Imposter Syndrome & Choosing Science

April 2nd, 2021

More than half the time I honestly feel like I don’t know what the hell I am doing. I have gone back and forth between feeling like I have a clear picture of somewhere I want to go in life and what I want to do and then writing that picture off as a fantasy. It feels too idealistic to imagine a future where all is well and everything went according to plan.

The truth of the matter is no matter how many people tell me otherwise and how much my grades say I am “smart” I feel very out of my league in science most of the time. It is very difficult to imagine myself one day having enough knowledge to be able to teach it to others or whip out answers to questions my future students will have. I can see the end goal, but I have no idea what path I will take to get there.

I am not sure how much of this feeling is related to the identities I inhabit as I move through this world and how much is my own personal struggle with mental health and self-worth. I often compare myself to other students in my cohort or professors that I aspire to be like. My mind goes racing.

“You will never be as smart as him.”

“She is a better student than you.”

“You are not as passionate as they are.”

“You will never be as put together and professional as they are.”

Imposter syndrome and self-doubt affect many aspects of my life, but it is in science that I find it can be the most destructive as it is attempting to steal my future and dreams away from me. And though much of this struggle is internal I have been discouraged by external forces as well.

In the fall of 2018, I remember casually walking into his office feeling like any other day. I had just finished up working on some spreadsheets at the on-campus job I had in our schools honors program office and was headed to class. But not before I had a quick meeting with the honors program coordinator to talk about my semester progress. It was, of course, mandatory for all honors scholarship recipients to meet with him at least once a semester. For the purposes of this story let’s call him Dr. S. We had become well acquainted in the two years I had worked in the office and I considered Dr. S a trusted advisor and confidant as well as a genuinely fun person to work with.

We started going over my grades for the last few years I had been in the honors program and I explained to him that this semester I was struggling a bit with the course load (17 credit hours when the maximum you could take was 18) and working 2 jobs to support myself, but I was working with my professors and everything should be fine. It was at this point he began to pick apart my transcript.

“You know Livi it seems like you do really well in your Womens, Gender and Sexuality Studies courses. WGS-101, A. LGBTQ Communities and Crime, A. LGBTQ Studies, A. Queer Theory, A. Lesbian and Queer Cultures, A. Feminist Engagements in Education, A.”

I nodded, and explained to him I had chosen to do a WGS minor instead of a Chemistry minor like most of my Biology major peers, because I was passionate about social justice and also wanted a balance between intense science courses and engaging social science courses.

“Well look at your science grades though” he said turning the computer towards me as if I didn’t already know my own grades. “Biology 1, B. Biology 2, A. Cell Biology, B. Genetics, C. Ecology, B. Chemistry 1, B. Chemistry 2, A. I mean it isn’t very consistent. Do you feel like you are struggling with the material?”

At this point I was a bit taken aback, there was no real pattern to the grades but they were not bad grades by any means, some classes I did better in than others and before this meeting no one had suggested it was a problem.

“No, um,” I mumbled, a tightness growing in my chest, “I feel like I just had a lot going on that semester and the WGS classes are just easier by nature, there isn’t a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of assignments and it is mostly writing based, not data.”

Dr. S nodded. “It just seems like you do really well in WGS classes is all I am saying. Did you ever consider switching your major? You could still be a professor but the material you teach would just be different. I am just concerned cause you said you wanted to go to graduate school right? And to be honest it is going to be difficult to get in anywhere with these grades.”

I couldn’t speak, I stayed quiet for a moment. The tightness moved from my chest to my throat and I felt tears stinging the back of my eyes.

“Excuse me.” I managed to blurt out before getting up from my chair and running from his office to the bathroom where I started to sob.

My worst fear was now confirmed by someone who I felt knew me very well and whom I trusted. Science wasn’t for me. I was not smart enough or dedicated enough to get into graduate school, maybe I wouldn’t even be able to finish my undergrad degree in biology. What was I going to do now? Switch my major? I had wasted so much time on science, from my sophomore year of high school till now. I was in the middle of my degree, what was I going to do? His words sent me into a tailspin and I had a bit of an existential breakdown, if not science then what do I do? My whole world for the past 6 years had revolved around the idea that I would be a scientist in the future. A life without it seemed unfathomable, but I was now being told I couldn’t compete and maybe I should just give up.

I feel very lucky that at the time I was surrounded by many other people who told me that my advisor was being ridiculous and that science was lucky to have me. When I told a biology professor Dr. C what Dr. S had said to me he told me that first of all C’s get degrees and I only had one anyway so it wasn’t that big of a deal but also that from the classes I had had with him he knew I was capable. “Some people, you meet them and you just know, ya know? You are a scientist Livi and no one can take that away from you.”

He was the first person who ever told me that, and it was something I really needed to hear. From there I was able to quiet those doubts about if science was right for me, because I knew it was and no one else would tell me otherwise. Of course this wouldn’t be the last time I had these doubts or the last time someone would try to tell me I didn’t belong or make me feel not smart enough. But it was a victory in my eyes. After that semester I went on to work in Dr. C’s lab studying cellular metabolism in zebrafish, did a summer internship and even presented my poster at a national conference. The feeling of being in the lab felt right to me and I knew it was where I belonged.

I never got an explanation or apology from Dr. S, but I like to think he had good intentions. Maybe he deemed me struggling and was trying to offer me a way out, tell me it is okay to change my mind and try something else. But the way it came out didn’t feel supportive at all. It felt like betrayal of trust, like he didn’t believe in me or believe I could do science. Advisors have such enormous power and influence over a student’s choices and perceptions of themselves and though it important to listen to advice it is more important to go with your gut and choose what is right for you.

A life of learning and doing science is not the easiest path for me, but I am not really looking for easy. I like to be intellectually challenged, I need it, afterall how else would I be able to grow? Just because I don’t have the best grades or the most passion or the brightest insights doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pursue it. If that were the criteria we likely would have very few scientists in the world today. Comparison afterall is the thief of joy, everything is relative. No one is perfect at everything, so as long as we are willing to grow and learn and are open to new information then science can be for anyone and anyone who wants to pursue it should be encouraged to do so.

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