Finding Power in Discomfort: 5 Ways to Advocate for Yourself and Others in Science

Share your experiences, it might just empower others. Image: Parliamentary Copyright/Jessica Taylor

Three years ago, I moved from California to North Carolina for graduate school, an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than I expected. The most discomforting was feeling very different from my colleagues. For example, my identity as a woman of color became more salient when I realized there were fewer people who looked like me in the classes and meetings I attended. It wasn’t until recently that I found a community of like-minded, underrepresented students who told stories similar to mine. I felt empowered through this shared struggle to learn how to advocate for myself and others in order to increase visibility for underrepresented groups in science. Not sure how to do it (like me)? Try these tips!

Bring your personal identity into your work. Increase the visibility of your personal identity in the workplace so that you are not left out of the conversation. It can be uncomfortable to bring up your experiences and challenges related to gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc., but doing so may provide the opportunity for others to exhibit empathy. Regardless of the differences between people, everyone shares the mutual need for kindness and respect. It’s important and necessary to stay true to who you are in order to create more of a dialogue, so don’t hide it.

Empower others by sharing your story. Share your own stories of success or hardship because not only does it feel intrinsically rewarding to communicate your thoughts and feelings with others, but it can also validate the range of experiences that other underrepresented students face and often in silence. If you’re shy or nervous, try sharing your story on Akin, an anonymous digital storytelling platform created by my friend, Cassandra Lam, to empower people to connect through stories of shared experiences.

Step into a world you don’t know much about. Equally important is the ability to listen to others’ stories, as it can provide insight into the privileges you might not even realize you have. Be mindful that some people will face certain challenges that you might never have to face (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation). Be open-minded, ask questions, and acknowledge others’ perspectives (try to avoid phrases like “at least you don’t have to deal with…” which might undercut what they’re sharing).

Express your intellectual humility. It can be hard to say “I don’t know” to anything, but learning how to articulate exactly what you don’t know can be the engine for establishing new learning and networking opportunities. Seek knowledge from teachers and experts about topics you’re unfamiliar with, but are interested in learning. It’s also okay to ask for support from mentors and colleagues. You’ll be surprised at how many people want you to succeed and are willing to help.

Dive into more uncomfortable conversations about uncomfortable topics. When discussion of uncomfortable topics (e.g., lack of visibility for underrepresented groups) arises, I challenge you to speak up, even when it’s easier to stay silent to avoid causing rifts in conversation. Advocating for the importance of your/others’ needs lifts up the voices of those who are unable or are afraid to so themselves.

Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong.

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House Tax Bill Could Lead to Significant Tax Increase for UNC Grad Students

The current IRS 1040 income tax form.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a version of the tax reform bill that, if made into law, could lead to a massive tax increase for many US graduate students.

The cause of this would be the removal of section 117(d)(5) from the tax code. This section establishes that any reduction to university tuition, granted in exchange for work, cannot be taxed.

Many graduate students work as teachers and researchers at their universities, and in exchange receive moderate stipends and have their tuition costs covered by waivers. The removal of section 117(d)(5) would mean that the value of these tuition waivers would be considered part of a student’s taxable income.

Depending on course load, a graduate student enrolled at UNC’s School of Medicine, is  charged from around $8,000 to $34,000 in out-of-state tuition. These numbers vary between different graduate programs at UNC, but generally fall within this range. That means a UNC graduate student in the life-sciences, receiving a $30,000 stipend, could see their taxable income increase to more than $60,000, without taking home any extra money.  

How much your taxes would increase would depend on factors like your residency status, credit hours, and the stipend value. But even for students with relatively low tuition costs, the increase could be several thousand dollars annually, adding significant financial strain for many students who are already scraping by. The effect would be even worse at institutions like MIT and Harvard, where graduate tuition can be more than $50,000.

Graduate students would not be the only ones affected. University employees are the other major group that benefit from tax-exempt tuition waivers, and are often able to send their children to school at greatly reduced costs. For many, that means access to education that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

Cutting tuition waiver tax exemption is not the only way the House bill would impact higher education though. The bill would also drop a $2,500 deduction of student loan interest, as well as the tax exempt status for bond financing at private universities.

