There has been quite of lot of coverage in the blogosphere about Imposter Syndrome. I think it started with this post from Porto Sentido. Imposter syndrome is essentially a sense some people have that they are somehow inferior to their colleagues and that they may, one day, be found out.
I certainly identify with this to a certain extent, but always thought it was perfectly natural. A certain amount of self-doubt seems sensible (to me at least), especially given that, as scientists, we should always be questioning what we do. It’s also something that, in my case, has lessened with time. When I was younger, I think there was a stage when I wondered if anyone would ever tell me that I really wasn’t cut out for a career in science. It actually did, sort of, happen once. I was working with a group who were keen to keep me after I’d been offered another job. They managed to find some extra funding and I met with the head of department to discuss the offer. He then proceeded to essentially say that, although the group I worked with clearly thought well of me, he had looked at my cv and he wasn’t terribly impressed. Needless to say, I took the other job (although this became an amusing story, rather than the reason I decided not to accept their counter offer).
Maybe I haven’t suffered from a particularly severe form of Imposter Syndrome. Having read some of the other posts, however, it does seem to be a general sense of uncertainty and self-doubt, rather than something particularly debilitating. I imagine there must be different levels of Imposter Syndrome but, in general, I suspect that it is something that can often be reasonably healthy. It’s good to question yourself and what you are doing and sometimes it may actually be sensible to decide that an alternative, or change in, career might be a good thing.
What I find more worrying than Imposter Syndrome, is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is supposedly a syndrome in which people fail to recognise their own deficiencies and also underestimate the abilities of others. I suspect that the existence of both syndromes is the real issue. For example, I think that our Universities are preferentially run by those who lack self-doubt but are not nearly as competent as they think they are, while competent people who have a healthy level of self-doubt avoid putting themselves forward for more senior positions. This is also exacerbated by the fact that many sensible and decent people don’t really want these more senior positions, as they would often rather keep doing what they’re good at and enjoy.
I don’t know how you solve these issues. Good mentoring would probably help. Maybe a more pro-active approach to encouraging people to consider putting themselves forward for jobs that they may do very well. I certainly seem to encounter numerous decisions from our university management that very few, if any, think are sensible. I don’t know if this is because the management is dominated by those who lack self-doubt, or if it is simply because of the hierarchical nature of our universities and hence the management feel perfectly comfortable making decisions against the advice of others. Either way I don’t think it is very healthy and having more people in senior positions who were willing to questions their decisions would be, in my view at least, a huge improvement.