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November 9, 2017 / jpschimel

What the hell am I doing here? Impostor syndrome and role models

Yesterday I spent much of the day suffering from an acute case of Impostor Syndrome. I was in Oakland for the University of California Academic Planning Council meeting. This is a small group run by the Provost of the entire UC system and populated by two Executive Vice Chancellors, a few Deans, and leaders of the UC Academic Senate. It’s effectively UC’s “Council of Elrond”: the top-level academic planning group for all UC, the world’s preeminent University system. How on Earth did they let me into that room? All the way up through College, I was the classic middle-child underachiever; the kid overshadowed by more driven siblings who teachers said “could do well if only he applied himself.” So, yes, I spent much of the day with an intense case of impostor syndrome. OK, I am Chair of the UC Council on Planning on Budget—but that just shifts the question—how the hell did I get there?

Being here was never my goal or early career vision. When I started as an Assistant Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, my goals were simple: I wanted my colleagues to not think I was an idiot, and to not think I was an asshole. I’m pretty confident I’ve achieved the first, and I think I’ve mostly achieved the second. Everything after has been gravy.

This was particularly apropos of one main line of discussion—how to improve mentoring at UC? The issue of role models naturally arose. Many students look at us and are turned off academe. I noted that in some ways we are terrible role models, simply because, no matter how extreme our own personal cases of impostor syndrome might be, we have become among the most successful and accomplished academics in the country. Our lives can intimidate our students.

I remember well hitting the halfway-through-my-Ph.D. emotional crisis. I looked at my Ph.D. advisor, Mary Firestone, and thought “I’m never going to be a Mary, so is there any point in doing this?” Mary was a wonderful mentor, but if she were the reference standard for what an academic is, she was a terrible role model. Even though she was only an Assistant Professor, she was already clearly awesome in a way I could never envisage being.

Equally, I looked at all the things Mary was doing and the way senior people in the field lived their lives—if this is Tuesday I must be in Washington. I said “I want to not do that. I want to do science. I don’t want to live my life on airplanes and in meetings.”

But then some years later, when I was getting home from yet another trip, I looked at what I was doing and asked “Uh, Josh, isn’t this what you said you didn’t want to do?”

So how did that happen? And how does all this feed into UC’s mentoring challenge? I think there are two important messages that we need to do a better job of communicating.

First and most importantly, you don’t need to become us. Being a professor at a top-tier research university is only one way to pursue an academic career. I started my career as an assistant professor at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was a great place to launch a career: wonderful research opportunities, terrific colleagues, and a great community in IAB and in Fairbanks. Yeah, UAF was often amateurish and dysfunctional—a place some third-tier wanna-be administrators went to try to build their careers, and where I felt that as long as I was breathing I needn’t worry about tenure. But that mostly freed me to have fun and do cool science without a lot of stress! I remain very close to, and grateful to, IAB. I didn’t leave out of ambition, frustration, or even because I’d had enough of -40° weather, but to be with the love of my life; landing a job at UCSB seemed just good luck. I’m sure that, had I stayed at UAF, my career would have taken a different path, but that would have been fine. Various of my students and postdocs have taken jobs at universities where the pressures are less intense, including a few who’ve taken jobs at teaching colleges. They’re productive and happy, which is what matters. You don’t need to become a “Mary Firestone” to be successful and content. You don’t need to join United’s Million-Mile club to succeed in academe (or even at UC!). Other paths (in and out of academe) are deeply fulfilling.

My second insight in the room yesterday was that when I was a student, I knew I’d never be a “Mary.” But, I was wrong. I’d never planned or anticipated it, but I have become a big-wig in my field, and even within UC. When I was a student, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and to do research. I thought I wanted to be a university professor. But I didn’t really know what that meant. Much of the service work I saw faculty involved in seemed like unappealing distraction, but I’ve grown into the larger role and come to value the higher-level service. It allows me to support my community and to tend the “ecosystem” that has nurtured me. Service work may not be fun the way playing with a new data set is or like doing field work with graduate students, but it is rewarding and emotionally satisfying. I don’t do it because I have to, but because I choose to.

As my understanding of what being an academic is has grown, so too, has my willingness and desire to take on those service and leadership roles. They may still be intimidating and cause impostor syndrome, but my growth from the intimidated Ph.D. student to the UC Full Professor wasn’t a magical jump, but a slow evolution, one that resulted from my own decisions. I could have said “no.”

For me, those points sum up several aspects of UC’s role-model problem: the faculty that students most want to work with may be imperfect role models for most of those students. How do we do a better job of getting across the message that they don’t have to become us to be successful and happy. Or that those students might just surprise themselves one day by looking around a meeting room and asking “What the hell am I doing here?”

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