Thursday, March 5, 2015

Teach Your Kids About Imposter Syndrome

Confidence can be a particularly hard thing to have in science where so much emphasis is placed on natural brilliance. Failures, no matter how small, are easy to consider a failure of your own intelligence.
Frankly... that's bullshit. And this bullshit mentality of "ruh-roh Major Revisions? I AM ALL THE STUPID" is something that strikes women particularly hard, and may be partially to blame for low female and minority involvement in STEM fields. 

Many of the undergraduate students Meaghan interacts with (including ones in her lab) shy away from grant writing, publications and school applications on the basis of not being "Good Enough." Meaghan has overheard more than just a handful of comments along the lines of "that's just so intimidating!" and "but my GPA isn't that high" or "but so-and-so did this and they're so much more accomplished than me." She decided that for the lab meeting she was running this term, the lab would sit down and talk about the perils of interpersonal comparison and low confidence. The lab was pretty interesting, and hopefully at least a little helpful, so we are presenting this lesson plan here for our readers as well as their friends, students, and coworkers. 

First off: I (Meaghan) assigned different readings to everyone in the lab group, assigned to whoever would find the reading rang true with their particular variant of imposter syndrome. Because people in the lab also had varying levels of experience reading scientific papers (we had a High School intern), and because not everything gloriously revealing about imposter syndrome is in short, interesting-to-read-format, some of the readings were from blogs or were actually watchings (aka available via the magic of YouTube). Both of our paleontology faculty members were present, and had read most of the citations; fortunately, a paper had just come out on stereotype threat and women's participation in science (SO CONVENIENT!)

The complete citation list (including some we didn't end up using) is as follows:

Group 1: Clear and Coherent Writing
Koppelman, Gerard H., and John W. Holloway. "Successful grant writing." Paediatric respiratory reviews 13.1 (2012): 63-66.
"Twenty-One Suggestions for Writing Good Scientific Papers: Notes on Writing Papers and Theses." Winona State University.
Ownby, Raymond L. "Influence of vocabulary and sentence complexity and passive voice on the readability of consumer-oriented mental health information on the internet." AMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings. Vol. 2005. American Medical Informatics Association, 2005.

Franzblau, Lauren E., Sandra V. Kotsis, and Kevin C. Chung. "Scientific writing for enjoyable reading: how to incorporate style into scientific manuscripts." Plastic and reconstructive surgery 129.2 (2012): 543-545.

Group 2: Gender Differences in Grants and Writing
Atwater, A., and Emery, M. 2013. "Awards for Amos not for Amy."

Barrette, E. "Do Men and Women really write differently?" The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Kraewetz, N. 2006. "HackerFactor Gender Guesser."

Group 3: Confidence and Imposter Syndrome

Cuddy, A. 2012. "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are." TedGlobal Ted Talks.

Ross, John A., Garth Scott, and Catherine D. Bruce. "The Gender Confidence Gap in Fractions Knowledge: Gender Differences in Student Belief–Achievement Relationships." School Science and Mathematics 112.5 (2012): 278-288.
Jakobsson, Niklas. "Gender and confidence: are women under-confident?." Applied Economics Letters 19.11 (2012): 1057-1059.

Lundeberg, Mary A., Paul W. Fox, and Judith Punćcohaŕ. "Highly confident but wrong: gender differences and similarities in confidence judgments." Journal of educational psychology 86.1 (1994): 114.
Leslie, Sarah-Jane, et al. "Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines." Science 347.6219 (2015): 262-265.


Part 1: Find Your Themes

The lab started with pairing people off into the above core theme groups. I asked the participants to tell each other what their paper was about, and figure out what the central core was that linked them together. I also asked for them compile a list of the Buzz Words or concepts that linked their assignments. Once the groups had talked for a bit, I handed out different questions to each group and told them to discuss the answers and be prepared to answer the questions on the paper later when asked. These were basic questions related to their core themes, and they were told they could work on them together or answer them independently. The goal was that because each student had completed an independent reading they would therefore be an expert in that topic; because they'd talked about it with a small break-out group, they'd hopefully feel more confident talking about it front of the overall group.

Part 2: Readability and Good Grant Writing

Once they'd had time to parse out some of the answers to the questions, I asked them to enter some of their own text into an online readability score calculator. Using the projector I entered text from a paper we had recently read in a different lab meeting and all found difficult to understand. I asked what they thought of the metrics, but didn't explain how they were calculated; they asked, but I told them to stop skipping ahead goddamn it and focus on the task at hand.

