The inverse impostor syndrome

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.

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2 Responses to The inverse impostor syndrome

  1. zinemin says:

    Yes, one might think that. However, I think reaction Z1 is dangerous. At some point you have to stop becoming neutral about your work. If you have worked for months on something, you need to believe that it is probably right. And I would claim most (male) scientists I know do not have reaction Z1 (unless it is about something where they have not invested much work).

    The point about oranges is obviously correct. Whatever you do in life, you will always get criticized, so one needs to learn to deal with that.

  2. Evan says:

    I’m a guy, and my response would be neither Z1 or Z2, it would be “Oh yeah? Prove it.” followed by a double-check of my own work. I would consider Z2 to be normal, but by no means healthy. Anger and defensiveness both have their place, but shouldn’t be anyone’s go-to response. The only response that I would consider “correct” is the one that seeks to find the truth of the matter:
    1. Am I sure my own work is correct, and why?
    2. Why does this prof seem so sure I am wrong?
    3. Why is he so aggressive in his assertion?

    Concerning the “Imposter Syndrome”: This is the male version of women’s insecurity, it is very common, and is by no means exclusive to science and/or blogger fields; it just manifests in a different way. Almost all men have it and it plays out very differently in different areas of our lives. Which syndrome are you trying to get infected with, Imposter, or Inverse Imposter? Because they appear to be mutually exclusive, and you seem to have already caught the latter…

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