An oncologist’s battle with imposter syndrome


Somewhere between medical school, residency and fellowship, I lost my voice. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I knew where I wanted to be in my career, and how to accomplish those things … until one day, I wasn’t so sure. I don’t know if it happened when I was applying for fellowship or when I returned from maternity leave as a trainee and was battling imposter syndrome and felt like a rudderless ship. It could have been when I was looking for my first job post-fellowship. But somewhere in my ten years of training, I lost my voice. As an attending, I found it in the most unlikely of places, through social media.

Throughout my life, I have always spoken my mind. Amongst my friends, I am known as someone who “tells it like it is,” and I have been told I come across as a confident person. But when I returned from maternity leave, my confidence in myself, and the loss of my ability to stay true to myself and believe in myself somehow vanished. I transformed from the person most likely to ask a question to the person hoping someone else would ask the question, so I would not have to. I felt like my maternity leave had left me “behind.”

Most individuals in medicine have suffered from imposter syndrome at some time during their career. I have found many physicians over the last several years who have expressed feeling they do not belong, that they do not deserve the position they are currently in and are struggling with self-doubt. When I experienced these feelings in the past, I thought they were unique to me. It can be isolating to be surrounded by brilliant minds and feel like you don’t belong. And it is not something that is easily discussed in the academic world. Through social media, I initially found individuals who were willing to discuss these feelings, and reveal their insecurities. Perhaps it is the anonymity of posting in a “safe space” that makes it a little bit easier to express our feelings that make us vulnerable. In the last few years, I have found an extensive network of mentors and colleagues both through social media and in real life who are able to share their values, successes and failures, and their experiences with imposter syndrome.

Many colleagues I have spoken to did not know the existence of imposter syndrome. Before my conversations with others, I did not realize these feelings had a name. Imposter syndrome was first described by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. At that time, they theorized that women were uniquely affected by imposter syndrome. Since the 1970s, research has revealed that men and women can experience this phenomenon. The International Journal of Behavioral Science published a review article that stated approximately 70 percent of individuals experience these symptoms at some time in their lives. Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently wrote about her experiences with imposter syndrome and how she also has feelings of not belonging, and self-doubt.

Over the last four years, I have become active across various social media platforms, and I noticed an increase in the discussions of this topic. I joined the physician mom facebook group when it had about 100 members. It has now blossomed into a 70,000 group of women physicians around the world. Imposter syndrome, mentorship, and feeling lost in medicine, are common topics addressed in this large forum of women physicians. With the increase in discussions related to imposter syndrome on social media, I have begun to see an increase in these conversations in the real world. Several years ago, I was invited as a panelist on a round table discussion for young women physicians in training to discuss some of the challenges we face in our careers. Imposter syndrome was one of the central topics. For the first time in my career, I heard nationally renowned physicians on the panel describing feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt openly, and how they worked to combat this. Some also described how they had never known others felt this way, until they began reading what other physicians were writing and asking about it in the groups on social media.

Medicine is full of extremely intelligent physicians who are high achievers. But does the culture also create a breeding ground for amplifying imposter syndrome? In the Women’s Networking Center at ASCO 2018, a distinguished physician from a well-respected academic institution said something that blew my mind. She said: “Don’t ever forget, while you may not be the national expert in a certain disease, you are an expert in oncology, especially when you are speaking to anyone who is not an oncologist. Your knowledge and understanding of oncology will be miles beyond anyone who is not an oncologist. So do not let anyone hold you back because you are not the world expert on a specific topic.” These words were like an epiphany to me and many in the audience.

In a powerful commencement speech, athlete Abby Wambach, describes the importance of having a “wolfpack.” She describes a group of people who become your support system and encourage collegiality, taking chances and using your failures to succeed. By finding these forums, in real life and on social media I began to see that I was not the only one experiencing these feelings. Over the years, I have regained the confidence I lost somewhere along the way, and I have again become the individual in the room most likely to ask a question. I still battle imposter syndrome, as I am sure most physicians have. But I have an army of supporters, and they have my back, even though with some, our relationship is virtual.

So thank you to my wolf pack. You helped me transition into the life of an attending and have guided and educated me. Thank you for supporting me and most importantly, being there for me, even when you didn’t know you were.

Shikha Jain is a hematology-oncology physician who blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Shikha Jain.  She can be reached on Twitter @ShikhaJainMD.

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