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Imposter Engineer

February 4, 2011

Despite coming from the generation where supposedly every kid got a trophy just for participating I am not an overly confident person. Don't get me wrong, I am confident in who I am. Thanks to a family that raised me right, no adverse or unstable conditions in my childhood, and now a good support system of that same family, my husband and some friends I feel good about who I am. But when it comes to what kind of engineer I am I have a strong case of imposter syndrome.

Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study or what external proof they may have of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced internally they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are actually frauds. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

The engineers whose intelligence I admire come from a mix of backgrounds. Some from prestigious schools, some from less so, and still more who never got a degree but you would never know it based on their top notch job performance. Sometimes I see people at my age and career path who seem to possess a better working knowledge of the equipment and I begin to question why I am even here.

Only occasionally am I surprised in the other direction. I wrote just yesterday about my struggles with report and technical writing only to be surprised today putting together a report with some of my fellow students. Granted I have a lot more experience writing reports than they likely do, but oftentimes I am impressed with their previous knowledge and experience (some a military background) as well as their creativity and innovation. However none of this made them good writers and their portions of the report were unclear and not persuasive.

So I spend a lot of time checking out books from my university library (while I still have access) and reading up on what I wish I knew more about, the thing my group does primarily. Still I don't feel this provides me with the instinct and hands on knowledge I respect from my superiors. And yet, though I feel my university gave me a good theoretical background I've seen other students from the same university and at about the same career point able to grasp theoretical workings of the equipment much faster than I can. So I know there are two paths I need improvement on.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm just not good at this. That perhaps my sparkling personality (you didn't see that coming did you) or mere determination is the only reason I'm still here. It would explain a lot of the unfair treatment I get. At other times I wonder whether I am more competent than I realize, though possibly less so than the people I compare myself to. Other times I wonder if I am excelling and just don't realize it. Then I swing back to thinking I am incompetent and a below average Engineer. One small benefit of working on an interdisciplinary team is how it exposes you to what you do know and other engineers don't. And that's one of the nice things about being surrounded by sparkies (that's EEs) on EngineerBlogs. When they talk about something electrical or build something amazing it doesn't bother me as much because I'm not an EE and I don't feel as bad by comparison. It's more a fun experience of learning a little about something I didn't already know. If only I could apply the same attitude to my own discipline.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2011 4:59 pm

    I don't think the feeling ever goes away, but it does get mitigated as you get more experience. When you are no longer the newest or the lowest person in the hierarchy, it definitely helps. It also helps to realize that there's a lot of things you know that other people don't actually know. On the other hand, every performance review I feel convinced that my job is at risk even though I've been rated as "outstanding" for two years in a row and even got an early promotion.

  2. February 6, 2011 4:57 am

    On my last eval, my boss said "you did better than I expected" and I felt kicked in the stomach. "It would explain a lot of the unfair treatment I get."If you sucked, you wouldn't be a threat. Since you don't suck, the assholes have to worry if you will be their boss someday. So they throw punchs now since there's safety in asshole numbers. If you are still around in a few years, you'll gain respect for living through the hazings. They will never respect you for the work you do because they are *always* in competition with you. If YOU feel you are an imposter, more power to THEM. That's what they want. Don't waste time second-guessing yourself. Trust your gut and stick to it. And if you are wrong, don't admit it. They sure as hell won't.I have a bad habit of not checking the rear-view mirror. I'm always looking ahead. I don't see the backstabbers coming, and I'm usually shocked, and I shouldn't be, when they take a swipe from behind. They have all this room to run, and they purposely get up on my ass. So Fucking Annoying. The people around you might not have gotten where they are because of their sparkling wit. They might have stomped on everyone in front of them, and they are the Last Asshole Standing from their cohort. The people I measure my success by are the Good People. The ones who see my talent, provide direction, and want to help me. They are my yardsticks. Ignore the flying monkeys.jc

  3. February 6, 2011 6:54 am

    I have nothing good for ya… (souther US lingo) at least you have a husband and a kid – in my book that would mean a million. you are good at what you do, not knowing you irl I can still tell since you post stuff that are good and on point.fuck imposter syndrome, it's in the mind (and I can go on and on about why women keep thinking about it – feministic me) and I would be happier if it wasn't true or if it wasn't reinforced by men i work with.. it's not. Just believe in you and your ability to do the work. So far, I haven't seen it's paid off by thinking through the thoughts… just go with what you have and you'll be fine. Sounds like you're an awesome engineer and worker! You'll never get told you are good enough, "they" want you guessing. Most (men) workers don't. Just go with it and interilise the concept that if they don't tell you you're bad- you're good (or even great)!

  4. February 6, 2011 10:01 pm

    I often get the feeling of imposter syndrome at work, especially where you hit upon a problem, or something you've not come across before, and don't have the necessary knowledge or experience to be able to resolve it easily, and someone else can come along and blast it away/help resolve it, seemingly effortlessly. When my team come to me when they have a problem, I feel like I'm just passing on the other persons solution, even if I add a bit too it, or combine a couple of things for this case. Rationally it's probably crazy to feel like a fraud doing this, but, I still do.It's a massively regulated industry where I work, and I developed tools and short-cuts to get stuff done quick so I can get on with the science. When I get rated higher than some of my peers, who I feel are more competent, or get "brownie points" for resolving some issue, this also makes me feel like a fraud. Bah!Anyhow, I shall stop emptying my sympathetic (-sym?)soul, and merely say, in a good natured internet stranger kinda way, I suspect you're perfectly good and DO deserve to be where you are, and still rising. But if that doesn't help, then take some solace from the fact that at least this feeling is, at least, making you strive to be better still.G

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