The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 5

May 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today is about that most essential talent of spies, and one that scientists also feel they need much of the time. Disguise.

To set the tone for Moscow Rules number 4, could I please have some music, preferably in 5/4 time, from a show that went through more rubber masks than a Hallowe’en shop?

Moscow Rules, number 5.

Go with the flow, blend in.

The Great Paris in disguise

Every spy knows the importance of cover. Scientists should too, since so many of us feel - often a lot - like our cover is going to be blown apart at any second. Because, according to a lot of people, they perpetually live in fear that they are in a Mission: Impossible episode, and that at any second, their PI is going to realize, “That’s not a real face! That’s just a rubber mask!”

It’s called imposter syndrome.

I suspect there are two points in scientific careers when imposter syndrome might feel particularly acute. The first is when you enter grad school. The second, for those who neverlearn, is when you get into that first job, like an assistant professor position or equivalent.

These two times are stress points because there’s no way to know what to expect. As an example of the importance of expectations, one of the factors that predicts how well a student does in university is whether his or her parents went to university.

First generation university have it a little rougher, in part because their parents have been through it, and can let a student know at least a little bit of the territory they face. For someone who has never had anyone in their family in a university, something like “Read the syllabus!” is not an obvious thing to do. But it’s very likely that they can get some inkling of what to expect when a family member has been through that process.

But every graduate student is a first generation graduate student. Even if someone in your family has gone to university, it’s highly unlikely they’ve gone to graduate school. And even if they’ve gone to graduate school, they probably didn’t go to the same one as you. Graduate programs are wildly idiosyncratic in how their expectations and procedures, even across a single campus. And even if someone in your family went to the same program in the grad school, they probably didn’t go so recently that the faculty and procedures are unchanged from their time there.

Meanwhile, most of the faculty have been at this for a while and have internalized their procedures. When something is routine for you, you forget it’s always new to someone.

Of course a new grad student will feel like an imposter.

The same factors come into play when you start that “real job.” It’s unlikely that anyone you know has been hired in the place you are now working. You’re thrown back into that uncomfortable situation of not having clear expectations.

This is where watching your peers can help. See what their experience is like. What are they trying to do, and what are they struggling with? They can give you an idea of how to blend in.

To put it another way, fake it ‘til you make it.

If you want to read more about imposter syndrome, you can do no better than to catch this huge compilation of posts in the Diversity in Science Carnival, hosted by Scicurious.

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