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Does your Organizational Culture Perpetuate or Repudiate the “Impostor Syndrome” Phenomenon?

By Plato Smith

Earlier last month, during one of the presentations at the First New Mexico EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Postdoc Leadership Workshop, the speaker asked the 19 postdocs (18 STEM and 1 LIS) in attendance, “How many of you feel the ‘impostor syndrome’?” About 7 postdocs immediately raised their hands. At first, I did not know what the speaker meant. However, I quickly recalled a CLIR postdoc and others expressing feeling symptoms of this “impostor syndrome” which, loosely translated, evokes “Why am I here? Did someone make a mistake? Am I an interloper, outlier, or a fraud?” At times, I have had similar suspicions. This covert and latent sense of self-deprecation, coupled with or aggravated by tensions in organizational cultures, can make for an unwarranted concoction of anomalies, anxieties, and apprehensions. How can postdocs successfully navigate the tensions and challenges of some organizational cultures while building confidence in being adaptive, collaborative, and transformative?

An example of an organization’s culture being a challenge for me was, when a few years ago, I developed a proposal to digitize biodiversity collections, for submission to a funding agency. I shared the proposal with my immediate supervisor for review and approval before submission to the office of sponsored research. Without reviewing the proposal, my supervisor responded “Good luck with that!” and later wrote me up, citing disappointment in my going outside the organization for collaboration. The proposal included partnerships and interdisciplinary collaborations between the LIS and biological science disciplines, two research libraries, a high-performance computing center, and an IT expert. Faculty and colleagues familiar with the grant proposal were shocked that the proposal was not submitted. I have not developed a grant proposal since that experience. Ironically, the NSF invited me to be a grant panel reviewer and to attend an EarthCube Charrette as an early career professional a few months later. Life is not without a sense of God’s purpose, as I saw that former supervisor when attending CNI as a CLIR Postdoc two months ago.

The challenges and tensions encompassing the people, perspectives, and places that make up an organization are best confronted and addressed with a constantly growing and developing sense of confidence and accountability that is gained through every new skill learned, leadership position acquired, obstacle surmounted, and project accomplished. The tipping point for me in developing the confidence to be adaptive, collaborative, and transformative as a CLIR Postdoc Fellow was when my passion for the profession, contributions, and participation in an EarthCube affiliated working group resulted in the group members’ recommendation for me to be the chair. The working group is comprised of senior scientists, faculty, directors, and PIs. Before accepting the position, I sought wise counsel from my current supervisor. He recommended I take the position, commenting that others see my skill in coordinating diverse scientists and researchers in pursuit of shared goals as a valuable contribution to the working group. If there was ever a time I felt like an interloper, it was at times in the EarthCube working groups where deep, very serious and technical thinkers aggregate, cerebrate, collaborate, and innovate.

EarthCube is an NSF funded project that supports the data aggregation, integration, dissemination, sharing, and infrastructure developments supporting the geosciences but includes other scientific domains such as biodiversity, computer science, geology, hydrology, physics, and tectonics to name a few. [1] As a volunteer member of the Technology & Architecture Committee, I joined the Gap Analysis Working Group to explore and identify areas in EarthCube to improve the transparency of information for enhanced collaboration and integration of complementary projects and prototypes to enrich the community-driven development reach and richness of EarthCube. It is humbling and an honor to collaborate with scientists from multiple research centers, labs, and higher education institutions across the United States. There is growing interest at EarthCube to increase engagement with the library and information science discipline and to include librarian’s perspectives. Also, there are current opportunities for postdocs and faculty to introduce and engage faculty from multiple scientific domains at their respective institutions to participate in EarthCube. Participation in EarthCube has enabled me to develop technical and interpersonal communication skills outside of my primary discipline based on leadership skills developed throughout the CLIR Postdoc Fellowship. One EarthCube affiliated scientist remarked that he was pleased to see an early career faculty leading a working group.

I have been fortunate to work in environments at the University of New Mexico, the First NM EPSCoR Postdoc Leadership Workshop, and as part of EarthCube that embrace and advocate for professional development, collaboration, collegiality, and interdisciplinary research. This type of organizational culture is very important to all faculty but especially to postdocs and early career faculty. When dealing with the tensions and challenges of some organizational cultures, it is highly recommended to have (1) an accessible faculty mentor (internal and/or external), (2) family/friend support, and (3) a certain level of mental toughness (e.g., faith, focus, fortitude) to survive.

Some EPSCoR postdocs in the STEM disciplines share incertitude similar to that felt by some of the CLIR postdocs in the LIS/humanities disciplines with respect to building and developing confidence within their chosen profession. This similarity between two distinct sets of postdocs presents an opportunity for a conversation that bridges the divide between disciplines, institutions, and states. What elements inhibit the growth of confidence? How does the profession address it? How does an organization’s culture affect it? Initiatives that promote collaboration, networks, and research across disciplinary domains and organizational cultures, while promoting continuous professional development (e.g., replacing impostor syndrome with good works), are necessary to educate, advance, and promote this profession. Be confident, you are not an interloper. You are a catalytic change agent!

Plato L. Smith, II, is a CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation at the University of New Mexico.

[1] More information on EarthCube is available via the EarthCube Project Report EC-2014-3.

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