“You seem to be doing so much, how do you fit it in?”
Story of my life. Since my early teens, I have been very aware of the fact that I packed out my time ‘doing’ and not much time relaxing and unwinding. Not until I hit age 29.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
There are varying degrees of imposter syndrome and it is defined in many ways depending on which article, book, podcast or video you watch. The definition that resonates with me is by Amy Cuddy who refers to it as the ‘general feeling that we don’t not belong.’
The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was introduced by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imet in 1978.
I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome as a South Asian woman of colour. It has been great to see emerging stories on this topic in the arts and I wanted to discuss my experiences to draw the lens closer to educators within this community.
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If you don’t know me, it’s easy to read my academic biography and see a career of highlights. You’ll see a long list of awards starting from my undergraduate career, fully funded scholarships for graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship positions at MIT and Harvard. I began my independent research career at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, then moved to the University of Windsor to take up a faculty position and am now a full professor with a thriving research group in wearable electronics. On paper, it seems like I had everything figured out, but the real story is far more complex. In academia, we idealize success and hide challenges – particularly mental health challenges. These “hidden” stories are closely intertwined with professional biographies but rarely told together. In the full story, the biography of an academic becomes more relatable and, well, more human.
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For me, graduate school was supposed to be the next exciting life step after receiving my undergraduate degree, yet I could never have prepared myself for the mental fatigue and instability I would endure and continue to endure.
Since my doctoral degree began back in 2017, I have always felt like a “problem child”, whether that be in my lab, in my committee, or in my department. I typically point a finger at my imposter syndrome for making me feel this way; however, some people’s words and actions during my journey have merited considerable attention as to why I feel emotionally depleted.
What I mean by “problem child” is that I feel I cause inconveniences, errors, and unnecessary work for others simply by existing. You might also experience this, and I give a big virtual hug to whoever does. Likely, imposter syndrome is to blame. If you are unfamiliar with this term, people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt continually, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In my experience, this happens regardless of whether I really know what I’m doing, or even when I achieve awards and recognition for my work. Several examples come to mind of times I have felt like an “imposter” in food science.
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We’ve created a culture of overwork in academia.
It’s expected that techs, professors and graduate students eat, sleep and breathe their work. Slept more than four hours last night? You could have been replying to emails. Took an hour lunch break? Chug down an energy drink while you analyze data and eat a bag of chips on the way to class instead. Only worked 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. today? Don’t expect to get tenure any time soon. This dangerous and pervasive narrative, fuelled by a combination of impostor syndrome and the “publish or perish” mentality, causes many academics to feel compelled to spend every waking hour reading the literature, refining lectures and perfecting their ideas so that they can keep their careers afloat.
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