Unsurprisingly, the House bill has been met with significant concern by US educational institutions as well as students. Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at MIT, wrote a sharp essay for the New York Times on how the House tax reforms may force her to leave school, and the president of Elon University, Leo Lambert, wrote an op-ed piece in the Raleigh News and Observer in opposition. The Association of American Universities has also issued a statement arguing that the proposed reforms would make higher education less accessible for many Americans.

On the other side, arguments have been made that the relevant proposals, particularly the removal of section 117(d)(5), would not be as detrimental to graduate education as many have claimed.

Forbe’s contributor Preston Cooper wrote that colleges could dodge any negative effects by simply reclassifying tuition waivers as scholarships. That change, Cooper argues, would keep tuition assistance protected from being taxed. Whether it’s feasible for public universities like UNC to make this change rapidly enough isn’t clear, but it seems reasonable that universities could make some adjustments to help students.

All that said, it’s important to point out that the Senate version of the tax reform bill, which could be voted on as soon as next week, retains the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers. So, it is still very much undecided whether the reforms affecting higher-ed will actually become law.

Even though the House bill has already passed, the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) has urged students to petition their senators to fight the House proposals and to prevent any reforms to tuition waivers from being made into law. Students should also call their state senators, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

With the Senate potentially voting on their version of the tax bill at the end of the month, the debate over these tax reforms is almost certainly just getting started.

Peer edited by Erika Van Goethem.

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Is the GRE a Waste of Money?

Is the GRE really worth it? Some students are starting think it’s not.

Graduate schools generally utilize previous transcripts, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, personal statements from applicants, and letters of recommendation in order to assess whether candidates are suitably prepared for success in graduate school. However, how much do any of these individual components contribute to the success of a student in graduate school? Multiple published articles argue that there are no methods to precisely measure the success of graduate students, however that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. In a recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers tackled this question by characterizing success in graduate school as the number of published first-author articles. They then compared this to more traditional parameters that are normally used to determine if students are prepared for graduate school. Students’ grades, GRE scores, and even impressions from admissions interviews with faculty members were each examined and found to have no correlation to success in graduate school. In fact the only predictive indicator of success was found to be letters of recommendation that stated that the student were among the top tier of students.

Although this study was only recently published and has yet to have significant impact on graduate student applications, it is hardly the first study of its kind. A researcher at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) utilized data collected from students over the course of a twenty-year period and found that grades and GRE scores were not predictive of the success of students. This UCSF study found that the only indicators of success were whether or not the students had completed a full two years of research prior to graduate school and the subject-specific GRE.


Another study conducted at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee essentially found that the only thing that the GRE predicts is the first semester GPA of graduate students. All other markers of success such as passage of qualifying examinations, time to defense, successful completion of a Ph.D., and the likelihood of first-author publications did not correlate with GRE scores. In fact, when the GRE was originally assessed for its ability to predict success of students, the only measurement utilized was to compare GRE scores to the GPA of graduate students.

Image by Lindsay Walton

GRE scores are a better indicator of Race and Gender than of success in Graduate School

So, if the GRE doesn’t predict success in school, what does it actually indicate? Many are questioning the utility of the GRE as a measure that is useful in selecting students. Multiple basic scientists have spoken out against the usefulness of the GRE, and have cited studies that indicate that the GRE is a better predictor of both sex and race than it is an indicator of success in graduate school. As one researcher put it, “The GRE is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?” For example, some minorities, such as black students typically score 200 points below their white counterparts in spite of being successfully prepared for graduate school. Graduate school is typically a white-predominated educational platform. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students represent approximately 64% of the total graduate student population. By continuing to require students to submit GRE scores, schools are eliminating underrepresented minorities as potentially successful candidates, when instead they should be creating additional opportunities to prepare minorities to succeed in graduate school.


Most directors of biomedical graduate programs are actually basic scientists. They understand that educational practices should be evidence-based. However, in spite of all this compelling data, few institutions are actually eliminating requirements for extraneous examinations such as the GRE, transcripts, and other requirements. In fact, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University researchers, who published the articles on GRE scores not being a predictor of graduate school success, are involved in the admissions process of biomedical programs at their institutions. Nonetheless, these programs still require submission of GRE scores, transcripts, and statements of purpose in spite of the fact that none of these application materials indicated who would thrive in graduate school. So the only question remains: If scientists won’t follow their own advice, how will academic admissions advance in the future?

