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Does imposter syndrome ever fade? by Sarah Evans

Dr. Sarah Evans is an assistant professor at Appalachian State University, a primary undergraduate-serving public institution located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. As a hydrogeologist she studies the relationship between climate change and cold region groundwater flow systems. She graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with her PhD in Geoscience in 2017, MS in Geoscience in 2013, and BS in Geology and Environmental Studies from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahgevans0

Does imposter syndrome ever fade? I’ve asked this to several of my mentors and have almost always received a head shake and sigh indicating ‘no, not really’ in response. Truthfully, I’ve been conflicted writing this piece on ‘Navigating Your Early Career and Beyond’ because I’m still very much Navigating My Early Career and Beyond. I started as an assistant professor two years ago at the shiny age of 28. During my first year, I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to leave after discovering that I had duped the hiring committee. Every time I stood in front of a classroom to begin a lecture I was nervous I would be called out for not knowing the material. At national meetings, I would count slowly to ten in my head, gathering the courage to introduce myself to a big name in the field. Every time someone jokingly (but not so jokingly) told me that ‘I didn’t look like a professor’ it cut a little deeper. To add to my imposter tendencies, I work at what I’ve titled the ‘imposter institution’ of the academic world: a public primary undergraduate institution (PUI). Working at a PUI without name recognition is challenging in a way I never anticipated coming from an R1 and liberal arts background.

Sarah teaching her undergraduate students

What’s helped me is remembering some wisdom I received from a mentor before starting my position: ‘if you’re doing what you love, the rest will follow’. She was speaking to getting tenure, but I’ve carried over that advice to all parts of my early career. What I love is working with undergraduate students in the classroom and as part of my research group. It’s exciting when students have ‘aha’ moments about academic topics but it’s even more rewarding to hear about their passions, like how they made their own ketchup last weekend, or see their eyes bulge the first time they walk into the gigantic American Geophysical Union annual meeting poster hall. I’ve found that some days I come home from teaching a new class or working on a proposal and feel totally spent. Like I just want to stare at a blank wall for hours on end, spent. But other days I’m invigorated to work a little extra on a new hypothesis because of an idea a student had in class. As far as working at an ‘imposter institution’ goes, I’ve found that explaining that I only teach one class a semester, pushing a little harder to be involved in research collaborations, and demonstrating that our talented students are just as prepared for graduate work or employment as their R1, R2, and liberal arts counterparts, has helped dispel some of the myths surrounding working in a public PUI. Above all, I’ve found investing in students helps me see myself through their eyes. To my students, I might look young (because I am), but I’m not an imposter.

Sarah conducting fieldwork at Niwot Ridge, Colorado

Looking back on two years of my early career, I certainly still feel like an imposter working at an imposter institution. Based on advice I’ve received, I don’t think that will change anytime soon. But, I’m okay with that. I like to be challenged and demonstrate my worth because through all the doubt, I know that I work hard and am doing what I love, the rest will follow.

As a note, this view represents my personal perspective, which is that of a white, cisgender female. The systemic oppression of historically marginalized groups entering their early careers in polar research goes beyond imposter syndrome. We must work harder as a community to address and rectify these inequities.

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