as a rising biochemistry major left me feeling like I had a knack for chemistry, and I certainly had the grades to prove it.
That feeling disappeared shortly after I took on the role of a student researcher. My advisor gave me a list of overall synthesis projects; I picked the one that looked most interesting; and (to paraphrase) she said, “Go.” I spent one month diligently poring through chemistry journals and developed a method with her guidance. But despite my best efforts, five or six mediocre trial runs and sloppy analytical analysis led me to believe that I was clueless in a real laboratory setting. Sharing space with experienced, independent students made matters worse. I quickly succumbed to the notion that I had no place being a chemist. This notion, experienced by many young adults across STEM fields, has been appropriately coined “imposter syndrome.”
Imposter syndrome can leave a talented person believing that he or she lacks competence and useful skills, despite evidence that says otherwise. The phenomenon is not limited to any age group, discipline of study, or gender, making imposter syndrome fairly universal. However, a high frequency does occur in young adults beyond their undergraduate studies, whether it is graduate school or a new job in their respective fields. Successful women tend to have these experiences more than their male counterparts, though some studies suggest that this trend is somewhat dated. (see references at bottom)
P.R. Clance and S. Imes studied high-achieving women in the late 1970s, and through their work the term “imposter syndrome” was born. Clance and Imes state that “certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping” may be the main culprits to blame. Women in science are becoming more of a societal norm, but stereotyping is admittedly still present.
Instead I would like to focus on what causes young chemists to lose confidence after beginning their careers. In his essay “The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” Dr. Martin A. Schwartz hypothesizes that undergraduates have a difficult time adjusting to graduate school because doing well on tests means “you get to feel smart” — not so much in a Ph.D. program. He describes how he initially struggled with performing research and sought cut-and-dried answers from faculty members, many of whom did not have clear solutions. One day he had an epiphany:
“That’s when it hit me: Nobody [had the answer]. That’s why it was a research problem.”
According to Dr. Schwartz, good research is supposed to be extremely difficult and an exploration of the unknown, and it is up to you, the future investigator, to grapple with this exploration — the very thing that many undergraduates don’t experience. Accepting these changes may be a defining moment for many graduate students who continue their programs, as they are less likely to drop out from feeling constantly “stupid” or failing to produce good results. Based on Dr. Schwartz’s findings, students seeking higher degrees may not be the only ones who suffer from a false “stupidity” complex. Young chemists who choose to forgo graduate school must also become accustomed to a “different ball game” than college.
Imposter Syndrome Prevention
Many articles out there include ways to cope with imposter syndrome. Popular mantras include “feeling insecure is natural and normal,” “stay positive,” or become a mentor, all of which can help boost confidence. These same articles unfortunately lack any solution to prevent imposter syndrome before it gets to the point of giving up on a graduate program or quitting a job. A solution I propose, although less of a direct fix, and more a method of alleviation, is this: academic institutions could make independent student research more accessible to undergraduates.
I don’t mean applying to a lab and working for faculty with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are the real “brains” behind a project. The type of research
experiences that undergraduates could be receiving are those that best prepare them for the realistic demands that come with life in research or industry, albeit with plenty of faculty supervision. Many schools already do this, and they do it well. I consider projects in which undergraduates work independently to solve scientific problems within a larger group effort are not only a good way to minimize costs, but also true simulations of life outside of college. An important advantage of having this opportunity as an undergraduate is that it provides a “short-term, risk-free” environment to decide if a life in chemistry is a good fit. In my case, an independent project allowed me to become acquainted with that dumb feeling Dr. Schwartz was talking about and to see what research is actually like. And of course, if your school doesn’t have a program that satisfies you, you should definitely apply for summer research!
(By the way, if you’re looking for an undergraduate research activity, try our Get Experience internship database- The Editors)
The turning point in my own battle with imposter syndrome happened after my regional ACS conference in May 2013. I walked into the undergraduate poster session with a crude board of PowerPoint slides with limited results. Forced to stand next to complete professional posters from world-renowned research institutions, I felt ashamed to be there and was grilled by at least 20 chemists about my work. Much to my surprise, my project took second place that day. For the longest time I believed that I was just lucky and presented myself well, and then I had a realization of my own — maybe the reason I won that award is because I earned it.
Clance, P.R.; Imes, S. The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychother.-Theor. Res. 1978, 15, 1-8.
Schwartz, M.A. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci. 2008, 121, 1771.