Update: The author has been contacted by the UNC BBSP admissions office and told that while admissions for the 2018-2019 still requires submission of GRE scores, the admissions committee for the program has been instructed to ignore GRE scores in their consideration of applicants for the upcoming year. Currently the UNC Graduate School requires all programs to request GRE score submission prior to admission. In the future, the UNC BBSP program plans to review the success of the admission process while ignoring the GRE scores and then consider petitioning the UNC Graduate School in order to drop the requirement. 

One of the authors of the UNC paper, and a member of the UNC BBSP team, Dr. Joshua Hall, maintains an active twitter presence and can be found at @jdhallphd. Dr. Hall keeps an active list on his twitter of all the programs that have either dropped or plan to drop the GRE from their admissions process for those interested.

Peer edited by Sam Honeycutt and Kelsey Miller.

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AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program

Are you interested in learning the tools to communicate complex ideas to a general audience?  The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program is a competitive 10 week program that places you with media organizations around the nation to give you the tools to make science news easy for the public to understand.  Fellows are placed with media professionals at radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines where they work with host journalists to research, write, and report today’s science news.

In the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program learn how to communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

To be eligible for this fellowship you must be an advanced undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level student in life, physical, health, engineering, computer, or social sciences or mathematics and related fields.

For more information and fellowship criteria visit the AAAS website.

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Are You Ready for Science Writing and Communication 2017/2018?


We are so excited about what’s in store for SWAC this year! If you are interested in writing or editing for SWAC for the 2017/2018 year, be sure to attend one of our orientations this fall. Even if you’ve contributed before, come learn new SWAC policies, meet the new executive board, and make new friends interested in science communication. There are two orientations for your convenience, but you only need to attend one.  Click on the links to register today!


Thursday, September 7th at 4pm

Wednesday, September 13th at 12pm


Be on the lookout for more details coming to your inbox in August.



The SWAC Team

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Science and Ethics

So let’s say, hypothetically, that your lab receives blood samples from a group of individuals to study genetic links with diabetes.  However, these samples would also provide important insights into other diseases.  But the researchers did not get consent from the blood samples donors for the extra research.  For researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona (U of A), this was not a hypothetical situation.

DNA from blood samples provide the information needed to potentially cure many diseases that plague us today.  But if the proper procedure is not followed, these scientific breakthroughs may never leave the courtroom.

They collected 400 blood samples from the Havasupai Tribe around 1990 to understand if there was any connection between genes and diabetes, at the tribe’s request. This particular tribe is from an isolated area of the Grand Canyon, with a restricted gene pool contributing to genetic diseases.  This Native American tribe has a high-incidence with diabetes.  The researchers did investigate this problem with diabetes, but they also wrote a grant proposal for researching schizophrenia in the Havasupai Tribe, which the tribe was not aware of nor gave consent for.

The main issues raised in this case are:

  • What is informed consent?  In this case, the consent form stated that the samples were to be used for studies on behavioral and medical diseases. But, meetings between the researchers and tribe members indicated that only diabetes was to be studied.  Using broad or vague language in consent forms can lead to miscommunication between scientists and subjects.
  • What information in the medical records can be accessed and by who?  Some researchers gained access to medical records without permission. Files should be kept in a secured place where only the authorized users have access.
  • Who has control of the samples?  This is a question that needs to be discussed with the subjects before samples are collected.  Researchers might want to contact their university’s research center for more information on sample ownership.


As scientists, we have a set of standards, or ethics, that help members coordinate their actions and establish trust with the public. Below are four ethical norms (or goals) that affect graduate students:

Scientists build and maintain credibility with the public by conducting research responsibly and with integrity.

  1. Promote the goals of scientific discovery, such as furthering knowledge and truth.
  2. Advocate collaboration between scientists; diversity and collaboration create new and novel discoveries that we can all benefit from.
  3. Promote accountability to the Public; it’s essential that the Public can trust the scientists to do their best work and avoid misconduct, conflicts of interest, and ensure that human/animal subjects are properly handled.
  4. Build Public support, without federal funding many of us graduate students would not be able to do our research.

