Patronus Charms for Imposter Syndrome

The original #ImpostorPatronus tweet.
The original #ImposterPatronus tweet.

This was inevitable, right?!  Imposter syndrome is clearly the dementor of working professionals, immobilizing people by making them think the worst of their ability to do their job. Sometimes you know its coming almost like you’re apparating right into Azkaban; but sometimes it attacks you out of nowhere like when you’re minding your business walking home from the playground in Little Whinging.

Luckily, JK Rowling came up with an elegant solution: let positive and happy thoughts create a physical barrier between you and negativity. All you have to do is invoke the Patronus Charm.

Below we share our Imposter Patronuses, the animals that help us beat back impostor syndrome and when we call them. While this is fun there is a flaw in the analogy: dementors were external to wizards and impostor syndrome is deeply internal.  Therefore, we offer our real life solutions on how to work past tough times.


Emily’s Impostor Patronus is the Walrus
emily_walrusIt’s scary to admit (mentors or future employers could be reading!), but I feel impostor syndrome the most when writing grants. When it’s just me thinking of ideas, they sound great and I feel confident. I’ll tell my colleagues my ideas and they get excited, which helps me feel more excited. I have clear questions, and tight analyses to answer those questions. But the minute I start framing my work in terms of “The Big Picture” all the doubt rushes in. And I don’t mean a little doubt, I mean floodwaves and with increasing intensity:
“maybe this question is not important”
“my research is not important”
“everyone else has a grant, I must not deserve to be a scientist”

I know why I experience impostor syndrome in this way. I can’t run an experiment or sequence genomes without money, and I can’t get money without grants, so if I fail at grant writing I can not do my job.  Truthfully, I view impostor syndrome as the subconscious way you tell yourself where you are weak; but that’s great because then you can work on that area.

Why a walrus patronus?
My walrus patronus is large and in charge. First, it will blubber block the negative vibes. Then, it will yawn, rollover, and go back to sleep, fatigued with the BS that is impostor syndrome.

What I really do when impostor syndrome strikes?
I focus on what I’m good at writing: methods and broader impacts. This strategy does delay the pain of framing the grant which has to be done at some point, but it allows me a chance to write significant sections that I’m confident of and can reference as I work on the frame.


Stephanie’s Impostor Patronus is the Honey Badger
stephanie1-badgerI know I can write. In talks, I slay. I can even let reviewer comments roll of my back. Where I feel imposter syndrome the most is in data analysis. Data analysis not only requires solid statistical knowledge and mad modeling skills, but also computer programming, and all of these are rarely taught well or even at all in graduate school. In a nutshell, so much can go wrong! It’s often a slow and painful process with so many avenues to turn. Did you choose the right program (a serious decision in the analysis of genetics data)? Right model? Did you misplace a comma in your code or is your model flawed? Multiple outcomes in malfunctioning analysis can put a serious wrench in my confidence. When I first started in data analysis, it was not uncommon to spend nearly a whole day just to figure out my file wasn’t formatted right because of a capitalized letter or space after text. Days of seemingly no progress with looming deadlines could cause me to crash and burn, doubting if I had what it takes to be a scientist. Enter honey badger patronus.

Why a honey badger?
Because they don’t care! In order to be a successful scientist, you have to drown out mean reviewer comments and take it all with a grain of salt. The honey badger embodies this indifference and does what it wants, advancing forward against larger foes with a confident, Napoleon complex-like attitude. Venomous snake? No problem, the honey badger will eat it for breakfast. Error messages? The honey badger tears them up. The honey badger is scrappy and that’s how I fight.

What I really do when impostor syndrome strikes?
I reflect on what I have done (it’s usually more than I think it is) and remind myself that it takes time (I get impatient). When you have days where you feel like you haven’t made any progress, finding out what you’ve done wrong can be just as helpful as getting things right.


Anna’s Imposter Patronus is an Echidna
anna_echidnaI think every colleague I’ve ever discussed imposter syndrome with has told me that they’ve experienced it at some point in their career. In the world of research and academia it can feel like you are constantly being judged, and constantly found to be wanting, and that can really get you down. It might seem perverse, but I do take comfort from the fact that many of the people I admire have also suffered. However, I do know a couple of successful profs who tell me they have beaten it, so there is hope! I’ve asked them for the secrets to their success, but sadly it seems there was no magic bullet. They just persevered, wrote more papers, submitted more grants, learned to constructively deal with rejections, and eventually found their self confidence again.

What annoys me most is that sometimes, the skills and attributes that are valued by one set of people are the same as those that are criticized by others. It’s as though whatever you do, you can’t win! I’ve seen this myself over the last year: I’ve been praised for having a good publication record and for engaging directly with wildlife managers, but also told (by different people) that my weak publication record makes me less competitive and I should focus more on “high quality” papers and less on preparing reports for end-users.

Why an echidna patronus?
I chose an echidna for four reasons:

  • echidnas always seem focused on a mission, if disturbed they just dig in for a little while, then get right back on with the mission once the danger has passed – this also seems like a good way to deal with imposter syndrome
  • echidnas are one of the few Aussie mammals that haven’t suffered serious declines since Europeans arrived, so they’re adaptable survivors, which means I could learn from them
  • echidnas make me happy, and happiness is a great way to beat imposter syndrome
  • if all else fails, echidnas have spikes!

What I really do when imposter syndrome strikes?
As Emily noted, I find it helpful to focus on things that I am good at for a while. Then, when I’m feeling better, I try to acknowledge my weaknesses in a constructive way, so that I can work to improve my confidence in those areas. Just like Stephanie, I used to feel terrible imposter syndrome when it came to data analysis, because I didn’t have a very strong background in bioinformatics. Once I had recognized this, I made a targeted effort to learn more about working in UNIX, R and Python. Now I have a lot more faith in my own abilities, and (perhaps more importantly!) a much better understanding of how to ask my colleagues for help when I need it.


What is your Impostor Patronus and why? Tell us in the comments!

**Kind thanks to Matt Combs for the excellent Photoshop work!  Matt is a graduate student at Fordham University studying landscape genomics and adaptation to the urban environment in brown rats.**


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