Impostor Syndrome and Other Salient Themes

A Year in The Life of An Assistant Professor

One year ago on this day, I began my job as an Assistant Professor at the College of Pharmacy at a Tier 1 research university. Going straight from grad school into such a position without a post-doc, while a laudable feat, was not without its challenges. One of which would be the steep learning curve of time management, assertiveness, establishing independence in research, and learning the fine ropes of teaching and scholarship. Adding to this mix is the residual impostor syndrome I carried over from grad school which made itself much more pronounced in the bubble of academe that I found myself in. So, how did I survive this first year without taking for the hills or even worse, the fear that my bosses will see me for the fraud that I am and give me the boot (this is the fear that plagues those who suffer from imposter syndrome)? I am glad you asked. I did this (and will still keep doing this) by doing four things:

  1. Normalization: I had to remind myself, and I also had others to remind me that what I was experiencing in my first few months on the job, though difficult, was not uncommon. It did not sink in at first, but by chanting several mantras and placing post-it notes of such reminders in my office and bedroom, I finally was able to internalize this message. As humans, we are often uncomfortable with the pain that comes from change, but this is where real growth happens, especially if we let such temporary discomfort runs its course like a severe bout of a viral cold.
  2. Community: I am a social being who gets joy from sucking the energy out of other people. This is a principle I had applied to my social life with successful results. I decided to do this exactly in my new role as an Assistant Professor. My friends list read like a roll call from a UN summit because I connect with people based on shared interests regardless of where they are from. So I decided that I needed to connect with people who were just like me — new and struggling Assistant Professors. The problem was like I didn’t find any formalized group around me, so I decided to create one. A month after I started my job, I created a group with a colleague in Canada, and we went from just two people sharing what it was like to be new and female in Academia. In fairness, we didn’t think of this as a group but more like Fight Club for Assistant Professors. We started it out as a therapy session to just talk about all and everything and strategize on how to ace our roles. As I type this, that group has grown from only two people to four people today — four women (Assistant Professors in their early careers) across the US and Canada supporting each other in this journey.
  3. Energy Conservation: In physics, the law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant — it is said to be conserved over time. Being new in Academia, you often want to do a lot more to prove mostly to yourself that you are more than capable being there. I too, started this way, but I learned that it deprived me of the joy to do things I really ought to be doing and enjoyed doing. To prevent burnouts, it is prudent to stick to the familiar. Instead of taking on new, lofty projects and trying to reinvent the wheel, I expanded my current research line and leveraged my existing network to continue my research in lupus and prostate cancer. By so doing, I was able to boost my confidence which freed up more energy to be able to collaborate with other people whose research aligned with me.
  4. Mentoring: Academia is a complex world, and it would be almost impossible to navigate without the help of the proverbial African village raising you. That said, I would like to use this medium to thank all of my mentors for helping me stay focused and who keep challenging me to be and do more. I have also come to learn better ways to help these mentors help me — by being respectful of their time, clearly communicating what my needs are, and identifying who I best need to help with what. Some of these mentors were gotten through formalized mechanisms and others colloquially (a majority was through conferences). I would like to thank all of these people for the roles they have played in my life, especially those who I am in a one-sided mentor relationship with me. Thus called because they do all the mentoring work and yet don’t know this yet :-D

So to everyone just starting on this journey or even contemplating on so doing, remember to be gentle with yourself as it takes a lot of time. And with time and experience comes an immense opportunity to grow.

All in all, I am thankful for the year I have had, and I look forward to exploring more opportunities in my role. A happy 1st year to me and here’s to much more to come!

나에게 축하를 전한다.

Here’s a list of my publications and bibliography, if you want to learn more about my research on lupus and prostate cancer:

P.S: As for that impostor syndrome, I found a way to ameliorate it — by simply acknowledging it and my accomplishments concurrently. This works wonders!

With Brio,
모 (Mo)!

I'm ME: replete with the mien of a bard, scholar, Argonaut, Jesus-lover, funfinder, bibliophile, Koreanophile, partner, and wanderer!