Recently I received an aggressive e-mail from a respected professor, sharply critizing my work. He claimed that one of my results “must clearly be wrong”, and that my paper contained serious errors.
It was enlightening to see how different reactions happened simultaneously in my brain as I read this e-mail:
Z1: “Oh. That is interesting. If this result is wrong, then maybe my conslusions change. I wonder how.”
Z2: “Who the f** does he think he is, attacking me like this? I have worked on this paper for months, and I am extremely careful, of course my figures are right.”
Z3: “Oh God. I have messed up. Or my collaborator has, which is the same thing. This is infinitively embarrasing. I think I will have to leave science and instead go plant orange trees in the desert.”
Obviously, there is only one appropriate reaction.
It is reaction Z2, which is the normal, healthy, perhaps archetypically ‘male’ gut reaction of someone being attacked. After that initial gut reaction, it is fine to carefully consider the criticism, but always under the assumption that one has not messed up. I would argue that most men would agree with this.
Unfortunately I also have reaction Z1 and Z3. Both of those reactions are my tendency for depression (Z1) and my social anxiety (Z3) speaking. Did I recently say I did not have impostor syndrome? Yeah. I was apparently lying to myself. (See here, for example, to appreciate the prevalence of the impostor syndrome among blogging scientists.)
On a related note, I also suspect that the professor in question, that I know well, has what I will call the inverse impostor syndrome. He tends to think that everyone else except himself is an impostor. This is not only a bad thing, since it makes him very critical of other people’s work, but his PhD students are totally scared and stressed out and I suspect this damages his research group. Has anyone else noticed this syndrome as well? It is especially common among young and ambitious professors, and wears off with age.
I am trying to get infected with this syndrome at least a little, but I am afraid I am not managing so well up to now.