Tenured Professor Rogers Talks About: Imposter Syndrome
“Won’t you please? Won’t you please? Please won’t you be my colleague?”
Professor Rogers finishes singing, and finishes tying his shoelaces, and smiles at you. “Hi, colleague. How are you doing this beautiful day?” He stands, tugging on the hem of his pastel yellow cardigan. He is still smiling at you as he walks over to the fish tank and tap-tap-taps some flakes inside. He also smiles at the fish.
“The weather is beautiful today. I took some time to sit outside in between classes. But even though it was sunny and the people around me looked happy, I was a little sad today. Do you know why I was sad?” He puts an elbow on the kitchen counter and leans on it, watching you. You desperately want to know why he was sad; it is difficult to imagine him being sad about anything.
“I was a little sad because I had a journal article rejected today. I got the email right before lunch, and it could have ruined my whole day. But do you know what I did?” He walks over to the table and sits down. “I opened up the document, and then I re-saved it again, this time as ‘revised article.’ Do you know what revised means? It’s just another way of saying ‘even better.’ So now I am writing an even better article. Isn’t that exciting?”
Of course you’re nodding, when he puts it like that.
“Though that doesn’t mean I’m not still sad,” he adds. “It’s okay to be sad about a rejection.” He purses his lips as he looks at you, serious and kind. “Some days, doing the best we can may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.”
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a six-sided die. He turns it over and over in his hands. “It’s also important to remember that even when you do your very best, there are things that are out of your control, like who reviews your paper. There is some degree of randomness involved in all kinds of things when it comes to academic success. Like, where you get a faculty job depends on where there happen to be job openings the year you apply.” He rolls the die, and it lands on a two. “Sometimes the randomness has a bad result.” He rolls it again. A five this time. “But sometimes it works in your favor.”
He pushes the chair back and gets to his feet, though then he picks up the die and rolls it one more time. It lands on a six. “And remember, often out of periods of losing come the greatest striving toward a new winning streak.”
You give him a quizzical look, and as he smiles serenely at you, it is as if he’s read your mind. “You’re probably wondering, why bother doing this at all, if it’s such a gamble? Well, it’s not actually a gamble, of course! The better the work you do, the less the randomness matters. There are some things you can’t control, but many you can. I can’t control whether it rains today…” He mimes opening an umbrella. “But I can be smart about the possibility! And all good research will find its home eventually, because the more you improve it, the better your odds, until the die hardly matters at all.”
He puts the die neatly back in his pocket and then walks over to sit on the seat by the window, in front of the trolley tracks. He starts to say something, but then you see that the trolley is already rolling into view behind him. And sitting on top of the trolley is Daniel Striped Tiger!
Professor Rogers turns and looks, his expression showing genuine surprise, and then happiness when he sees Daniel. “Well, hello there, Daniel Striped Tiger,” he says. “What are you doing out of Make Believe University?”
“Oh hello, Professor Rogers,” says Daniel. He looks down, then up again. Professor Rogers’ smile is kind. Daniel looks at him, and then looks out at you, a little less shy. “I’m here because… I’m not sure that I belong there, Professor Rogers. I think maybe I’m not cut out to get a PhD. I feel like such an imposter.”
You can’t help but feel sympathy for Daniel, who looks so sad.
“By imposter do you mean that you feel like you’re just pretending to be a researcher?” asks Professor Rogers.
“That’s right,” Daniel Striped Tiger says. “I feel like I’m just faking it, but everybody knows! I just think it might all be… a mistake.”
“Oh Daniel,” says Professor Rogers kindly. “Do you want to tell me why you’re feeling that way?”
Daniel still looks a little nervous, and he wrings his paws as he sings quietly:
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m an imposter
The others I know seem much faster and smarter
When I’m asleep or even awake
Sometimes I start dreaming that I’m just a fake
Others I know have ten papers already
I just have lots of rejections, mistakes
Most of the time the reviewers all hate me
I don’t know how I got here, I’m just a fake…”
Professor Rogers listens to him, his attention away from you and entirely on the small tiger who seems so sad. Then after a second, he starts to sing, too:
“I think you are just fine where you are
I really must tell you, I do like the work you do
When you are sleeping, when you are waking
There’s no mistaking
You’re no imposter, you’re not a fake
You are the only one doing what you do…”
The song ends on a happier note than Daniel’s had, and Daniel looks a little less sad. “It is good to know that you believe in me, Professor Rogers, but I’m not sure anyone else does. Besides, what do you know about feeling like an imposter? You are not a PhD student like me. You are a tenured professor.”
“Well, I’ll tell you a secret, Daniel,” Professor Rogers says solemnly. “I do know what that feeling is like. I felt it a lot when I was a student like you, but also I still feel it now.”
“Now?” gasps Daniel in disbelief.
“Yes, now,” Professor Rogers says. “In fact, we were just talking about how I had an article rejected just today. Sometimes it is easy to think that everyone else is more successful than we are. But everyone feels this way, even those others that you think are faster and smarter than you. Even tenured professors. After all, we know more about our own failures than anyone else’s, right?”
Daniel frowns a little, but then nods. “I suppose we do. People talk more about their success.”
“But negative outcomes come at a faster rate than positive outcomes when you’re a researcher,” Professor Roger adds, “so not only can it feel like you’re always doing worse than you are, but also, you don’t see how many failures it took for someone else to get to a success. So since you see all your own negative outcomes, it always looks like everyone else is doing better than you!”
This, you think, is a really good point. Daniel seems to agree, though after a moment he says solemnly, “I just can’t stop thinking about the bad things, though.”