For the misuse of their DNA samples, the  Havasupai Tribe filed a lawsuit against Arizona Board of Regents and ASU researchers in 2004, which eventually led to a settlement in 2010.  The tribe received $700,000 and their blood samples were returned.  The situation with ASU and U of A researchers has left an air of mistrust in Native American communities.  As scientists, it’s our responsibility to build trust with the public and maintain open and honest communication.  


Peer Edited by Bailey DeBarmore

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Physical Activity: A Simple Approach to a Large Problem

Our great-grandparents didn’t need to exercise in order to be healthy. Many of them had jobs that involved hard physical labor.

It seems the longer the obesity epidemic plagues the United States, the more complicated solutions to this problem become.  Exercise programs become more intricate, diet plans become more extreme and hype could not be louder.  However, using an old and simplistic mindset when approaching this problem can be more effective than “the latest breakthrough in fat loss!”.  Try to recall memories of your great-grandparents.  Were your great-grandparents obese or relatively fit?  What were their daily physical activity levels?  Did they work on a farm or in a manufacturing job? If they did, their physical activity levels were probably high. But what about their exercise levels; did they even exercise at all?  I ask this because there is a difference between working on a farm all day and exercising.  Working in a farm or factory is characterized as physical activity but does not count as exercise.  Exercise is the deliberate intention of getting physical activity.  

This distinction between laboring work and sedentary work started the field of exercise physiology.  In 1952 Jerry Morris, an epidemiologist from Scotland, published a study on the differences in incidence of heart disease between sedentary bus drivers and active conductors in the London transport system.  Morris found that  both the transport conductors and drivers came from similar socio-economic status but the conductors had lower rates of heart disease.  This difference was attributed to the walking and stair climbing demanded of conductors.  Subsequent studies, co-authored by Morris, showed that not only were conductors less likely to experience heart disease, but those working jobs requiring more movement were protected from heart disease compared to their sedentary counterparts.  Although Morris recently died at the age of 99, he continues to have a positive influence on the field of exercise and epidemiology, having contributed to a study finding that meeting the minimum requirements (150 minutes/week) of exercise per week (American College of Sports Medicine and The English Department of Health) resulted in a 25% lower mortality rate compared to sedentary populations.  This means that getting just a little physical activity or exercise everyday can increase your life expectancy and quality of life.

Today, physical activity means going to a gym and running on a treadmill or elliptical.

Exercise is characterized as deliberately moving one’s body in a physically active manner with the intention of improving health and/or fitness.  I bring this up because you do not have to exercise in order to remain healthy; however, your physical activity levels need to be high.  Beyond working in a farm or factory there are other forms of applicable physical activity.  In fact, physical activity does not only have to be work, it can also be functional and fun!  Historically, physical activity is the most straightforward and most successful solution to the United States obesity epidemic.  Physical activity includes: active commuting, yard work, taking the stairs, recreational sports, dance classes and from a nomadic perspective hunting and gathering.  Active commuting involves walking or biking to work and can help solve both environmental and health problems the United States currently faces.  Active commuting has been shown to decrease chances of cardiovascular disease by 11% while also decreasing risk for cancer.

Finding a combination of functional and fun physical activity will require creativity, flexibility, and tweaking your current lifestyle but is worth it in the end.  Create a set of guidelines that will direct you towards a more physically active lifestyle.  

These guidelines should look like:

  1. Make physical activity a priority – Above anything else increasing your physical activity will require you to make mental adjustments.  Accept the fact that there may be a few inconveniences added to your life, but they are worth it.
  2. Make it simple – Stay at your kids soccer practice and walk during their practice time.  Take the stairs at work and walk to your lunch destination.  
  3. Create a social environment – Engage a friend or coworker to join you on lunch time workouts or attend evening yoga classes.  Develop friendships and camaraderie at an exercise group you join.  A study performed at Santa Clara University found that people in social exercise programs were 19% more likely to complete a weight loss exercise program and 42% more likely to maintain their weight loss.  
  4. Include a variety of activities – If you like the outdoors, find trails or paths weaving in the woods to hike or bike.  If you want to stay inside find indoor sports, dancing clubs or indoor pools.  A study at the University of Florida found that participants using an exercise plan with variety enjoyed exercise 20% more than individuals using the same plan everyday.  
  5. Stick with it – Find safe, low-cost activities and activities that can fit into your daily schedule.  Find an activity that makes you feel accomplished afterwards.

