Science Writing Competition Winner: 3rd Place, Brooke Dulka

Brooke is a 5th year Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee studying biological psychology, and her dissertation research is focused on the neurochemistry and neural circuitry of stress resilience. She is also interested in science communication and currently serves as the head editor for Ask a Scientist at UTK.

Below is her entry for the Science Writing Competition that won her 3rd place. Congrats Brooke!

I don’t deserve to be here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that thought since entering graduate school. I feel like a fraud, like I don’t belong here, and, one of these days, someone is going to figure that out. Yes, I have “impostor syndrome.” This phenomenon, the inability to internalize and accept success, was first described by psychologists Imes and Clance in the 1970s. Not only does research suggest that there is a link between feelings of impostor syndrome and depression, women also report higher rates of impostor syndrome then men. Great, like it wasn’t heard enough being a woman in STEM.

I felt the pressure to achieve immediately upon entering graduate school, and it wasn’t long before feelings of fraudulence began to set in. My first project involved brain surgery in mice. My target, the basolateral amygdala, was approximately the width of 5 human hairs; not a task for the faint of heart. Needless to say, my success rate was abysmal. It seemed like it took forever to push the study to completion. But I did, eventually. However, my success publishing the study did nothing to alleviate my feelings of impostor syndrome. I just got lucky, right?

I continued to persevere in graduate school. Still, though, these feelings of being an impostor persist. Is it just low self confidence? Or is there something more to it? And then something happened; I realized I wasn’t alone! We all feel like impostors at times. Moreover, it’s OK to feel like an impostor. It’s healthy if it moves you forward. It all starts by recognizing it exists. But you know what? I don’t think it ever ends. I try to be objective in assessments of my work, I embrace positive feedback, and I take my set-backs in stride. Still though, I feel like a phony.

So there it is. I’m a fraud. All scientists are frauds. We don’t think we do enough, and we don’t think we’re smart enough. And that’s because, well, we aren’t. As scientists, we feel like we can strive towards some greater truth or knowledge. That’s how we grow. And I know we can. But in the meantime, remember you’re not alone, try to make realistic assessments, and finally, get back to work! After all, shouldn’t you be writing?

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