Imposter Syndrome

“It seems like whenever I have a problem and I go to StackExchange, I almost always get a response like

“Well obviously you have to pass your indexed features into a Regix 3D optimizer before regressing every i-th observation over a random jungle and then store your results in a data lake to check if your normalization criteria is met.”

It’s like where are these guys learning this stuff?”

Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome

Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include (reference):

  • Self-doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Setting incredibly challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many Data Scientists question whether they are deserving of accolades, their job, recognition, or the like.

  • You do not have enough time to learn something you want to learn.
  • You look around and see that there are other people that know that thing you don’t have time to learn.
  • You feel incompetent.

Why do so many Data Scientists have it?

Data Science is an extremely broad field of study. There are core competencies required to have a successful career in data science, but there is also a lot of industry specific and technical knowledge that is ever changing.
Data Science is a career which has many job options, all of which require a high level of expertise and knowledge. If the broad, seemingly confused data science job postings show us anything, it is that many companies do not really understand what a data scientist is, how they compare to a data engineer or software engineer, and how to train or support them within an organization. To add to this, the labor market for data scientists in predominantly new graduated or early career professionals.

When challenge is high, and expectations are unknown it encourages people to fall into high arousal, anxiety, and worry. You can see this from psychologist’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow model.

These feelings are compounded by a lack of support, feedback, and mentorship provided within a company. This is not generally intentional but a product of small data science departments, business executives licking their wounds from years of poor data quality and technical deficit and increasing demand for better data driven outcomes.

How can Data Scientists deal with Imposter Syndrome?

According to the American Psychology Association, If you recognize yourself in the description of the impostor phenomenon, take heart. There are ways to overcome the belief that you don’t measure up.

In a nutshell, there are three ideas that you need to get in your head in order to get over imposter syndrome:

  • You are a generally competent person.
  • There are always going to be people that know more about a certain area of data science than you and that’s ok and expected. Even more importantly: you’re not the smartest person in the planet, so if you look hard enough, you’re going to find people that are better than you at everything you do and that’s ok.
  • You have a finite amount of time to learn things, and your goal shouldn’t be to learn the most, but to learn the things that maximize your specific goals – generally, this is going to be career advancement, but for some it may be something else.

When the Imposter Syndrome feeling comes up:

  1. Remind yourself that you are a competent person – if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have gotten to the position you are in right now, whether that’s graduating from college or leading a data science team (yes, even DS team leaders catch the ‘drome from time to time).
  1. Remind yourself that when you look for people who know more than you about a specific area, you are guaranteed to find them – that’s just how it works. People choose to specialize in certain areas, and if you only focus on that area of expertise, you are going to feel inadequate. But even more importantly, recognize that if you run into someone who is better than you at literally everything you do, that doesn’t diminish your value – it just means you have run into someone that is pretty special*
  2. Get back to prioritizing what to learn. Do you need to learn that or do you just want to learn it to feel better about yourself? If the latter, learn to let it go, and focus on the things you need to learn – and save the things you want to learn for when you have the time, which will come.

u/dfphd – PhD | Head of Data Science & Ecommerce

Talk to your mentors.

“The thing that made so much of a difference was supportive, encouraging supervision”.

Many have benefited from sharing their feelings with a mentor who helped them recognize that their impostor feelings are both normal and irrational. Though many will often struggle with these feelings, you must be able to recognize personal or professional progress and growth instead of comparing myself to other students and professionals.

Recognize your expertise.

Don’t just look to those who are more experienced, more popular, or more successful for help. Tutoring or working with younger students, for instance, can help you realize how far you’ve come and how much knowledge you have to impart. This can be a great way for a Data Scientist to give back to the industry as well as set a more realistic benchmark of your perceived value.

Remember what you do well.

Psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.

Imes encourages her clients to make a realistic assessment of their abilities. “Most high achievers are pretty smart people, and many really smart people wish they were geniuses. But most of us aren’t,” she says. “We have areas where we’re quite smart and areas where we’re not so smart.” She suggests writing down the things you’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help you recognize where you’re doing well, and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.

Realize no one is perfect.

Clance urges people with impostor feelings to stop focusing on perfection. “Do a task ‘well enough,'” she says. It’s also important to take time to appreciate the fruits of your hard work. “Develop and implement rewards for success — learn to celebrate,” she adds.

Change your thinking.

“let the challenge excite you rather than overwhelm you.”

People with impostor feelings must reframe the way they think about their achievements, says Imes. She helps her clients gradually chip away at the superstitious thinking that fuels the impostor cycle. That has best done incrementally, she says. For instance, rather than spending 10 hours on an assignment, you might cut yourself off at eight. Or you may let a friend read a draft that you haven’t yet perfectly polished. “Superstitions need to be changed very gradually because they are so strong,” she says.

Avoid all or nothing thinking. Just like a standard distribution, most Data Scientists fall within the center. If you find yourself comparing to outliers, then you are going to continue to feel like a fraud, which will in return stifle your career in data science.

Talk to someone who can help.

For many people with impostor feelings, individual therapy can be extremely helpful. A psychologist or other therapist can give you tools to help you break the cycle of impostor thinking.

The impostor phenomenon is still an experience that tends to fly under the radar. Often the people affected by impostor feelings don’t realize they could be living some other way. They don’t have any idea it’s possible not to feel so anxious and fearful all the time.

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