Have you ever been in a situation before where you have doubted your abilities or felt inadequate despite evidence that indicates you are more than capable?
My experiences as a first year trainee
I am a first year trainee Clinical Bioinformatician, just about to start my second year of training, and for me impostor syndrome is something that both I and other trainees that I know have experienced upon starting their roles. I think this is an important subject to address, as people often feel reluctant to talk about it, and it is a lot more common than you might think; it is estimated that almost 70% of individuals will experience symptoms of impostor syndrome at least once in their life. On the occasions where I have mentioned the subject to fellow trainees, they have also admitted to feeling some kind of impostor syndrome at some point during their training.
While I was applying for the Scientist Training Programme I was aware that applicants come from all kinds of backgrounds, from both academia and industry. I didn’t really expect to get in the first time around, but when I did, having applied with an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and minimal experience in a professional workplace environment, it was difficult not to feel daunted and overwhelmed being surrounded by people who were vastly more qualified than me. I found it hard not to compare myself to those around me and let this affect my confidence. Although it is not healthy or productive to compare ourselves to those around us it is something that a lot of us find ourselves doing regularly and often without even realising we are doing it.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome can be defined as a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. You might be wondering how this subject is relevant to you, either as a current trainee, clinical scientist or a future applicant. But I suspect a lot of you will be reading this definition and thinking that it sounds all too familiar.
The idea of impostor syndrome was first introduced in the 1978 article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes; researchers investigated the prevalence of impostor syndrome amongst a sample of 150 high achieving women who had all been formally recognised for their professional excellence.1 They found that despite this, the women lacked internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments, explaining away their success as down to luck or overestimation by others of their intelligence and abilities. Impostor syndrome has been recognised in both men and women, but has been found to be more prevalent in certain groups, including women, ethnic minorities, and first-generation university students.2,3 On the flip side to this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the inability of a person to recognise that they are not performing to the standards that they think they are. This all stems back to the idea that “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.” (Aristotle).
What you can do
From my experiences in my first year of training, I have realised that there are a few things you can do to combat impostor syndrome:
- Have realistic expectations of yourself. If you have been offered a position you will have met the entry requirements therefore are definitely qualified for the position. The STP is a three year long training position, where you will be taught everything you need to know during this period, so nobody expects you to know everything right from the start!
- Be honest when you don’t know something. This elaborates on the first point, in that you aren’t expected to know everything from the start, and it is okay to admit when you don’t know something. It is definitely harder to ask questions about something if you have previously said you already know the answers.
- Ask as many questions as possible. Being surrounded by more experienced people from a variety of backgrounds can provide an amazing opportunity to learn, and being a trainee, you can ask as many questions as you like. Your first year especially is an ideal period to learn as much as possible while you have fewer responsibilities. ￼
- Remember it is okay to make mistakes. You’re only human, and this is a big part of learning. I found at the start of my training I had a tendency to hold back a bit out of fear of making a mistake, however mistakes are often the best way to learn, and as a trainee you are not expected to know everything so this is okay.
- Get involved. Signing up to extra events e.g. departmental events, seminars, extracurricular activities, going for lunch or drinks with your colleagues, is a great way to feel more involved. I did activities such as signing up as a mentor for an online course, going to conferences, and speaking at my old university, and found that going to social events with other trainees helped me realise that other trainees have the same experiences as you too! I understand that some of these are quite difficult to do now when most people are working from home and events aren’t running, but if your team runs any online seminars or coffee clubs, or if you can keep in touch with other trainees via teams calls, I would really recommend this.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that some of these ideas/tips have struck a chord with some of you and might help some of you when you come to apply or start a new role. I will leave you with this image, as a final reminder that what you assume to be true isn’t necessarily correct!
- Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 1978;15(3):241.
- Canning EA, LaCosse J, Kroeper KM, Murphy MC. Feeling like an imposter: The effect of perceived classroom competition on the daily psychological experiences of first-generation college students. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2020 Jul;11(5):647-57.
- Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, Madhusudhan DK, Taylor KT, Clark DM, Nelson RS, Cokley KO, Hagg HK. Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2019 Dec 17:1-24.