September 2021 was probably the toughest month of my young adult life. Until then, my postgraduate life was going alright; it wasn’t easy, but it was fine. I was unaware of the anxiety, fearfulness and chaos that post-graduate life can bring. I graduated with my master’s degree mid-pandemic and was able to secure a job that aligned with what I studied in school. After a year of that job, I decided it was time for me to move on. I was unaware of what the next role would be, but I wanted to incorporate my undergraduate degree into my next role. In undergrad, I was on a pre-medical track with the hopes of working in the medical field. Those hopes definitely shifted, but nonetheless I wanted to work in a space where medicine and public health could have a seamless marriage. After a couple of arduous months spent job hunting, I found a position within the pharmaceutical sphere that I believed would assist in my career goals and in my path to find what I enjoy doing for work.
So, why was September one of the toughest months of my young adult life? Well, I moved out of my parents’ house. Hooray, right? Yes, I was ready to embark and take NYC by storm. I was ready to start living a life that my younger self had imagined: similar to silly rom-coms but rooted in reality with much less passion. However, as my new job started and the move began, I realized that my journey had an additional passenger onboard. I started to feel the heavy weight of what many people know as imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the feeling or experience of believing you are not as competent as others may perceive you to be. It is feeling self-doubt and personal incompetence despite having experience, education or accomplishments. We are more likely to experience this syndrome if we do not see many examples of people who look like us or share our backgrounds, which puts Black women at the most risk. In a recent study examining imposter syndrome among Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in STEM, common themes identified among the students included 1) awareness of low racial representation, 2) questioning of intelligence, expectation and psychosocial costs, and 3) explaining success externally. Additionally, research has shown that in environments where there are gender or racial imbalances, imposter syndrome is more prevalent. The intersectional nature of this syndrome does not stop in academic settings. A 2019 report found that 45% of women of color have been the only person of their gender in corporate rooms, adding to the feelings that come as a result of this syndrome.
In the Biotech/Pharmaceutical field, only 3% of the workforce is Black. The limited diversity stemming from the lack of academic pipeline into the field produces a workforce where there are very few Black people. With factors such as recruiting methods that do not aid to diversify the field, it is very difficult to find minority people in this space. For the past 20 years now, the hiring practices by biotech companies has limited the amount of black candidates hired. Most companies tend to recruit from top-100 schools which eliminates people of color who were not able to attend those prestigious institutions. I was blinded to these statistics because it would be my first time in the field but as I soon started my first couple of days, I was hit by a difficult truth.
I personally came to understand what imposter syndrome was this September. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like a fraud in my job. Even with my experiences, accomplishments, and education, I felt like I was incompetent to do the work. Going into the position, I understood that there was going to be a learning curve; there’s one in every job. However, after the first week in my role, having gotten a glimpse of what the position entailed, I started to develop an internal monologue that consistently told me I would eventually be revealed as a fraud. The confidence that I had in myself as a hard worker seemed to just slowly slip out the door. It eventually got to the point where the mental pressure I put on myself started to manifest itself physically. During work hours, I would have intense aches in my chest, consistent stress-induced hiccups and constant headaches. It got to a point where I told myself that maybe I needed to get an entry level position, or something easier than my current position, so that they would not see me as a fraud. I was ready to leave because I thought I was inadequate and did not hold the skills necessary to be successful for the job. Even though my past experiences evidently showed that I indeed had those skills, in those moments I could not find it. In those moments, I wholeheartedly believed that I was the imposter.
I am amazed and astonished that I stayed in the position. In those moments, when you have the urge to run and escape, it can feel like time is moving slowly. Previous studies have shown that racial identity is predictive of imposter syndrome among high-achieving minorities. As a person who is a high achiever, I can attest to this feeling. I’ve had moments of imposter syndrome throughout my education and training, but nothing compared to what the “real world” was going to bring.
Over time, I discovered three methods that helped me to cope with moments of intense anxiety and fearfulness.
You have to breathe! Yes, as easy as it sounds, I had to remind myself to breathe because I found that I was holding in breaths in the moments that I felt incompetent. The deep breaths reminded me that I was still here and the anxiety would soon pass as I started to learn throughout the job.
I consistently told myself that I was qualified. Although I did not see any people who looked like me in my position, I came to the understanding that with time, I could be an example for others. There always has to be a first before many can follow.
As corny as it sounds, when I start to feel my chest getting tight and heavy, I dance it out. You read that right! There are so many papers out there highlighting the power of exercise and we tend to forget this simple and free remedy. When I started to feel afraid and vulnerable, I got up from my desk, turned on a song and danced my imposter syndrome away.
In the course of treating any mental health issue, the number one thing is maintenance and consistency. The feelings of inadequacy do come and go. Now, I am affirmed in the fact that I earned my position. I was chosen because, unlike a fraud, I have all the qualifications to back myself up.
Devasmita Chakraverty, The Imposter Phenomenon Among Black Doctoral and PostDoctoral Scholars in Stem
Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, and Melinda Smith, The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Princess Anene-Maidoh, Kill the Imposter: How Imposter Syndrome Affects Black Women in the Workplace
STEM women, What is Imposter Syndrome?
Sheryl Nance-Nash, Why Imposter Syndrome Hits Women and Women of Colour Harder