STEM Outreach Notts

UoN's Science Outreach Society


September 2016

Guest Blog: Who am I? The case of the imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome differential diagnosis:

Have you ever had that feeling where you suddenly realise that you are being trusted to carry out thousands of pounds’ worth of experiments and investigations, or given heavy responsibility in any scenario, and you think to yourself – why me? I’m not skilled enough to do this? I don’t know what this means? I’m just a fraud, when will they realise I’m faking it? If so – then you’ve come down with a case of imposter syndrome.

What is it?

Imposter syndrome (or fraud syndrome) dates back to 1978, when two clinical psychologists – Dr Clance and Dr Imes – published their observations in Psychotherapy. The authors used the term ‘imposter phenomenon’ to describe high achieving individuals who internalised their ‘intellectual phoniness’. Despite the subgroup of individuals’ numerous achievements and successes, they believed that they were really not very bright and had instead just managed to fool everyone who ever questioned them. Seem familiar? This syndrome breeds wildly in high stress and competitive environments *cough cough* academia.  It is certain that it also manifests in other sectors such as business and medicine. It is often speculated among colleagues that excelling in a career is, in part, a complete ego and confidence trick (fake it till you make it!).

Imposter syndrome is not perceived as a mental disorder, but is thought to be a reaction developed to certain situations, and is thought that certain people are more prone to experience imposter syndrome dependent on their personality. Clance and Imes explained that there are four main traits of imposter syndrome:

  1. Diligence – high achievers work hard to get where they are, and when they feel like an imposter, they work even harder to prevent people from discovering that they are ‘faking it’. This hard work leads to more praise, more success and more achievement, which only acts to perpetuate the original feeling of faking it.
  2. Feeling phony – imposters attempt to give their superiors the answers that they want to hear, rather than what they truly believe, furthering the imposter feeling.
  3. Charm – high achievers often use intuition, perceptiveness and charm, and seek out superiors and mentors who will help them develop their abilities. When praised for developing such abilities, they feel like the praise is based on the charm, rather than the ability.
  4. Avoiding a display of confidence – a person with imposter syndrome may think that if they actually believe in themselves their abilities may still be rejected by others – convincing themselves that they are not intelligent and do not deserve their successes.

‘Imposters’ are not alone though, up to 70% of people will consider themselves frauds at some point in their lives, and up to 40% of successful people consider themselves to be faking it. Famous examples of imposter syndrome include Tommy Cooper, Neil Gaiman and Emma Watson.


As imposter syndrome is not a formal mental disorder, it does not have a standardised treatment. However, if imposter syndrome is not recognised and continues to perpetuate, it can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. One of the main ways of addressing imposter syndrome is talking about it, discussing with people early on in their career path, with mentors reflecting on their experiences of imposter syndrome, and remembering – you are not alone. Many people who suffer believe that they are the only ones, but many other people endure feelings of inadequacy.


It is key to talk about what you are feeling, to open up the discussion and reflect on your feelings, list your accomplishments and listen to positive feedback and your own successes. The key to tackling this is a strong support system. Remember you are in control, and think of how far you’ve come. The next time you come down with imposter syndrome – don’t panic – it’s OK, you’ve got this! Take a few deep breaths and take it one step at a time. No, you haven’t fooled everyone you’ve ever met – and you do deserve what you have achieved :).

Dr M Yates

Matt Yates gained his PhD in 2014 studying the role of macrophage migration in neuropathic pain and atherosclerosis. His interests lie in psychobiology, haematology and dogs. He is currently working in a clinical haematology field.

Dilemma in academia – catch 22?

In relation to job attainment, the term ‘overqualified’ should be smothered deep within the stiff interview jackets and declined beverage offers. But despite attempts (if any) to restrict its emergence, ‘overqualified’ has groped its way to the top of job offer discussions. Its beastly, boastful nature is out of place in career decisions, but stubbornly sits there, waiting to prod the balance towards acceptance or declination.

In effect, someone may be offered a position that they are overqualified for, because of their opulent experience. Conversely, this may be grounds for a declined offer, the surmounting qualifications arising suspicion to the applicant’s role commitment. Additionally, and more disrupting, someone may not be accepted for a position they are perfectly suited for and wholly capable of, if an ‘overqualified’ applicant is preferred, as in the first instance. But why would this maestro apply (and settle for a less well paid job)? – well, this is where the grumbling dilemma in academia is unapologetically rooted. The dysfunctional disturbance of ‘over-qualification’ increases the expectation of qualification levels which continues in a claustrophobic cycle – catch 22.

There are not enough post-doc jobs and tenured positions to accommodate the expanding PhD cohorts across Europe.  The sector is currently over-subscribed and unsustainable. Only a shrinking proportion manage to squeeze into a continued academic career, leading to a bulging pressure and stress in the field, the so-called ‘pipeline disaster’. This results in many unsatisfied employees doing jobs they are overqualified for, qualified individuals feeling under-qualified and not attaining their career goals, and many begrudging years of short-term contracts and instability. In accomplice, the ‘publish or perish’ mantra and hostile competitiveness are triumphant.

