Imposter syndrome and cognitive distortions: some thoughts and poorly drawn cartoons

I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome lately – both because of feeling impostery myself, and because of seeing others who are feeling impostery. I find it helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel like imposters – sometimes I think that pretty much everyone is using the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But it’s also disheartening when I realize that people who I think are fantastic scientists, teachers, and/or communicators also feel like frauds.

There are three particular flavors of imposter syndrome that I’ve particularly been thinking about. I wanted to write a post on them but surprisingly (to me, at least) I could only picture them in cartoon form. I suspect part of the reason for that is the influence of this really great cartoon on filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative. So, here are three poorly drawn cartoons on the topic. I feel a little silly sharing them (yes, of course I’m feeling impostery about a post on imposter syndrome!), but here goes:

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Reflections on the one-year anniversary of my anxiety post, including thoughts on how to support students with anxiety

One year ago, I was sitting at my computer, working on a post in which I talked* about having an anxiety disorder. My hope was that, by being open about having an anxiety disorder, I could help reduce some of the stigma associated with mental health problems, be a more vocal advocate for mental health in academia, and could help other academics with mental health issues know that they are not alone and that help is available and worth seeking. I think the post succeeded in those goals.

Below, I talk more about how people responded, give my thoughts – as well as some crowdsourced from twitter – on how to be a good colleague or advisor to someone with anxiety, talk about ongoing bias against mental health issues in academia and how that might affect early career folks, and summarize some of the key messages that I think are most important related to mental health, anxiety, and academia.

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The story behind my first opinion piece

I recently had my first opinion piece appear. I learned a lot during the process – which, in addition to writing it, included getting feedback on it, pitching it, and working to get it ready for publication. My goal here is to share what the experience was like. I still have a ton to learn, but my hope is that talking about what it was like for me will be useful for others who are just starting their scicomm journeys (or who are considered starting one). And, for people who are more experienced, I’d love to hear more about what it was like for you when you started and what some of the key things are that you’ve learned along the way. (Warning: this ended up getting kind of long!)

 

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All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s early days. So my enthusiasm for the project remains high, but so does my anxiety that I can pull it off. It’s not paralyzing anxiety–most days, I don’t worry about the book at all. I’m too absorbed in working on it, or on whatever other task commands my attention that day. But it’s there.

I’m dealing with that anxiety by identifying specific things I’m anxious about, and addressing them. So here’s a list of all my worries about my book, along with how I’m dealing with them. This is mostly for my own reference, but maybe it will help someone out there to know that even tenured full professors sometimes worry if they’re up to (some aspect of) the job.

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On finding errors in one’s published analyses

Dan Bolnick just had a really important – and, yes, brave – post on finding an error in a published study of his that has led him to retract that study. (The retraction isn’t official yet.) In his post, he does a great job of explaining how the mistake happened (a coding error in R), how he found it (someone tried to recreate his analysis and was unsuccessful), what it means for the analysis (what he thought was a weak trend is actually a nonexistent trend), and what he learned from it (among others, that it’s important to own up to one’s failures, and there are risks in using custom code to analyze data).

This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, largely because I had to correct a paper. It was the most stressful episode of my academic career. During that period, my anxiety was as high as it has ever been. A few people have suggested I should write a blog post about it in the past, but it still felt too raw – just thinking about it was enough to cause an anxiety surge. So, I was a little surprised when my first reaction to reading Dan’s post was that maybe now is the time to write about my similar experience. When Brian wrote a post last year on corrections and retractions in ecology (noting that mistakes will inevitably happen because science is done by humans and humans make mistakes), I still felt like I couldn’t write about it. But now I think I can. Dan and Brian are correct that it’s important to own up to our failures, even though it’s hard. Even though correcting the record is exactly how science is supposed to work (and I did corrected the paper as soon as I discovered the error), it still is something that is very hard for me to talk about.

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The importance of saying yes

In July 2012, I received an email that has had a profound effect on my career and life. The email came from Jeremy. He had begun blogging as part of the editorial board of the journal Oikos, but had resigned from their editorial board, so it no longer made sense to blog there. Instead, he had the idea to start a blog written by a small group of ecologists. The blog was to be named Dynamic Ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for it.

I didn’t sleep that night. There were plenty of reasons to say no. I was preparing to move from my job at Georgia Tech to a new faculty position at Michigan, and would, for that year, have labs running in two places. I would be teaching Introductory Biology in my first semester at Michigan, to hundreds of students. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second child. My first graduate student was working to write up her dissertation. We were setting up new field sites in Michigan. I planned on submitting my tenure dossier the following summer.

Yet, the reason I couldn’t sleep was that I knew I wanted – needed – to say yes, despite all those other things going on. In the months leading up to that, I had been finding myself increasingly interested in speaking out about science and topics related to the process of science, and this was a chance to do just that. I had a hunch that it would end up being an important blog in the ecology community, and that I would regret it if I turned down the opportunity.

So, I wrote back and said yes. I am so glad I did.

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