Imposter syndrome and a note of thanks

A few weeks ago, I was honoured to have been given the Early Career Entomologist Award from the Royal Entomological Society and the Marsh Christian Trust. I’m not good at accepting praise and have always suffered from imposter syndrome. In the last year, I have done some relatively high profile events that have led to me speaking in front of hundreds of people. However, the thought of receiving an award in front of a few dozen of my peers terrified me. It is easy to sit in a lab or office all day, receiving scathing reviews of papers and grants (which are just par for the course, of course) and think that someone must have made a mistake when you finally achieve some degree of success.

During the low-key awards ceremony, I was the second person to be invited up, and I was even more horrified when the awardee in front of me was (without warning) offered the opportunity to say a few words. He spoke briefly and eloquently, and then it was my turn. I wasn’t ready for it, and I had no idea what to say. I shook the hand of the Marsh Trust representative, posed for a photograph, and when asked subtly whether I wanted to say anything, I quickly and quietly (and, I fear, a tad abruptly) turned down the opportunity. On reflection, though, and away from an intimidating crowd that included world leading scientists and a Nobel Prize winner, I realised that there are some things that I wanted to say. So here is the acceptance speech after the fact (with some posthoc thoughts inserted as a running commentary):

I am extremely grateful to the Royal Entomological Society and the Marsh Christian Trust for this award.

[I did find the MCT representative afterwards and thanked him personally, but I was anxious on stage and in my haste to sit down again was concerned that I came across as rude!].

It is a tough time to be an entomologist at the moment, and particularly an academic entomologist, and even more so an early career academic entomologist. Research institutions have reached the stage where unless you are explicitly curing cancer or solving world hunger then there is no place for you. As a result, those who work on insects (the “closet entomologists”) have been forced to rebrand themselves either so broadly as to have no meaning (“evolutionary biologists” or “ecologists”) or as being focused on grand challenges (“solving food security” or “curing disease”). Hence, the work that the Royal Entomological Society does to promote a focus on entomological research and the value of insects as model systems for all manner of scientific questions is vital to the ongoing development of the field.

[Ref2014 is not sufficiently behind us to tell the stories of the rebranding exercises that preceded the assessment, but when it comes to the restructuring of research group web pages there were a LOT of shoehorns involved for my entomological colleagues…]

Young academic entomologists have it hardest of all. When REF-related hirings are made, they are made on the basis of Nature and Science papers, or £million grants. These measures of success bias hirings away from traditional skills in taxonomy and systematics, for example, and towards researchers who work on “bigger” topics. Support from prestigious institutions such as the Royal Entomological Society gives kudos to those who emphasise their entomological activities and helps to fight this trend.

[This is not to say that “bigger questions” work is not important, of course, nor that those hired researchers do not possess skills (I know many high flying academics who are excellent natural historians). However, it is easy to lose valuable skills from academics such that the next generation of graduates never has a chance to learn them. What is needed is what Simon Leather et al. called “the rehabilitation of taxonomy“.]

Perhaps the most important group to support are women and minorities, who are historically underrepresented in academic cirlces (and particularly among senior academics).

[It is definitely worth noting some great work being done by communities recently, including the formation of Ento-Allies to make conferences positive and safe for women, women-focused networking, and inclusive positions on diversity in entomological organisations.]

To this end, I’ll be using the prize money to send a PhD student to a conference that she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to attend.

[It just so happens to be in Honolulu… Lucky thing…] 

I have enjoyed the last decade or so in my various roles as member and Fellow of the RES, as well as helping out with the editing of Ecological Entomology and Insect Conservation and Diveristy. I look forward to many more happy years working with the RES to promote the field of entomology.

And I really do – the RES has been good to me and is an academic society of which I have truly enjoyed being a part. I’m already looking forward to Ento17 in Newcastle next year!

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2 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome and a note of thanks

  1. Thanks for the mention and keep up the good work and when you get your Readership and eventually Chair, please do style yourself Reader in Entomology or Professor of Entomology 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this experience, and congratulations on your award, which I am sure is thoroughly deserved! Imposter Syndrome is something that we face in academia every day, and there is not a morning when I don’t come into work (I am a Senior Lecturer at a UK University) and think to myself “Crap! Someone is going to find out that I don’t know everything and fire me!” Speaking to colleagues and students I know that it is something that they suffer from too, but which we kind of tend to sweep under the carpet. Thanks for the amazing blog and again congrats on the award! 🙂

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