At our CEED lab retreat last year, we had a workshop session on how our lab works, how we work within it, and how the research autonomy we have means that we can sometimes feel that we lack appraisal of our work. Discussion around this resulted in the worrying self-assessment that we all perceive ourselves as falling below the mean lab success line (although that is obviously mathematically impossible!). The concept of ‘imposter syndrome’ also resonated with many people, and is probably common in academia – we are constantly, especially in the early part of our career, judged on our potential, but receive little feedback on completed work.
Digging into this a little deeper, a colleague and I conducted a survey across all levels of CEED researchers (some of you probably completed it – thanks!). We found that there was no real difference in productivity across the levels - we are actually all doing pretty well, which is reassuring, especially for students and ECRs. We also asked about how we share our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ – who do we tell about those paper rejections and unsuccessful grant applications? Unsurprisingly, bad news is not shared as much as our good news, but most tellingly, more senior researchers do not in general share failures with students or junior colleagues. This leads to a skewed perception of our own success: if we do not know that those higher up the academic ladder are ‘failing’ as much as we are, no wonder we all see ourselves as below average.
So, as well as acknowledging that rejection is the norm (and it really is – only a tiny proportion of papers are accepted upon first submission, for example), it is important that we communicate ‘failure’ as well as ‘success’, and particularly so with students and mentees (see our recent Decision Point article for suggestions).
And finally, some encouragement of the heart: you are not alone! Completing this project was really reassuring in some ways; realising that everyone feels the same way was a relief. We held a seminar to present our results and discuss the issues, and interestingly the only people from the audience who asked questions/talked were senior researchers (others were too intimidated to speak in that discussion, but we received many emails afterwards), and they generally said that they don’t pay attention to these sorts of ‘failure’ anymore. I think they must have forgotten how they felt at the beginning of their careers when first faced with rejection and failure, which surely illustrates the importance of better communication.
For more detail and metrics:
To reassure yourself further:
Laursen, L (2013) No, you’re not an impostor. Science Careers.
*Apologies to Rudyard Kipling