Shedding the Imposter Syndrome: A Conversation Between Mentors

This is an extended version of the conversation between Drs. Elma Gonzalez and Maggie Werner-Washburne featured in the SACNAS News Summer/Fall 2011 edition. 

Maggie Werner-Washburne (MWW):

156 Dr. Maggie Werner - WashburneI have traveled a long road to believing in myself. I grew up in a small Iowa town where my family had been for generations, so I felt quite secure. When I got ready for college, family funds were low and I didn’t know where to go to school. My mom showed me an article about Stanford. They called it The Farm and I knew about farms! Getting a scholarship sweetened the pot—so I was off to California. For the next four years, I suffered from the “Imposter Syndrome” to the point that I almost had a nervous breakdown. I graduated a quarter early, and left almost immediately after my exams, without saying good-bye, even to friends. I felt like a failure at life and school. I don’t remember having help with this at Stanford, but perhaps I had a convincing smile, so people didn’t know my struggles, but inside I was hurting. Elma, have you ever had a crisis of self-confidence?

Elma Gonzalez (EG):

I’ve ever NOT had them! But, I’ve been saved by my ability to look around and figure out what the standard of performance was, or in other words, what the teachers expected! Then I figured out if I was meeting that standard compared to my classmates. Although I started the first grade when I was nine years old, I learned to read quite well by the fourth grade. I was a prolific reader and that helped me be a good writer. A teacher in the seventh grade taught us how to diagram sentences and how to analyze one’s writing. Good writing is critical to doing well on tests and analytical skills are essential for critical reading and comprehension. Before long, I noticed other students were coming to me for help with assignments! Maggie, how did you get over your crisis in confidence?


After graduation, I went to Mexico to see where my family came from and take classes at a school on alternative education in Cuernavaca. I felt so at home in Mexico. It felt like my family. However, I   had to put myself through some tests to see if I could survive. I was held at gunpoint several times and managed to calm the situation. I lived by myself in Guatemala, learning to weave with my Mayan neighbors. Everything I survived helped me believe in myself again. I took a long, winding path to my PhD, so I won’t share it all here. But part of what happened began in Mexico where I found my heart. I kept traveling. I became fascinated with medicinal plants.  That started my path back to science.  Several years later, in the Alaskan wilderness, I realized that if it weren’t for the evolution of photosynthesis, the world as we know it would not exist. These realizations propelled me back to school where the classes that would have killed me were now incredibly easy because I wasn’t afraid. I was propelled by my desire to learn. Elma, how have you overcome insecurities?


To be good in school and in the sciences, I don’t think you ever really get rid of the insecurities. You simply have to attempt to understand them and understand that nearly everyone has them. Develop strategies. Prepare; work hard; stay alert to what is wanted; and figure out how you can improve. Take advantage of mentors. (Note the plural in “mentors.”) Leave any “chip on the shoulder” attitude outside the door; read more than assigned; figure out the purpose and direction of your work and path. When things were really difficult, I learned to play roles. The “professor” role was a difficult one but it helped me give lectures to 400 students in a cavernous lecture hall. I could do it because it wasn’t really me…it was the “professor.” How do you help your students build confidence?


Over the years I have seen many students fearful of hearing their own voices. That can stem from not having a good sense of their heart or fearing the future. Usually it comes from not understanding that we all have something to offer. I tell students to imagine a table surrounded by people of all backgrounds and races and no one saying anything. Is that diversity?  That’s not my vision!  To have real diversity, everyone has to be able to speak. But how do you do that when you are in your 20s and away from home for the first time?

I tell students to dig down into their roots. Embrace it all: the good and bad; the beautiful and the ugly; the joyous and the sad—embrace it and hold it tight because this is what you bring to the table. You will hear the stories, the dichos, the sayings, in your mind. You will learn how people dealt successfully with challenges or better ways to face them. You are not just you. When Maori greeters meet you in their sacred place, they come with tears because you represent the physical embodiment of everyone who came before you—you carry that in every cell. So, never feel alone and never feel that your voice doesn’t count. And look around you at the table. Does the Anglo woman over there feel like her voice doesn’t count?  Does the Asian or Hawaiian or African-American young man feel his voice doesn’t count?  If the world is going to get to a better place it’s because everyone’s voice is heard and we understand how to bring the depth that is in each of us to the table.


The Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that “once people really know me, they’ll know I can’t do this.”  I believe the Imposter Syndrome is widely experienced, but ironically, everyone that experiences it feels totally isolated and certain that if they speak of it, they are even more doomed to failure. It is extremely debilitating and can, if there are underlying psychological issues, be life-threatening. This is not something to just hope you get over.

If a student of mine is experiencing the Imposter Syndrome, I suggest they ask peers and mentors if they have ever felt similarly. This can be helpful—not only for the student asking the question, but for the individual they are reaching out to, who may be experiencing the Imposter Syndrome themselves. Remember, this is a normal feeling that everyone feels it from time to time. It may be hard to believe, but when I recently got a prestigious award, I spent the first week thinking they must have contacted the wrong Werner-Washburne!

The Imposter Syndrome can be an enormous road block. Think it through, talk to people, find a counselor, tell yourself that you are going to make it, that you are capable, and that you have already had successes. The Imposter Syndrome could be your heart telling you something, too so don’t ignore these feelings. Instead, use them to help yourself and others, to understand your heart, and to know the path you want to be on.


I’m not a psychologist but I think sometimes the imposter syndrome is generated from an exaggerated expectation of oneself. That is why I think that being aware of what is going on around you is important as a check on how well you are doing with respect to expectations. In some respects, extremely high and unrealistic expectations are a way to fulfill negative stereotypes—because if you fail, you don’t have to struggle anymore and you will have satisfied the naysayers. It is a perverse victory. Don’t let that happen to you.

I had no college calculus (not required for Bio majors) But as a graduate student I had to take calculus-based physical chemistry. My grade was inevitable but I was so proud of my C- because I KNEW that I had gained a huge amount of insight into physical processes that explained how membranes worked and so many other important concepts. I am still proud of my performance in that course.


If you are working on hearing what your heart is telling you, pay special attention to when it is very excited about something you read or think about. Daydream; make yourself the size of the things you are studying and really pay attention. Take time to do your own thinking; go for a walk where it is quiet; wrap yourself in an ancestral blanket, real or virtual, and go into yourself. Enjoy who you are, what your heart is saying, and the messages, even jokes that bubble up. You will find that you will come up with novel ideas, new questions, and ideas about how things might work differently from what you have been taught.

Getting your PhD is about learning how to think, solve problems, and do science. It should also be about becoming fearless. There may be times when you are not completely free to be yourself—that is normal—but never forget who you are, where you come from, and who you carry with you in your heart and mind.


174 Dr. Elma GonzalezEvery person is different and responds to his/her environment in different ways. But as science students, we all have an aptitude for analysis and critical thinking. I’d say that you can use those very same skills to discover your own needs and preferences. You can figure out which are the positive influences in your life and which negative influences you need to avoid. You need to discover your own pace and develop an assessment plan that will tell you when your performance is satisfactory to yourself and your teachers and mentors. As one of my bosses once put it, “If it is so easy, a well-trained monkey could do it.” It ISN’T that easy!

It isn’t easy for us individually or for anyone else around us who is trying to fulfill their dream or make the next grant deadline or get tenure. The hard realities of graduate education includes the inter-dependence of all the team players. Know that everyone struggles individually but that success is a collaborative effort. Don’t let your team down. Many succeed when you succeed. (You may not think so but there are people who fund you who succeed when you succeed.) So before you start wondering why people are ignoring you, ask whether you’ve helped your team lately. Take time for yourself but don’t let your team down. Dream, but live in the real world of late night experiments and other dream obstacles. Your intellect is important but so are your character, your heart, and your ability to see beyond yourself. Doing good science is not easy but it is extremely important that we be present and credible when the research questions worth doing are being chosen and funded. Con ganas al triunfo!


Dr. Elma Gonzalez is a professor emeritus from University of California, Los Angeles, where she taught biology for ­­33 years. Dr. Gonzalez was the first Chicana scientist in the whole UC system. She was the founder of CARE (to help minority students succeed in the sciences) at UCLA. Dr. Maggie Werner-Wasburne is the Regent’s Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She was the Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year for 2011 and sings and plays bass in a band.

Image Details

Image (first): Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne was recently awarded the Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year. Here she is pictured with former students, Dr. Diego Martinez and Dr. Sushmita Tory, who are both now postdoctoral feloows at the Broad Institute at Harvard.

Image (second): Dr. Elma Gonzalez working with an undergraduate student in her lab at University of California, Los Angeles. Now retired, Dr. Gonzalez worked at UCLA for 33 years.


Related Resources

View full edition of the Summer/Fall 2011 SACNAS News