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Outwitting the imposter

Image: fotorobrt [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

How to succeed on projects outside your comfort zone

It is easy to feel like a fraud. As an early-career academic, it is almost part of the job description. Everyone else seems to know more than you. Everyone else is more effective. Everyone else is just, well, better than you. And it won’t be long until you are exposed as the sham you clearly are.

This misconception is known as ‘imposter syndrome’. At the University of Kent I worked with Caron Fraser Wood, of project consultancy the Mindset Method, in trying to help early-career researchers to recognise, accept and overcome it.

Fraser Wood says the cause of the syndrome is natural: “Partly it is down to your work being ‘open-ended’, with progress difficult to objectively measure, but partly it is down to standing on the shoulders of giants. You are building on the work of others, and you are trained to be critical, to question and to find fault in order to progress. It is natural to do that to yourself as well.”

And it is not just younger researchers who experience this; it never really leaves you, no matter how senior you are. Like any other long-term condition, you learn to live with it rather than being fully cured of it.

Fraser Wood suggests a number of techniques to help with this. Underlying all of her suggestions—and at the heart of imposter syndrome itself—is the question of confidence. As with any irrational fear, having the confidence to open your eyes and look at it directly is a huge step towards dispelling it. If you have the confidence to identify your strengths and achievements but also to accept your limits, you no longer assume that everyone else is better than you. Instead, you see yourself within the continuum.

All well and good. But what should you do when you need to go beyond the comfortable limits of your knowledge and ability? What happens when you are asked to undertake work for which you have no background experience and knowledge?

There will come a time, for instance, when you will be asked to assess a paper or a proposal far removed from your own area. You may even be asked to co-author one. You may be pushed to be the principal investigator on a project that brings together a diverse range of disciplines, many of which you know nothing about.

Method acting

If you look for an answer online, it won’t be long before you come across the lifestyle and career coaches who suggest you should ‘fake it till you make it’, like you’re a character in a 1980s role-swapping comedy. Don’t do that. Cheesy synths and power suits just don’t work for you.

The danger of this approach—aside from the risk of a big-hair collapse—is that it accentuates your shortcomings rather than hiding them. Instead, you should try to understand the skills and knowledge you do have, and be confident in using them as a base for casting off into the unfamiliar.

To me, it’s a little like method acting. No actor is going to have the knowledge and personal experience to play, say, a 17th-century duchess, Frida Kahlo and a modern A&E doctor. Instead, they take the time to understand each role, and use their own life experience as an unconscious prompt for their acting. 

What does this mean in practice? I would suggest that there are three basic principles to help you succeed when you don’t think you have the background or knowledge to do so.

1. Do your homework 

Read around the topic and talk to those who work in the area. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that may seem stupid. This is central to having confidence: not being afraid to appear stupid. Getting the basics right is essential if you are going to have the bedrock in place to build upon.

2. Understand and use your experience

Although you may not understand the specifics of the work you have been asked to do, you will still have relevant experience. In method acting, actors make use of experiences from their own lives to empathise with and inhabit the experience of their characters. As an academic, you may already have done work in an allied area, or have led a smaller or more focused research project. Use your experiences of these to help access the new territory.

3. Be honest 

Although you can do your best to prepare, it is OK to admit when there are parts you don’t know and tasks you can’t undertake. Be open and willing to share with others and take responsibility for any shortcomings. People are much more forgiving with honesty than they are with spin.

These three principles are a starting point, but in new and unfamiliar landscapes you should always be willing, and have the confidence, to adapt. Making it work for you is, ultimately, at the heart of method acting—and it is what will enable you to be convincing in the role.

Phil Ward is director of the Eastern Arc university consortium

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com