Earlier this week I decided to attend a department seminar. A postdoc from another institution was visiting to give a talk on his work with bio-molecular smart materials and it looked really interesting. The talk itself was pretty interesting – the idea behind the presented research was to mimic specific aspects of cell mechanics by building (beautifully self-assembling) phospholipid bi-layers and then inserting some membrane proteins and getting the resulting membrane to form into liposomes. Basically, the idea was to create a little simplified cell with no internal components, and then do some experiments and modeling regarding the responses to mechanical, electrical, and chemical stimuli. Pretty cool stuff!
However, I ended up being a little distracted by the impostor syndrome demons that decided to have a little party inside my head. I noticed when I walked into the room that the attendees were primarily professors and doctoral students. Most of the PhD students in the room were involved in computational modeling focused research, so had a general background in the topic to be presented. This was a little intimidating but I sat next to a couple guys who also work for my advisor so I at least felt like our lab had a nice representation. Of course, one of them is doing molecular dynamics modeling stuff so it’s not as though either of them toned down the intimidation factor in the room.
One of our profs introduced the speaker, who then proceeded to step up to the podium and fly through his slides. I made it about halfway through before I started feeling lost – my general background knowledge of cell membranes/liposomes was definitely helpful! However, once I got lost I got a little panicky. All I could think is that everyone else was probably totally following along and oh no, what if one of my lab mates, or God forbid, my advisor, wanted to chat about the talk afterwards? I’d end up standing there like an idiot, unable to contribute due to my complete inability to follow the whole 2nd half of the talk. I bolted out of the room immediately after the Q & A session ended.
Looking back, letting my feeling of not belonging in that room prevent me from engaging in the post-talk discussion seems completely irrational. It’s a freaking seminar – someone is presenting research they’ve been working on for several years. I should hope I wouldn’t completely “get” someone else’s research – especially a successful post-doc’s research in a field that I have never done any work or study in. The fact that there were only two questions (both from profs) after the speaker finished indicates that many of the other students were getting a little lost as well. Half the stuff I was “lost” about during the talk made sense after I left and thought about it for a few minutes. If I’d just taken a deep breath and pondered the confusing slides for a bit, I might have been able to think of a decent question, or at the very least regain enough confidence to stick around and chat with my fellow seminar attendees afterwards.
Why do I do this to myself? Freaking out about who’s smarter than me or things that I don’t understand isn’t going to prove helpful in a career in research/engineering. There is ALWAYS someone smarter, and rooms full of the being brains, and topics outside of my comfort zone. It’s more important to get in there and learn as much as I can, rather than getting paranoid about how I compare.
Anyone else have similar experiences or advice for dealing with the insidious whispers of impostor syndrome?