It takes leading by example and communication for ideas like this to spread, but think of the impact physical activity had on early Americans and the impact it can still have!  Challenge yourself and challenge others to jump aboard this simple solution to one of America’s largest problems.


Peer edited by Amala John.

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Talking Science with Grandma: How to Communicate Science to the Public

Before we know it, it will be summer.  That means sunny days, flowers, barbecues, beach trips, and family reunions.  With family reunions comes having to explain to every cousin, aunt, uncle, and grandparent what it is that you actually do while you’re conducting research.

Family reunions at the park can often lead to confusing explanations of your research!

At one of these family functions, my grandma asks “So how’s your research going?”  

I tell her that my research is going well and I am writing a paper for publication in a scientific journal.  She responds with “That’s fantastic sweetie! What is the paper about?”

I tell my grandma that my article is about germanium nanowires with unique electronic and phononic properties that have generated new interest in their use for electronics and space technologies. My work investigates how energy is converted to coherent acoustic phonon propagation within germanium nanowires using ultrafast pump-probe microscopy.  

Grandma politely nods as I talk and then says “those bugs sound interesting.”  Where did the “bugs” come from? Nanowires are not bugs.  Clearly, there was a disconnect somewhere.  

Why is effective science communication important?

Publishing is essential in order for a scientist to have a successful career.  But publishing comes in many forms: scientific journal articles, news releases, social media posts, etc.  At the center of this is being able to communicate our research to others.  As scientists, we need to focus on engaging our audience, and before that, take the time to consider who is in the audience.  Are we talking to other scientists in our niche field, scientists in another area, or the public (like Grandma)?  By leading my research summary with the details of my experimental methods, the audience gets overwhelmed with jargon and details.  What the general public really wants to know is the main result and why they should care.

How to Communicate Science to the Public:

  1. Determine the goal for communication: are you trying to influence decision-makers, humanize scientists, build trust between the public and scientists, etc?
  2. Engage the audience: with whom are you communicating and what motivates the audience? Tell a story, ask a question, find commonalities.
  3. Determine the message: think about the most important result that you want the audience take away from your talk.  Quality before quantity.

I should have explained my science like this:

I went to my first country concert in Raleigh, NC and saw Lady Antebellum, Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt.  The way the bands played their guitars was beautiful. You could feel the passion and sound waves rolling through the Amphitheatre.  

In my research, we basically build and play “nano-guitars”.  Germanium nanowires, wires that are about 60,000 times thinner than a single human hair,  are suspended over tiny trenches, similar to the strings across an acoustic guitar.  I use a laser, like a musician uses a guitar pick, to make vibrations (sound waves) in the nanowires and watch them travel along the wire. In guitars, the frequency or pitch of the sound wave is determined by the thickness, length, elasticity, and tension of the strings. The same thing happens with the germanium nanowires, changing the diameter of the nanowire changes the frequency of the vibration.

Image created by Kelsey Brereton

Photons hit the nanowires and launching vibrations. Essentially, this is a nanoscale acoustic guitar!

By studying the vibrations and how they travel through a nanowire, we learn how elastic (flexible or resilient) materials are as they shrink to the nanoscale. With this information, we could design new electronics that use vibrations to learn more about the world and universe we live in.

Want to develop the skills to communicate science to a general audience? Check out these upcoming workshops at UNC!  

Creatively Engaged Conversations – Methods of Communicating Your Research to Different Audiences will be held on  Monday April 24, 2017 at 11:00 am – 1:30 pm at Wilson Library Room 504 (on 1st floor of library near grand entrance) Register:

SWAC Writing Workshop: The writing workshop is the final event in the SWAC seminar series and the opportunity for you to workshop your own science piece for general audiences. Whether you’ve started a blog post and want a chance to polish it or are interested in writing but are not sure where to start, you are invited to come get feedback from peers and science communication experts from around the Triangle.