“That’s okay, Daniel, we often remember negative experiences even more than positive ones. We tell the good stories about ourselves, but then we keep thinking about the bad things that happened. Just know that everyone else is doing the same thing.”
“Even me,” Professor Rogers promises him. “But just like me, you’ll have good stories to tell sometimes, too.”
“But… but how do I even know that any ideas I have are good at all? What if I spend all this time doing something that just isn’t good enough?”
Professor Rogers smiles at him, and then looks at you. “I’ve often hesitated in beginning a project because I’ve thought it’ll never turn out to be even remotely like the good idea I have as I start. But I decided that I should do things the best way I know how and accept the ambiguities.”
Daniel Striped Tiger does not look convinced. “But what if it doesn’t turn out well in the end? What if I just keep failing?”
“Everyone fails a little bit, Daniel,” Professor Rogers says kindly. “If you never make mistakes, you never get better. Tell me, do you like the research you are doing?”
“Well, yes. I think it’s good and interesting and new, but no one else seems to think so!”
Professor Rogers looks thoughtful for a moment. “You know, the thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing… and it seems to have very little to do with success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love sharing it with others.” He reaches out and pats Daniel’s little paw. “But they are successful. Sometimes it just takes time. Did you know that I didn’t publish my first paper until I was almost done with my fourth year as a PhD student?”
Daniel gasps again. “Really?”
“Yes, really. But I loved my research, so I kept doing it. No work was ever wasted. But you know, I was sad sometimes, just like you. I thought that everyone else was better than me. I still think that now, sometimes. But you know what it means if everyone thinks that way?”
Daniel’s furry brow furrows. “It means that no one actually belongs?”
“That’s right,” says Professor Rogers, nodding. “And that feeling of faking it is so strong in academia because our field depends on questioning and critiquing each other’s work. But lots of people feel like they’re faking it — when you become a new parent, or get a new job, or write a novel. But right now, the important thing for you to remember is that you are the only one in the whole world who is doing exactly what you do. That is what getting a PhD is all about. No matter what happens to your paper, just in writing it you have produced brand new knowledge that didn’t exist in the world before. Regardless of the outcomes, I’m proud of you for all the times that what you did was the very best you had ever done.”
“If I’m doing things that no one else is doing, then that means that we can all belong,” Daniel says, brightening a little.
“That’s right,” says Professor Rogers. “But if you keep working hard, someday you’ll find that other people will think that you are faster and smarter. Maybe they already do!”
“Thank you, Professor Rogers,” Daniel says. “I think maybe I’ll go back to Make Believe University for now, and keep working on my research. I guess it’s important that I just be my very best, and not worry about whether I belong.”
“I can’t wait to see what else you do, Daniel,” Professor Rogers says.
Daniel waves at you as the trolley choo-choos along the window and back out of sight.
Professor Rogers stands up again, and smiles at you as he walks back over to where he left his work shoes. “I’m glad that Daniel Striped Tiger came to talk to me,” he says. “It takes strength to reach out for help when you need it. Remember, often when you feel something that’s not a nice feeling, other people know just how you feel.”
He unties his sneakers and puts his other shoes back on, so you know that your visit to Professor Rogers is almost over. “You know, a positive attitude is an important part of success in your work,” he says. “That attitude can have a lot to do with how we accept challenges, how we can cope with failures, and whether we can find the inner fulfillment that makes working, in and of itself, worthwhile.”
He stands up again, and walks over to the closet. He unbuttons his yellow cardigan, and takes it off to put it neatly on a hanger. “I think that Daniel will be successful because he enjoys what he does, and he works hard and wishes for success, even if he finds it hard to see his way towards it. What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, of course, but the main one, I think, is whether we link our wishes to our work. It may take months or years, but it’s far more likely to happen when we care so much that we’ll work as hard as we can to make it happen.”
He takes his coat jacket off another hanger and slips it on. He looks more like a professor again. “I’m going to go work a bit on my revision — on my even better journal article. I’m excited about the brand new ideas that I’m sure I can still get out into the world. I know that you have brand new ideas that you’re excited about, too. And I hope that you’ll talk to your other colleagues about these things, on the days when you feel like a fake.”
He looks right at you, and smiles. “It was nice to talk to you today. I’m glad we’re colleagues. Thanks for helping make this a special day just by being you.”
I grew up on a steady diet of Mr. Rogers in the eighties and nineties. I remember how much I liked the show, but not precisely why — until I recently saw the Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary. (Confession: I definitely teared up a couple of times.) I happened to see the film the same day that I wrote a twitter thread about imposter syndrome, and I couldn’t help but think that a lot of Mr. Rogers’ advice resonated with the kinds of anxieties that I have and that I see other academics have, especially those just starting out. A lot of his advice I probably needed more at 25 than I did at 5.
There has been criticism of Mr. Rogers as the children of my generation grew into adults, that perhaps all his lessons about how we’re fine just as we are made us entitled, made us think that we’re special without having to earn it. But within his messages of tolerance, love for yourself, and the value of every person, were also messages about hard work and being better people. I think there’s a lot we can learn from him.
P.S. My first first-author paper about my own research wasn’t published until my fifth year as a PhD student. (Also note that I come out of computer science, so Professor Rogers’ and Daniel’s experiences are based on my own; in some fields, this would not be unusual at all!) Also, “don’t compare yourself to others” is, even though it’s really hard, one of my #1 pieces of advice for PhD students:
The passages in bold in this story are real quotes from Mr. Rogers, all drawn from the book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, published in 2003 by Hachette Books.
Let’s make a snappy new day!