Funding, the looming back throttle of research, should increase focus on creating jobs after PhDs and more long-term positions. Those doing PhDs must be made aware of the opportunities that exist in industry and other employment sectors outside of research and academia. Career advice at all levels of education needs to be less conservative and more obtuse. Independent critical thinking and project management are among the rushing stream of skills that can be applied to a multitude of careers. Why not start your own business, traverse into journalism, communications, or government advisory boards? A PhD should be viewed as a training, not a predisposition to professorship. Students should be encouraged to use their PhDs more effectively, confidently, and wholly. While more and fairer opportunities for those truly wishing to grapple an academic life are urgently required.

What are your opinions? Please get in contact with us via email, Facebook or Twitter, or comment below. Thanks for reading!


The BIG and the little of it

A hairy depiction of a crazed scientist running around with exciting coloured liquids is, in a very small way, true (‘no running in the lab’ woops!). We do spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with liquids, albeit normally colourless, depending on the discipline. Lab based research requires some tiresome patience and tedious repetitive motions – all too often involving pipetting the tiniest amounts of solutions from one tube to another – I mean way, way too often. After a couple days like this you really do feel like a little lab machine! In the end, hopefully, your eyes regain their sight and the bigger picture of your research will come into focus when you produce some meaningful results. That, in one way, is the big and the little of research.

The even bigger picture to discuss is study design. You can spend as many hours as you want in the lab until you get pipetting induced hand strain, but it will all be meaningless if you haven’t planned your experiment properly – and you can definitely save time by thinking things out before rather than later (begrudging advice from experience). For those with a general interest in science and wanting to be able to critically appraise the (please don’t do it) Daily Mail articles…study design on a whole weighs a huge bearing when appreciating research.

Science doesn’t come without its politics and there is a hierarchy to study design itself definitely worth noting. Moving away from actual experimental design and onto population-based research, at the bottom of the triangle are cross-sectional observational studies which analyse data at a certain point in time such as at an epidemiological level e.g. cancer and smoking. They are not longitudinal in design so no cause-effect can be established but they often provide a good starting point for further investigations and showing changing population trends.

Case-control studies generally use retrospective factors to try and identify contributors to a disease e.g. comparing people with a common outcome/disease of interest and those without, and looking back in time to see any influencing risk factors unique to the outcome/disease group.

Cohort studies are usually longitudinal and groups of people of interest are followed up prospectively with respect to a disease or outcome of interest to try and identify risk factors.

Randomised control trials are reaching for the stars top of the hierarchy as they test hypotheses created from preliminary observations. However, these studies are not always feasible – for example a trial on whether smoking caused cancer.

Finally, systematic reviews and meta-analyses are the most reliable sources of information as they pull together all the research conducted on a topic and amalgamate a single conclusion. Each study design has its merits and faults and The BMJ has a good resource for anyone really interested.

The type of study being discussed and the amount of volunteers involved are two things I would recommend noting before deciding that you need to drink 3 glasses of champagne every night ;). We will discuss more issues to recognise in upcoming posts :).

As always, please contact us if you would like to participate an article or have any requests – we’d love to hear from you.



Article of the week

Starting off our series of Naked Science is an article published in Nature that has caught the attention of a few news reporters recently, and well-deservedly so. The article delivers positive results from a phase 2 clinical trial investigating a new drug, called aducanumab, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The researchers examined effects of a number of doses of this drug that targets and reduces amyloid-β plaques in the brain, which are characteristic of AD. These plaques are thought to be the primary cause of the neuro-degenerative disease and there are currently no treatments that target any underlying origins of AD.

The trial was well-designed throughout on a number of bases. It was double-blinded, meaning that the patients nor the researchers knew which treatment they were receiving, only a designated pharmacist or technician, which removes a major source of bias. The 165 patients initially included in the study were randomly assigned to receive either the drug or a placebo, by IV infusion every month for 1 year. The groups were generally well-matched before the start of the trial. Those included had to be between 50-90 years of age, have diagnosed early stage or mild AD, and have no other confounding pathology. Unfortunately, 40 patients dropped out of the study due to adverse side effects or withdrew consent. Side effects reported included headaches, urinary tract infections, imaging abnormalities and upper respiratory tract infections.

PET scan images of the brain before and following treatment or placebo showed significant reduction in the amyloid plaques in the treatment groups, in a time and dose-dependent manner. There were no improvements in the placebo group. A number of tests used to assess AD such as the Mini Mental State Examination showed that the treated patients had concurrently improved cognitive scores at the end of the trial, meaning less memory decline.

The results of this study truly are encouraging as it was a meticulous clinical trial conducted in people, demonstrating a promising reduction in the hallmark amyloid plaques and improved clinical cognitive outcomes after just 1 year of treatment. The next phase of trials is ongoing, including in the UK, to define optimum tolerable doses and longer-term effects which should be completed in 2020. It will be necessary for further studies to be completed with greater numbers of participants and in wider regions and ethnic groups. The study was not designed to measure cognitive outcomes in particular so more in depth studies will be required to hopefully confirm these preliminary findings.

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society said:
‘These results are the most detailed and promising that we’ve seen for a drug that aims to modify the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease.’

It certainly is an exciting piece of research on a very worthy cause. 1 in 6 people aged over 80 years have dementia, extending to 1 million people by 2025. Watch this space!


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