Apparently, many scientists agonize over ‘being found out’. They feel like they probably made some terrible mistakes along the way or that they probably totally misunderstood some important concepts. This is called the ‘imposter syndrome’ and, according to many recent blogposts (like this or this) is very common in science and hits men and women alike, even famous ones.
Weirdly, I do not suffer from this problem too much. I am sure I have made some mistakes and that there are many things I should understand and that I don’t, but I am not very stressed about this.
I have been trying to think about why this is, and I have concluded it is because I am very critical of authority. Since the start of my career I observe professors very sharply and look for mistakes they make. It gives me pleasure to find a mistake in a famous paper or to find out that something that a professor said is wrong. And actually, this is surprisingly easy once you free your mind of the prejudice that famous professors are always right. They are not; they are even likely to make mistakes because they get corrected much less than younger people and because, let’s face it, the mind does not really get sharper with age and experience does not always fully compensate for this.
I think the imposter syndrome is nothing else but an exaggerated belief in authority. Yes, you might be found out to have made mistakes, but the same is true for Prof. Bigshot in your field…. scientific work is by the definition at the edge of the unknown and obviously it is normal not to understand things and to spend months with something that turns out to be useless. It happens to everyone.
To paraphrase Lord Varys from ‘A game of thrones’: “Scientific authority resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall…”