Writing Workshop Part 2, Thursday, April 27, 2017 3-5 pm:

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss.

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Is Your Impostor Syndrome Showing?

Image by Kelsey BreretonI was sitting at my kitchen table with a scattered mess of textbooks and notes studying for my first graduate school final.  The white board was filled with incoherent scribbles of chemical structures and electron arrows.  I had hit a wall, and all the thoughts of self doubt and inadequacy played on an endless loop through my brain: “I’m not as smart as everyone else, I don’t deserve to be here, and now they will really know I’m a fraud.”  I ended up passing the courses, so clearly I am smart enough to be at UNC. However, those negative feelings kept creeping back up to the surface over the years, no matter how many P’s I earned in my courses, positive reviews I received from my PI, or even fellowship awards I won.  The nagging feeling of inadequacy remained!  It turns out this emotion has a name: impostor phenomenon, aka impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is described as feelings of perceived inadequacy even when there is plenty of evidence otherwise.  Many people struggle silently with feelings of chronic self-doubt, intellectual fraudulence, anxiety, and depression.  These can become so severe that it stifles performance in graduate school or the workplace.  Ironically, it’s usually successful people that suffer from impostor syndrome; even acclaimed celebrities and high profile business executives are not immune. They will attribute their success to luck or generosity of others – anything but their own hard work and skills. This is extremely common for many professionals and graduate students. These high achievers set unsustainable, high expectations on their work and when the standards are not met, allowing feelings of deficiency to creep in.

The impostor phenomenon was first studied by Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Clance, who  saw a strong link between the impostor syndrome and perfectionism. Imes posits that impostor syndrome could result from growing up in households that place an exuberant emphasis on achievement.  This resonates with my personal experience. In my family, we got A’s. Not A-’s. Only A’s were acceptable, and before long, I became overtly self-critical when I didn’t get an A on a test or even a homework assignment.  It’s no wonder why self-worth becomes directly tied to achievement.  Students either fear their work won’t be perfect and procrastinate, or they develop obsessive work habits, spending more energy than necessary.  These unhealthy study habits, developed in high school, can become firmly seeded during undergraduate careers.  In intensive graduate programs, that sense of achievement, once drawn from grades, gets drawn from the success of research projects.

Graduate and professional students spend years struggling to learn extremely difficult material, overcoming failed experiments, and (hopefully) becoming experts in highly specialized fields.  It is easy for students to lose their sense of personal identity as they become expert scientists. Perfectionism and attention to detail are described as skills by many successful scientists, but these skills can also be holding us back in many ways if we succumb to the Impostor Monster.

Do others see your impostor syndrome?

Most of the time, the people suffering from impostor syndrome hide their symptoms extremely well because they are afraid of being exposed as a fraud.  If impostor syndrome becomes too bad, others will start to notice your lack of self-confidence and increased self-doubt.  This can be problematic during performance evaluations, job interviews, and committee meetings and can start to negatively impact your life other than just emotionally.

How could your impostor syndrome be holding you back?

Impacts on graduate school:

  1. The fear of being exposed as a fraud can lead students to take less risks in lab.  Students would be afraid of an experiment failing and having to tell their boss they failed, over time leading to less creative research and lower productivity.
  2. Holding back on submitting publications or proposals because they might not be absolutely perfect.
  3. Negative self talk can lead you to think you’re not good enough, then you don’t do your best work which, by default, reinforcing the negative thoughts.  
  4. Constantly comparing yourself to others only feeds the impostor monster and wastes energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Impacts on professional career:

  1. Not taking ownership of personal accomplishments can result in not getting a promotions, awards, and recognition.
  2. Miss opportunities for new experiences: lowering career goals to match feelings of being unqualified. For example, deciding not to pursue a tenure-track position at a research intensive university because of the feelings of fraudulence and inadequacy.
  3. Work way too hard to make up for your “deficiencies” which can make you more likely to burn out.

So what can we do about this impostor syndrome?

Most people struggle with this their whole lives, but there are ways to keep it from running the show.  

