By Laura Ornelas, Ph.D.
As a junior investigator in academia, I understand firsthand the significant impact imposter syndrome can have on one’s mental health and well-being. While academia has been a place where I have matured as a research scientist and experienced many achievements, it is also an environment that is comprised of pressures that can lead to feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and lack of confidence. These experiences can lead counterproductive behaviors to compensate for feelings of inadequacy, which may ultimately lead to burnout rather than progress.
As a postdoc, pressure situations such as publishing manuscripts, submitting training and career development grants, and starting to develop my own independent research, all while attempting to maintain healthy work-life boundaries can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome. Especially if these feelings of self-doubt lead to comparing myself to others. In addition, letting these feelings ruminate and lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety is not healthy. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out mentorship and guidance from fellow trainees, colleagues or senior investigators when trying to alleviate imposter syndrome. Asking for support from my postdoctoral advisor and other mentors in my department has been the driving force in coping with imposter syndrome. Not only have they gone through similar experiences, but they also gave me insight and tips on separating my feelings from facts. First, while easier said than done, comparing myself to others is counterproductive to my successes and only leads to demoralizing thoughts. Second, success is not just defined by grants funded or accepted publications. There are many other career and professional accomplishments such as teaching, mentorship, invited research talks, attending conferences to present research and community outreach that show productivity and contributions to career development. Third, do not be afraid to admit when I need help or am struggling. Yes, we hold ourselves to very high standards; however, it is not a sign of weakness when feeling overwhelmed and cannot complete a task or project on my own. Lastly, never forget that I deserve to be where I am in my career.
Furthermore, as a Hispanic female, I recognize the importance of representation in science and the impact that seeing examples of people who look like me or share my background can have on my successes. I understand that under-represented minorities are more likely to experience barriers that can affect their professional growth and lead to negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy. Therefore, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help increase diversity in science and educate young individuals of all under-represented minority groups in strategies to overcome adversity in science. I am committed to mentoring under-represented racial and ethnic minorities, especially women, on challenges they may experience or may face in the future as an under-represented minority scientist. I want to lead by example and be a role model that young Hispanic female trainees can look up to. I personally believe this type of mentorship can help young scientists navigate feelings of imposter syndrome.
Overall, my advice is to challenge your own imposter experiences by asking for support. Remember you are not alone. Do not undersell your achievements and accomplishments! Celebrate your value, knowledge, and all you have succeeded in your professional journey.
Laura C. Ornelas, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
School of Medicine