Expertise, imposter syndrome and Rice Krispies

On Friday, I was privileged to be part of a panel about public engagement and impact in academia. Effective public engagement is…not trivial. It requires meeting people where they are, it can be traumatic for minoritised communicators – and one theme that came up during the panel was bravery. For a lot of people, declaring yourself not just an expert, but an expert capable of collaborating with different people and groups, is a big step.

Honestly, it was a big step for me as well. I’m 25, doing paperwork makes me want to cry, and if I’m not leaving the house I’ll spend the day in pyjamas. Being treated like an expert on anything is still very, very strange to me. It’s also a strange feeling to many PhD students – that is to say, people who are literally training to be experts.

There are a couple of things I’d like to unpack in this blogpost: the feelings of not being a “real” expert, how they come about, and what someone might be able to do about them.

Imposter syndrome and structural oppression

In the 1970s, psychologists developed the concept of imposter syndrome: a phenomenon where people who do well can’t internalise their own success and feel like frauds. People who have imposter syndrome might believe that they don’t deserve to be in their position, that they got to their positions through a combination of good luck and outright fraud, or that they’re just waiting for someone to expose their deception.

In recent years, people have been increasingly pointing out that imposter syndrome isn’t some kind of individual failing. People don’t wake up one day and decide that they’re frauds. Nor is imposter syndrome solely down to how children were raised. Imposter syndrome directly influenced by structural oppression. If you’ve been told – and shown – that academia doesn’t want people like you, then you’re more likely to feel that you don’t belong or you’re somehow a fraud.

Part of bravery, then, might look like standing up to imposter syndrome against centuries of structural oppression. This is a colossal ask of an individual, and shouldn’t even be the responsibility of any one individual – so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s your responsibility alone, institutions be damned. Instead, I’m going to call on those institutions to make things materially better for the people they employ – especially the most precarious and most poorly paid. (I am specifically thinking of non-academic members of staff and outsourced members of staff.)

Who is an expert?

I rarely, if ever, feel like an expert. I am apparently an expert on some things, but mostly I feel like an overgrown adolescent with a knack for googling. Part of this is probably imposter syndrome. Part of this is probably that neurodivergent people like me aren’t welcome in academia. Part of this involves thinking about my mental image of an expert, and why I feel like I might not measure up to it.

In 1966, social scientist David Chambers started a set of seemingly simple experiments that would lead to profound insights. He asked 4,807 children, primarily from America and Canada, to draw a scientist. Over the past 50 years, social scientists have run these Draw-A-Scientist tests again and again. Today, more than 200,000 children have drawn scientists, their scribbles analysed by researcher after researcher.

These drawings reveal what children think a scientist looks like, and whether they can be scientists too. The results are mixed: while an increasing number of children draw scientists as women, most scientists are still male – and boys overwhelmingly draw male scientists exclusively. Girls start out drawing male and female scientists, but as they get older they lean more towards drawing male scientists. (These studies adhere strongly to the gender binary, which isn’t helpful and which is something I hope future researchers rectify.) What’s more, the scientists that children draw are overwhelmingly white.

I’m not a scientist any more, but my views on what makes an expert could have been shaped by all the stereotypes about scientists I saw growing up. In some ways, I do look the part of the scientist-expert: I’m white, glasses-wearing and overwhelmingly nerdy. Here’s a part of the scientist-expert archetype that doesn’t quite get represented in children’s drawings, though: often, experts are detached.

My image of the stereotypical expert is someone who’s formal, detached, dispassionate. I am not like that. In many ways, I am the exact opposite. I am jokey and cheery and often overly excitable when it comes to talking about my research. I want people to approach me and I want us to sit down and engage as equals, and to me, doing away with stereotypical markers of expertise is part of that. Yet doing away with markers of expertise is also what makes me feel like less of an expert.

Expertise and the Rice Krispie fiend

Part of my advice to PhD students wanting to do public engagement was to “embrace your inner Rice Krispie fiend”. I think that advice makes just as much sense in context as it does out of context – that is to say, not that much – so let me try to explain.

One of the things that makes me feel less like an expert is that I struggle with executive function. Executive function refers to sets of skills that help with organisation – skills like remembering where I put things, how to stick to a schedule, and how to plan tasks. It’s difficult to explain, but sometimes planning my day feels a bit like trying to count every tree in a forest. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like an expert when getting up in time for a big breakfast feels overwhelming and I just grab a snack bar before I start work for the day.

Yet things like this – being excitable and passionate and just simply flawed – are also what help people to relate and actually engage with each other. Seeing flawed, excitable, present, marginalised humans is important for engagement. Experts are allowed to be flawed, excitable, present and marginalised too – in fact, should be. If that means changing the role of the expert, that’s a good thing. Maybe changing what it means to be an expert is also some kind of bravery.

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