Researcher Collaborations: Science Communication and Imposter Syndrome

This month’s blog post is a very special throwback with my dear friend Dr. Sophie Elschner. Towards the end of our respective PhDs, in March 2020, Sophie and I each curated a week of rotating Twitter handles, the Real Scientists DE and R-Ladies RoCur accounts respectively. We were each other’s sounding boards for ideas before, during, and after this experience. Over the last six months, both of us have successfully completed our PhDs and earned our Dr titles, but we still see a lot of value in the conversations we had a year ago. Therefore, we decided to put together this interview post which serves as a refined version of our many conversations during and after our Twitter experiences.

Let’s go back in time now, to March 2020. Imagine two Ph.D. candidates, excited about science communication, as you read the conversation below.

Divya: Sophie, we have both had amazing weeks curating Twitter accounts aimed at communicating science and technology. I have already spoken about my curation (with R-Ladies, aimed at amplifying voices on gender minorities within the R community) in an earlier post. Would you briefly like to tell our readers what your curation was about?

Sophie: The account that I curated is called @realsci_DE. It is the German-language off-shot of the @realsci account on Twitter where scientists can speak about their work with a wider audience. Being a researcher in the psychology of aesthetics and working with eye movements, I spoke about my field and the eye-tracking studies that are done there. I chose a topic for each day of the week and stated it with a poll in the hopes that this would encourage people to interact with the content. Since I am rather passionate about teaching people not only what the study results are but how scientists get there, I also used every opportunity to talk about methodological issues.  For example: How to control for the pupil’s light reflex or what the concept behind replication studies is. 

Divya: You already gave us a good starting point – teaching – to delve into what we want to talk about today – science communication (scicomm). Did I ever tell you? I used to play ”teacher” in primary school and I would come home each day and “teach” my mother everything I had learned that day. She would be able to keep track of how I’m doing in school, and I would have a daily revision. Smart parenting! Fast forward to college, I offered to teach my friends before exams, because it helped me retain knowledge and they could listen to (and parallelly see in the textbook) things they hadn’t studied yet. This benefited everyone! Teaching to reinforce my own knowledge has continued into my Ph.D. years. Now when my students question me, it makes me surer that my knowledge doesn’t have dangerous holes in it

Sophie: Oh yes! I worked as a tutor for methods and cognitive psychology back when I was still a student. It helped me a lot to understand things I didn’t quite get when I studied for the exams. As an addition: I feel that teaching helps you improve your patience. A quality that is necessary to have with a long-term project, such as writing a PhD.

Divya: Haha, yes. An essential life skill. The twitter curation also felt like an extension of this “teaching phenomenon” – you open your knowledge up for the world to question. In real time.

Sophie: That is so true. It is simultaneously frightening and motivating. You want to communicate what you know, but also get better and close the gaps in your understanding of a topic. I got some ideas for my actual thesis writing and some scicomm projects that I am working on, on the side.

Divya: The more I talk about topics, the better I understand them. When experts, novices, people within and outside your field are all allowed to question you, you understand your topic from every perspective, don’t you?

Sophie: Absolutely! And my Twitter experience was a very positive one. It was amazing to see that people are interested in what I do, even though I was fairly overstimulated by all the input that was flowing in. I understand now, why ‘social media manager’ is a fulltime job.

Divya: Even though both of us had such a good experience, I remember we were both very hesitant to do this in the beginning. Anxious even. I recall telling you that I was apprehensive because I am not a trained data scientist, and having self-taught R, I was unsure if I ‘qualified’, in my own eye, as a curator for an R-Ladies account. I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to contribute to people who code so much more than I do. Even though coding tips were not why I wanted to curate the account, I wanted to show different perspectives on using R in the social and behavioural sciences, in everyday healthcare settings and interdisciplinary work, and to encourage people to start/join groups like R-Ladies where you can support, learn and code with others. These topics, i.e. the goals I had, I did well, and these were also well appreciated. The community was welcoming and supportive. Nonetheless, I was apprehensive at first.

Sophie: I totally get it. I had similar apprehensions. My first worry was that people would not be interested in the topic or would either not consider aesthetics science-y enough or would find eye-tracking boring. I was also concerned about getting backlash from colleagues working on similar topics, e.g. that people more experienced with eye-tracking would point out all of my knowledge gaps or that colleagues from philosophy or art history would question what a psychologist could have to contribute to the field. Lastly, I am not one to spontaneously come up with a witty comeback to other’s comments. So, I feared I would fail at answering questions. None of these fears came true.