The "How to Write Good Grants" Group then presented their questions and their answers, and we discussed grant writing. Their questions were as follows:

What is the passive voice, and what affect does it have on readability?
How many people use the passive voice when writing science?
What are some key points to consider when writing grants?
How can you make writing papers enjoyable for others to read without compromising content? 

I told them how the readability scores were generated, which essentially gives you a harder grade if you have more syllables per word and more words per sentence (with variation between metrics).  I asked the group whether any of the things we just talked about were included in their readability score, and whether scoring harder grade numbers or lower readability was a bad thing. I asked this because it was something my advisors had cautioned about early on, and something that I'd heard in a lot of poster workshops or writing workshops: if you are genuinely so good at communicating your research that anyone feels they could have done that research, it can make your research seem less sexy. This is stupid, but anecdotally it's something I think is probably true. There's always a good balance to be had, but sometimes sacrificing clear communication for a little purposeful obfuscation must have a pay-off... and I know off hand of a dozen or so papers who must have been boosted by this fact or I don't know how they would have gotten published.  

Part 3: Gender Guesser
We moved on, took the same text and entered it into the Gender Guesser. The guesser requires 300 words of text; we analyzed ours together and compared results. One of our students asked me why I was so excited to constantly come out male, and I told him to STOP FUCKING JUMPING AHEAD JESUS CHRIST WHY IS EVERYONE IN HERE SO SMART AND IMPATIENT.

Anyway. Once everyone had determined that our research writing by and large came out as "Strong Male" but that letters to our mothers came out as European Males or possibly even female, we moved on to questions about the role that gender plays in grant writing, specifically:

How do men and women write differently? What are some of the common traits?

Tell us a little bit about lady funding rates. Are they… good?? HAHAHAHA NOPE

I then revealed why I was so exuberant to have scored strongly male on my research, and weakly male on this blog: I have this horrible, sinking, feeling that even without my name it's possible that a person could intuit I was a woman from my writing and use that to (consciously or unconsciously) discriminate against me. I also asked the group to discuss some ideas about the gender guesser, like whether or not  "male" on the gender guesser actually means you write better, or potentially write things in the same style as the people who are reading your grant (as many top scientists are men). Is this a bad thing? Does it mean you're writing science for the current audience who is reading science? 


Part 4: Confidence and Imposter Syndrome

Once we wrapped up that discussion, and honestly I think we could have gone on there for a while, I moved into the factors that might prevent you from applying from these grants, let alone actually receiving... confidence. I asked the confidence group to present their questions and responses:
What is the confidence gap? How do you think that affects grant writing?

What is imposter syndrome? What are some ways of combating it?

How does stereotype threat affect women’s participation in science?

This led pretty naturally into my none-too-unexpected-reveal, that I had in fact chosen all these papers because I felt this was a problem in our lab. And it is a problem in our lab, and it is probably a problem in your lab too: imposter syndrome is rampant in the scientific community.


 Conclusions and Reflections
I am not Captain Subtle, as you may have noticed from our blog's obsession with genitalia. I targeted my paper assignments pretty closely, and I did not fail to make that clear from the get-go. This wasn't so much a subtle "Let's be better at grant writing and um some people here (COUGH COUGH LADIES) might want to be a bit more confident" as it was a "AND YOU HAVE IMPOSTER SYNDROME," and "YOU NEED TO BE MORE CONFIDENT IN YOUR MATH ABILITIES" sort of fiasco. Fortunately, nobody took it personally.

More and more excellent research on minority and female participation in science (and why it is so lacking!) comes out every day. Sharing this research with our lab group was helpful for our students, but will also be helpful for me; now when I hear our lab group talking in a way that reeks of passivity and low confidence I can just spin around, point aggressively and yell "IMPOSTER SYNDROME!!!!" then stalk off.
Like the Oprah of recognizing your internalized oppression!

It really cuts down on time spent having to explain myself!

But seriously. Talk to your kids/coworkers/labmates/professors/therapist about Imposter Syndrome. Know the signs so you can identify it in yourself.  Constant feelings of inadequacy can drive people to work impossibly hard and burn out. Talking about Imposter Syndrome may not fix that problem, but it is certainly a good place to start.

Maybe if we all start acknowledging that all of us have it, we'll eventually be able to eradicate it.