Feeling like a failure?

Everyone else in the lab is so much smarter and more capable than you and feel that your accomplishments so far in your career are no big deal. On top of that your ligation didn’t work… again.., your boss is always on your back and you are dreading your upcoming poster presentation. Sometimes you feel that you are just not good enough for the job.

You are sure you don’t know enough and need to get more data, read more papers or practice more before you finish your dissertation or give a lecture. And of course you hate making mistakes, which are just more evidence of your ineptitude! In a nutshell, you feel like a failure.

It’s not just you

Unfortunately, about 70 per cent of us will feel this way at some point in our careers, especially when starting a new job. So don’t feel bad if you recognize this frame of mind as your own, because you are not alone.

Imposter syndrome

In most cases these feelings are perturbing but will disappear with time, as we gain experience. But for some people it will turn into what is known as “impostor syndrome”, a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists, Drs Pauline Clance Suzanne Imes (Psychother. Theor. Res. 15, 241–247; 1978).

The “impostor syndrome” is described as the inability to internalize your success and accomplishments. Sufferers think they don’t deserve success, doubt their own abilities, and you need to be perfect at everything. These feelings affect mostly high achievers (especially women); successful people who think their success is due to external factors such as good luck, rather than to their own skills. Of course, this can have a very negative effect in you career, causing you to avoid new opportunities, so limiting your success.

Overcoming a serious case of imposter syndrome will often require some counseling to replace the “faulty” mindset with a new one.

What can you do to overcome feeling like a failure?

Although the general problem will get better itself as you gain experience and confidence, you can help speed things up by doing the following:

  • Learn about it and recognize that you are not alone to avoid feeling isolated.
  • Talk about it with people you trust. Your partner, a good friend, a mentor or coach will support you and help you gain perspective. It’s always very useful and enlightening to see how other people perceive you (that’s how I found out that (1) I am a risk-taker, and (2) not only I’m not a failure for leaving academia, but apparently I’m smart and capable enough to be a geneticist and a professional life coach). What about you?
  • Don’t dismiss external validation. When you receive positive feedback, believe it!
  • Make a list of your strengths and accomplishments. Review it frequently.
  • Be aware of your thoughts. If you find yourself thinking you were ‘lucky’ to get a grant or publish a paper, remind yourself how hard you worked to earn it.
  • Accept that the opposite of perfect is real. You don’t have to know all the answers, you can make mistakes and ask for help, and you can (and will) have a bad day. You have as much right to it as anyone.

I hope these tips help you realize that you are neither alone, nor a failure. And I’d love to hear your opinion and personal experiences on of this problem.

If you want more information and advice about dealing with feeling like a failure in science or coping with impostor syndrome, check out our recent webinar on coping with stress in the lab.

Originally published on 15 February 2010, updated and republished 22 December 2014.

7 Comments

  1. Aida on March 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for your comments, R. It does help knowing that you are not alone, that (unfortunately) most of your colleagues are feeling exactly the same way.

  2. Researchhhhhh on March 2, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Hey Dr.Gil,

    You are very true .I have this feeling all the time running in my head.I honestly feel that this is a great aticle to help ppl like me who always think that I am the only person with this kind of feeling or feeling low always.

    Thanks

    R

  3. preeti on February 18, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Nice article, if its possible to get full PDF of this paper as i cant access it from my university library.

  4. Aida on February 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Micronaut, you are definitely not alone! And I’m glad the article helped you realize of that.

    ABClarke, thank you! I agree with you on that self-confidence is key. The competitiveness and high expectations scientists experience during their career make building self-confidence and self-knowledge a must.

  5. ABClarke on February 16, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Aida. Your analysis and suggestions are excellent. I would add that the enemy of imposter syndome is self-confidence. Your strategies, plus other regular reminders of an individual’s ongoing professional progress, can create a core of self-knowledge and strength that has many different positive applications.

  6. micronaut on February 15, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    I am currently studying for a PhD in a UK University, 3 months into my 2nd year and experiencing Dante’s 9 circles of hell with endless cloning problems. The first paragraph of this article is my life. For the past year or more I have felt like I am an impostor rather than a member of the lab, however I know that the PhD is a training degree that is supposed to provide these situations in order for me to learn.

    This was a timely article that has helped me to step back and consider that many others around the world are also in the same situation and this predicament is probably ingrained in the nature of the life of a scientist.

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