Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Impostor Syndrome: When Grad Advisor Relationship Goes Wrong

I’ve just passed a difficult anniversary. Seven years ago, my graduate advisor gave me the curse of science impostor syndrome. A student’s graduate advisor is meant to be a mentor, a trusted authority guiding the young trainee from student to professional. Instead, she crushed me.

Feeling inadequate and an intellectual fraud among superiors is common among women in the sciences. I already had it. But to be told by my advisor that she doesn’t think science motivates me. To be told that she doesn’t think I want to be a research scientist, she thinks I like the idea of being a research scientist. To dismiss my little voice saying, “Yes it does,” and “Yes I do,” as if she could see right through me to my true nature. To be told that I should find a new advisor because I wasn’t as married to research as she was. She devalued me and my chosen career path.

My first graduate advisor is a force to be reckoned with in her subfield. She is well-respected and highly honored. She wins top awards. She’s going to leave a legacy. Someday, someone will name an equation or astrophysical model after her. A widow without children, she was married to her work. She lived and breathed it. Her career defined her life and her life was defined by her career.

I was a student in my mid 20s, passionate about astronomy and space broadly. I’ve never been a specialist, too interested in everything to devote myself to one thing for long. I loved my graduate research, but I also loved so many other things. Since junior year of undergraduate, I’d dedicated myself to the study of our subfield. It was fascinating and challenging, probing the unknown with space telescopes observing the Universe in multiple wavelengths. I learned so much. I spent hours in the lab every day, running models, coding, and plotting (graphs, not schemes). When I wasn’t working on research, I was studying doctoral-level physics textbooks and doing complex homework. I was all in.

But I also had a life. I had no interest in winning the Nobel Prize or scoring a tenured professorship at an Ivy League. I had interests outside of the lab and textbooks. I had a social life. I was converting religions. I wanted to someday marry and have children. The world was open to me. I wanted it all. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t have it all.

By definition, a graduate research assistantship is half time. Ask any graduate student whether they work 20 hours per week and they’ll laugh at you. I never recorded my hours, but I was much closer to full-time on a regular basis. When times got tough, grad school took over my waking hours. At times I struggled to maintain a healthy balance.

When my graduate advisor ordered me to drop all of my hobbies and work in the lab from early morning to late evening and weekends, I fought back. I know my limits. That kind of schedule would have burned me out quickly. Plus, it wasn’t necessary. There was no deadline to meet or urgency in our work. She simply wanted 100% devotion. Anything less, and I wasn’t worthy. She even scolded me for attending a physics guest lecture outside of our subfield.

At this point, I was done with my graduate coursework, straight As except for one B in quantum mechanics. I had passed the insanely difficult exam that proved I knew my physics. I had been researching this subfield for 4 years. I should have been fairly close to finishing my PhD – just another year or so to write papers, publish, and defend. She insisted that I was 3 years away from finishing, dismissing all my previous work.

I felt trapped. I felt like an indentured servant. I had won a NASA graduate fellowship, my own grant money, but it was tied to her. She reminded me that she had paid my previous years, approximately $20k per year, plus healthcare. Her goal was to train an apprentice, the next generation of her. She expected me to be her mini clone. She even had my post-doc location picked out, a university overseas, as if I should have any say in the matter. I should be grateful and work harder. Why wasn’t I grateful? Why was I avoiding her?

A year prior, before she lost my trust, I confided in her that I had career interests in other areas. She was wise and experienced; I had hoped for advice. Instead, I was reprimanded. I quickly learned that I could not have an honest career discussion with a woman entrusted to guide my young career.

I tried to improve in her eyes. I tried to be a model student researcher. I gave it my best shot. It wasn’t good enough. I was told that I needed to be obsessed with work. I was told that if I had any plans to work beyond our subfield in the future, I needed to find a new advisor. It was her way or the highway.

She asked me why I wanted a Ph.D. I said it was because I love my research. She said no, I love the idea of my research, I love the idea of being a research scientist. Can you imagine telling a 10-year-old girl this? “You don’t really want to be a scientist, little girl, you just think you do. Go pursue a career more suited for you.” I may have been in my mid 20s, but her condescension made me feel like a confused little girl.

I chose the highway. And I never looked back. I found a fantastic graduate advisor at another university. I have a successful career in the space industry spanning multiple disciplines. I’m writing proposals to be a principal investigator in my own research. I’m married with a family. I have hobbies and interests outside of my career. Success is the best revenge.

But she planted doubt in my mind for a long time. Was I really good enough to be a scientist? Was I dedicated enough to succeed? Am I really meant to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of being a scientist? The question itself is nonsensical because I was a scientist long before I went to school for it. It’s who I am at the core. And yet the doubt persists.

The damage was done. Impostor syndrome is why I tolerated a workplace bully in my new graduate lab, a jealous lab manager who mocked my research progress. Impostor syndrome is why I’m still hung up on the fact that I left my PhD program ABD, despite being just as competent at physics as any physics PhD. Impostor syndrome is why I let colleagues at my first full-time job treat me as if I was fresh-out undergrad instead of respecting my well-educated scientific opinions at the level they deserved. Impostor syndrome is why I still let some academics get to me when they insist that I need to go back to school to finish my PhD in order to be equal to them.

Impostor syndrome still haunts me. I hesitate to take certain risks or pursue certain opportunities because of it. And in the back of my head, a little voice asks, “Do I really want to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of it? Do I really want to be a space industry analyst, or do I just like the idea of it?” Never mind that I’m living and doing both. I keep fighting it. I’ll likely be fighting it until the end of my career.

The advisor/student relationship is one of the most important factors in a grad school success. If it goes wrong, get out of there – fast! Leaving my NASA fellowship and university was a tough decision, but it was the right thing to do. I’m better off for it.


  1. How could you possibly be an impostor of you? You are who you are and ANYBODY telling you different is the fraud. You have wealth beyond their imagination. Good for you.

    I followed Rand's link to you.

    1. Yes, I believe you're right. Confidence and being true to myself combats the hesitancy that impostor syndrome creates. Thanks!

  2. I posted this at Rand Simberg's, I don't know if it's representitive of the situation you found yourself in, but I think the warped Human nature of it happens more often that we admit:

    June 22, 2016 At 1:59 PM
    If a control freak (a better term would be “power addict”*) has power over you, the power to really hurt you, pushing back just gets them to demonstrate it.
    Unless there’s an appeal to higher authority (and usually higher authority is too comfortable with their chain of command), the only option is to walk away.

    * I’ve had this with my father, like addicts hooked on gambling or drugs they have to have their fix, and fighting back – if they really do have the power to screw you over, just makes the rush stronger for them when they crush you.
    The difference between them and the Hitler’s of the world is only the size of the pond they swim in.

    1. Power/control is alluring, that's for sure. She had complete power over me academically and professionally, or at least she thought she did. I remember telling people that I felt caught under her thumb. But then I walked away, and she has never had power over me since.

      I'm sorry you had a bad situation with your father. Walking away is never easy. But often it's the right thing to do.

  3. While reading your article I kept thinking of the TV series "Big Bang Theory," in which Sheldon Cooper regularly dismisses Howard Wolowitz as not being a "real scientist" since he "only" has a Masters from MIT, instead of a PhD.

    If you think about it, Howard is very cool, as he designs real stuff which goes into space. The "missing" PhD is, I think, no loss. :)

    1. Ha, that's true! I haven't seen BBT in a while, but I do remember feeling a bit like Howard when intros were like, "Dr Cooper, Dr. Hofstadter, Mr. Wolowitz." But, who cares? What's in a title? My husband has a PhD and no one uses his title. It's just pride.