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Scientists Weigh In—Imposter Syndrome in a Silo-Busting World


Nov 13, 2012


Minute Read


When Brooke first shared the news that we were going to spend the next 9 to 12 months exploring what an expanded scope for COMPASS might look like, I reacted with a mix of “wow—just think of the possibilities!” and “holy s#$%!”

The terrified part of me was wrestling with impostor syndrome. There’s a palpable buzz about this phenomenon on Twitter and in the blogosphere, among scientists and beyond. In a nutshell, it’s that nagging fear that we don’t know enough (everyone else knows more!), we’re a phony, a fraud … and sooner or later we’ll be found out. You can learn more in Dr. Josh Drew’s lecture for graduate students at Columbia University.

Brooke repeatedly reassured me, “Our strength is our approach, which isn’t really about oceans.” It wasn’t that I disagreed. But still, that inner voice persisted, “They’re going to find me out! I’m trained as a coral reef fish ecologist. Ecosystem-based management for the oceans was quite the leap… but fire ecology, sustainable agriculture, and water resources? Yikes!”

Many of us harbor these kinds of doubts from time to time. My intent is not to talk about how you can cope—those resources abound. Instead, I want to focus on the need for scientists to transcend disciplinary-driven impostor syndrome to address what the world needs from us today.

I’m a (rare?) PhD generalist. I focus on how science can help us to tackle big, thorny questions—I’m more about the whole than the parts. Among scientists, I often feel (at least initially) like the oddball. Here I am, with a small group of experts with serious science chops, developing an NSF Sustainability Research Network proposal. There’s a community ecologist, a coastal geomorphologist, a biological engineer, a sociologist with public policy expertise. And then, there’s me. What do I bring to this conversation? I find myself repeatedly asking the PI, “Do YOU think I have a role in this?” Ultimately, I realize that I do bring something of value. I’m the glue, the integrator, the connector, the translator. Phew!

It’s easy for scientists to lose sight of the whole and get trapped deeper and deeper within disciplinary silos. But, when freed from the curse of too much knowledge, we may be more effective at bringing science to bear on real-world challenges.

Not surprisingly, I’m drawn to scientists who have made similar leaps out of their silos. I asked some of them—Dr. Andy Rosenberg (Director, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists), Dr. Heather Tallis (Lead Scientist, Natural Capital Project), Dr. Terry Chapin (Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Alaska Fairbanks), and Dr. Anne Guerry (Lead Scientist, Natural Capital Project)—to weigh in:


ROSENBERG: “I have worked on issues far removed from my own research in fisheries and marine science—climate change, forest policy, pollution and now the broader issues of the role of science in the democratic process. I could work in these areas not because I ‘became’ a forest ecologist or an atmospheric scientist, but that I could understand the language and methods of science and how to rely on the expertise of others to bring a broader body of knowledge to bear on any given issue. Once one can step away from being the ‘expert’ for all issues, it becomes much easier to try to get to the heart of how science connects to public policy.”

TALLIS: “I have found that being naive in a specialty, but strong as a scientist can be very helpful (though not always popular). I have suggested things that specialists think are absurd, but on further discussion are often possible, and sometimes even [lead to] true advances in the field. By being free of the dogma one gets in grad school, it’s possible to suggest radical things without knowing it… if you’re willing to persist through some people thinking you’re an idiot, amazing things can happen.”

CHAPIN: “I feel most prepared to speak outside of my comfort zone—across disciplinary silos—when I realize that neither my silo nor my neighbor’s can answer the really important questions. As the issues of multiple global changes become more urgent, we have to reach across silos. …I can no longer sit in my comfort zone and watch the world go down the tubes. We all have a moral responsibility to tackle the big problems, despite risks to career and professional respect.”

*Terry’s response included an important caveat. He works closely with Indigenous communities, religious leaders, and legislators—work that requires trust and mutual respect. “If I thought of myself as an impostor, this communication would be a total non-starter, because developing trust requires respect for the perspectives of others and attempting to communicate within THEIR context.”

GUERRY: “In my work in a very interdisciplinary team, it is often the people who are NOT from a particular discipline that can find elegant solutions to tricky problems. Unimpeded by too much detailed knowledge and free from fear of sounding stupid to (someone else’s) peers, people just jump right in and start brainstorming. …Experts get hung up in the trees while outsiders can focus on the forest.”

Obviously, we will continue to award PhDs in sub-sub-sub fields. But, tackling the world’s wicked problems—food security, environmental degradation, climate change—is going to require pushing ourselves outside of our disciplinary comfort zones even more often. But that’s where we learn, right?

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