Put your impostor syndrome in perspective: Identify your feelings and do a reality check.  Assess whether your feelings of incompetence are exaggerated.

Remind yourself what you are good at: Determine what your skills are and what you have accomplished so far.  Remember, getting into graduate school itself is a major accomplishment!

Write down the compliments that you receive: On days when you’re struggling with negative thoughts, reading the positive thoughts others have about you will boost your self-confidence. Also, try to accept compliments with a simple “thank you” rather than discounting them.

Build a support group of trusted friends and family: There’s a good chance that most of your peers are going through this too and think that they are also the only one suffering.  

It’s been a few years now since my first graduate school finals, but my impostor syndrome still resurfaces from time to time. I still struggle everyday with setting realistic standards for the amount of work I can accomplish and avoid my excessive perfectionist tendencies. When I start to think “I’m not good enough,” I stop and remind myself what I’m good at and how much I have improved as a scientist since starting graduate school. Don’t let your impostor syndrome run wild and limit your future success in life.

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss and Kelsey Noll. 

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We all get that same question over and over again from everyone we meet — the old friend at the grocery store, an uncle at a family reunion, or even a stranger at the bus stop: “What do you do for a living?” If you’re a graduate student, you could be tempted to say something like, “I am a Ph. D student conducting research on the genetics of cancer. Specifically, I study the role of an RNA-binding protein in regulating tumor angiogenesis in both cells and mouse models, and I hope to eventually develop a therapy targeting this molecular pathway.” It’s likely, however, that an answer like this would mean something entirely different to the person who asked you the question than it does to you. Inigo Montoya would probably not be impressed. Why? Because if you look closely at the words in bold, you will realize that while most of them are not particularly complex or technical, they do have very specific meanings in a scientific context. As Ph. D students, it can be challenging for us to remember that many of the words we freely toss around every day in the lab mean something completely different to those that are not actively engaged in science. and

A good-looking woman or a laboratory mouse injected with cancer cells – which model are you talking about?

Here are just a few of those words that have completely changed in their meaning for me during my time as a scientist. (Just a disclaimer, my Now definitions are far from comprehensive, but instead represent what first comes to my mind now as a Ph. D student in cancer biology).

Ph. D Student

What I used to think: An insanely intelligent human being who has the answers to all of life’s questions and is nothing short of a walking, talking encyclopedia.

Now: Someone who has absolutely no clue what’s going on at any given time of the day.


What I used to think: Reading up on a topic on Wikipedia.

Now: Slaving away for hours at a bench, repeating experiments over and over again that never work, all while questioning the reason for my existence.


What I used to think: The field that studies how you inherit traits from your parents.

Now: The field that studies the complex molecular underpinnings of diseases and biological processes at the DNA, RNA, and protein levels.


What I used to think: The stuff that determines what color your eyes are and whether or not you have attached earlobes.

Now: Enigmatic molecules we’ve been studying for almost 150 years and have only scratched the surface of in terms of our understanding. Among many things, they are molecules essential for controlling the amount and types of proteins found in a given cell.


What I used to think: That stuff in meat you should eat a lot of if you want to get buff.

Now: Complex molecules that are the core machinery for all biological processes and functions. When developing new treatments for diseases, these molecules are often what we try to target.  


What I used to think: Tyra Banks.

Now: A mouse, fly, worm, frog, fish, or other critter whose genetics, tissues, or other aspect of their biology has been altered to try and mimic a human disease. We use these models to both better understand diseases and test potential treatments for them. Unfortunately, however, these models often fail to capture the full complexity of a given human disease, causing the conclusions we draw from working with them to have shortcomings. This is largely the reason why we have not yet completely cured diseases like cancer!


What I used to think: Something you seek out if you are experiencing problems in your life.

Now:  A molecule, compound, or technique that targets a specific component of a disease to prevent or eradicate it.


What I used to think: The yellow brick road.

Now: A series of molecules (i.e. proteins, DNA, or RNA molecules) that physically interact with or signal to one another to initiate a process or carry out a function.

So next time someone asks you about your research, instead of just trying to simplify your explanation, take the time to teach them the new meaning of a word or two!

Peer edited by JoEllen McBride.

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