Divya: Uhm…did someone say Imposter Syndrome?

Sophie: Again!

(Note to readers: Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. In fact, Imposter Syndrome is very common in highly accomplished people.)

Divya: Where does our Imposter Syndrome come from and why is it so prevalent in academia? Are we trained to doubt what we are doing?

Sophie: In large parts, yes. Also, from the experience that the loudest person with the greatest charisma is often prioritized over the most competent person, even in science. So, an introverted woman like me might double down on her imposter syndrome. That is why during this quarantine time I noticed that that your work environment can play a huge role. I tend to be a “quiet worker”, self-reliant in my daily tasks. If it is not a group project, I engage with others only when I am stuck or have questions. Getting unsolicited advice – which is well meant, no doubt – paralyzes me more than it helps. Especially if it has to do with math, a subject I have had a tough history with. Now that I am home during the Covid-19 pandemic and can just read up on it in peace, I noticed that I suddenly don’t have any problems with understanding statistics anymore. This helps a lot with the imposter syndrome.

Divya: You’ve taken time to understand your brain and its anxious reflexes. Over time, you’ve learned to notice this imposter syndrome. For me, this is a voice in my head doubting my ideas, my competencies, if I can actually do what I set out to or if my ideas are worth people’s time. The voices in our heads may be mocking us even though no one around us is. How do you differentiate the “imposter syndrome” brain from everything else?

Sophie: When my inner voice goes from “I can learn what I don’t know yet” to “I am too stupid / not good enough”, that’s when I know I need to address something.

Divya: Address something and go face your fears to prove this voice wrong? I know I felt really confident after my curation. Imposter syndrome could not have set in that weekend, no matter what! The overwhelming support from the community was such strong external validation that it neutralized the negative internal monologues. Like a bit of exposure therapy – if you dread something, try it and see that it isn’t that scary after all. No one mocked you or said the mean things you thought they would.

Sophie: Yes, absolutely! I was proud that I was able to condense all of my knowledge into understandable Twitter posts. That I was well able to ask questions and sort through things that I would answer and would not. That most people were genuinely interested in seeing another angle on the topic, even others who work in the field but are not psychologists, was incredible. It gave me a lot of confidence to see that I am also able to deal with the few who tried to question my competence and that correcting mistakes that were pointed out to me wasn’t as scary as I thought. External validation does actually help: Seeing that people were so interested, even in the more technical stuff, felt really good. I couldn’t believe that I inspired people to comment on each other’s comments, discuss the topic amongst themselves and find new examples to complement my posts. That a lot more people than the commenters, participated in the polls, proving that they were there, silently listening, reading and thinking. I believed the many thank yous that I got on my last day, and each of them made me smile.

Divya: Yes, I feel you. I’ve had this feeling every time I worked in scicomm initiatives. Like when I participated in Soapbox Science in Berlin. I was scared of making my ideas understood, in German no less, and to try to make people passing by understand why this was worth doing. But having done this, I advocate for everyone to try it! I’m actually really sad I haven’t been able to travel since and do it again. The feeling was the same for Skype-a-Scientist. I thought it would be so difficult for me to make complex topics simple enough for school children to comprehend, without making it less scientific. It wasn’t! It came to me easily enough and I’ve spoken to a dozen classrooms since, as well as multiple families homeschooling their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sophie: This is so important! I feel there is a pressure in academia to work for your resume and “not waste your time” with the public. It is easy to get tunnel vision about your research field. As a scientist you only work on a tiny fraction of a topic and deal with very complicated minor details. It is easy to forget that knowledge that looks easy and obvious to you has value, too. And scicomm reminds me of that. As the trust in science has gained momentum in this currently ongoing pandemic (see the Wissenschaftsbarometer) and we have all seen the importance of proper and timely communication in an ongoing crisis, I hope that scicomm will be valued more.

Divya: We are obliged to engage more, and we can do it really well, if our imposter syndrome lets us. Do you have tips for researchers wanting to teach and engage in science communication?

Sophie: Empathy, patience and perspective taking are the most important. Are you talking in the language of your audience? Are they following along? If not, find out where they are coming from and how you can communicate with them.

Divya: Yes, a Venn diagram of what you want to communicate and what is relevant to your audience. Where the two overlap, is the ideal place for scicomm.

Sophie: And visiting that place often, can keep your academia born imposter syndrome in place.

We hope you had as much fun reading this post, as we had talking about it! If you think you’d enjoy talking to Sophie as much as I do, you can follow and reach out to her on Twitter (@SophieElschner).

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