On Being an Imposter

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

Suzy Kassem

When I was finishing my doctorate, I was writing my thesis remotely in upstate NY. Instead of the daily grind of getting dressed and driving bleary eyed into the lab, coffee in hand, I would get up at 9 or 10 or 11 am, make coffee, and turn on my laptop. I had had so much turmoil in my research work, and so many facets I was handling at once, I’d not had the time or motivation to write more than brief summaries here and there of key findings. I’d also not had time to put together anything for a peer-reviewed publication; just a number of presentations I’d done during my graduate school, either as a poster or speaker. On my laptop were a number of excel files of data, and next to it, a number of lab notebooks with more data of failed and successful experiments that were yet to be tabulated. As I stared at the blank word document, I thought, who am I kidding? Was I really thinking I was smart enough to get a PhD? I was pretty sure that I was a good student, but now I was faced with going out and facing a much bigger pond of people with doctorates, imagining bars of success set much higher than I’d had to reach so far. If by some chance I did graduate, was I really going to be able to find a position in my field as a professor? What kind of earthshaking research was I going to do? I’d looked at the research portfolios of professors in varying universities, and I was intimidated and awed at the breadth of work and focus of these laboratories. How could I even think I could compete at this level? Did I have what it takes to make it? On top of these thoughts, there was the ending of one way I defined myself–a student. I had been a student most of my life, and that routine was comfortable. Easy. Gaining a doctorate meant I was going to be an “expert” in my field and in one sense, there would be no more learning as that was the highest level I could attain. The end to Vickie, the perpetual student.

If all the world is a stage, and we but actors playing roles, then how do we play the ones we are cast? Student. Teacher. Employee. Boss. Son. Mother. Friend. Lover. We each are assigned these characters and often we play these (multiple) roles as defined by our society, our upbringing, and other factors that may not be in alignment with who we truly are. This incongruity can lead to lack of confidence, low self esteem, and anxiety, as we feel we do not live up to these artificial structures imposed on us. We may feel we are just going through the motions, day to day, but never really living. As with most times of transition, I found myself having to redefine myself, my goals, my expectations, and figure out what role I was going to take next. I felt myself slowly sinking into malaise and found it difficult to move forward as I let my doubts overwhelm me as I was faced with the end of my comfortable identity.

Imposter syndrome is something most people have experienced at least once in their life. We may all feel we are not good enough, that we don’t make the “grade,” whatever that is. We may think our success or achievements to date were just luck or due to a flawed system. It may be related to our profession or to how we define ourselves (mother, friend, son, etc). Women tend to experience it much more frequently than men, and in both genders, those who possess above average intelligence, ironically. The metrics we use to evaluate our self worth can be skewed by external factors; the boss who criticizes your every report, the child who says you aren’t fair, the other mom who always seems to have it together. As we internalize these, we may find we drift far away from what our true talents are, hide our true passions, and in the worst case, take on a value system far from what we actually believe to be true for ourselves. We allow ourselves to be defined by others, by events, and not by what resides in us and awaits to be ignited to shine as our truth to the world.

Eventually, over a period of 4 months, the blank word document became almost 300 pages summarizing 5 years of my life’s work and passion. Hours and hours, months and months, years and years of blood (literally), sweat, and tears, neatly compiled in a thesis. I returned to Connecticut in the Spring, a time of rebirth, to defend my dissertation work to my committee. After my hour and a half presentation, discussing the nuances, results, and impacts of my research, I waited a tense 45 minutes outside the conference room as the faculty debated the worthiness of my work, my life, and what felt like my whole being to that day. When I heard the words “May I present Dr. Wagner” from my advisor’s mouth as he ushered me back into the conference room, I felt a strange sense of disembodiment and relief. It was done. I had made it. And to this day, I mark that achievement as the hardest earned in my life, professionally.

Nearly 20 years later, I still get taken aback when people call me Dr. Wagner. But not because I don’t think I am worthy of the degree, but because I do not define myself by it anymore. However important that piece of paper is, it just gave me important tools to continue pursuing my passions–knowledge, discovery, creating solutions to make the world a better place–augmenting, honing, and using the inherent talents and abilities I possess. It gave me a position in a famous microbiology lab that teed me up for what I thought was my destined role, a faculty position. But as I became to know who I truly was and valued, and not what others thought I should be doing, I realized I was an engineer first for a reason. My post doc mentor was disappointed in my decision to not pursue an academic career, but off to industry I went, where I could play a small role in making products that add value to lives, using my talents the best way I know how. Most importantly, my struggles revealed and still continue to reveal my flaws, such as my lack of confidence, my low self esteem, my doubts, some of which I have overcome and others I am still working on. We humans are created to be “flawed,” it is part of our existence, and my journey is not just to find my talents and use them to the best of my ability, but to both accept I am not “perfect,” and improve on those traits or “flaws” that misalign with what I define as my values. For me to be strong enough to embrace and to cherish the things that may be flaws in the eyes of others, like not going into academia, but those which make me uniquely me. Life is all about continual improvement, an equation we integrate between the bounds of life and death, our soul function weighted by the things we each chose to place importance and value on, that becomes the sum of our journey here on earth. These may be: Friendship. Family. Integrity. Honesty. Kindness. Love. Hope. They are all a unique combination for every person to find and define, and rely on the knowledge that by being true to the values we embrace, not those thrust upon us, we become as close to what I think of as “perfection” – being our authentic self.

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