What it's like to be a trans scientist with imposter syndrome
CW: transphobia, depression, suicide
“You’re very lucky! Just ten years ago, I would’ve had you thrown out of my office.” These were the last words a professor ever said to me when I came out as trans during my undergrad.
Thankfully, I managed to complete my degree and move on to a PhD without ever having to talk to them again. (To top it off, they no longer teach there.) This might be a relatively extreme example, but the sentiment is often expressed as the same: trans and non-binary people are not commonly valued in STEM. It’s quite incredible that trans people make it through all these barriers and succeed in STEM, especially when the stigma surrounding trans identities is taken in combination with imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is a deep feeling of doubt over your accomplishments that haunts academics with an internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud,” despite years of diligent work. It manifests as a depressive self-image: “I don’t belong here.” For me, it manifests in debilitating anxiety attacks during which I doubt my self-worth and spiral until a due date forces me to get up, get to work, and take action. Even when I seek guidance from my hype-person and mentor Dr. Lee Penn (they/them), they sadly admit that even after years as a professor, it never really goes away. We have been aware of mental health risks and vulnerability placed upon graduate students. But when you’re trans, imposter syndrome is often amplified by people telling and showing you don’t belong here.
Support is a spectrum. There are plenty of amazingly vocal and supportive academics and professionals. Others, like the ex-professor above, are atrocious, and they can be laughably dismissed. Yet when it comes to being trans with imposter syndrome, it’s the silent professors who are the most dangerous because we aren’t able to get a clear indication if we are being fairly and objectively judged. Academia asks us to state our possible biases clearly. Vocal professors at the very least do this whether it is supportive or antagonistic. Silence invites uncertainty and casts self-doubt on an already vulnerable community during one of the most stressful academic challenges of our lives.
These silent professors have haunted me for years and were particularly harmful during the second year of my PhD. I was nearly kicked out of my program after my first preliminary exam for reasons still unknown to me. Preliminary exams are a pass/fail judgment by a committee of professors who determine whether or not a student has what it takes to continue on the path toward a doctorate degree. Make no mistake, I passed my preliminary exam on the first attempt—but I was told “I just squeaked by” and my committee “lacked confidence I would succeed much further.” My committee asked me to take a master’s degree and exit the program. I had passed, yet they were asking me to leave.
This was perplexing on several levels. First, I am a National Science Foundation Fellow whose funding is completely independent from the department. This is a highly competitive and sought-after grant for incoming graduate students, which means at the very least, I am free labor for three years until they want to kick me out properly. Second, this grade is completely subjective. Why not just fail me, let me retake the exam, and go through the formality of failing me again so I would be gone for good? Given the options, why ask me to leave?
I never got clear answers. Their silence means I have no clear evidence whether this outcome was driven by transphobia or a clear assessment of my scientific abilities. Instead, I was left in pain to believe they didn’t want me here and I didn’t belong. Thankfully, my advisor, who is primarily responsible for my growth as a doctoral student, did believe in me. We made a simple agreement and moved on.
I’m doing well. I’ve published my first paper and am wrapping up the rest of my doctoral studies and dissertation, all while forming an award-winning outreach organization, Queer Science. But the effects of that moment lingered. There were days at home when I panicked, thinking at any moment all of this would be over. It took me nearly a year before I felt any semblance of self-confidence again. It was during this year that imposter syndrome nearly ruined my future in academia.
I know I’m not alone and my experiences with being trans and having imposter syndrome are shared. Typically, this is the part where I would fill the page with statistics, but the trans STEM community is small enough that these stats don’t really exist yet. Bryce Hughes showed that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are 7 percent less likely to stay in STEM fields than heterosexual students, but I imagine this is higher for trans students who were not included in the analysis. Personally, I know two undergraduate trans women who have switched out of STEM, and one is finishing her degree with no intention of staying in the field. This increased pressure from the lack of visibility, a feeling of being unwanted, and imposter syndrome’s fraudulent sense of self causes a lot of us to leave the STEM field.
The fact that we don’t see each other represented throughout our field only increases our imposter syndrome. I was four years into my PhD and at an international conference in Germany before I met another trans woman in my field. When I do connect with the trans STEM community, we share similar emotional weights from our experiences. A newer PhD student, Vic (they/them) told me, “Without prominent role models or at least fellow students to share your experience, you can start to wonder whether you belong in STEM or not.”
Our sparsity throughout academia also creates a tokenizing environment, a common effect for many marginalized communities. Evan (he/him) expressed to me, “Every mistake or set-back I experienced felt like a reflection on my entire identity. I was risking condemning an entire future cohort of trans people to being assumed to be too lazy or incompetent or ‘too much work’ to be a good student, advisee, or scientist.”
This can be exacerbated by trans feminine folks who are subject to transmisogyny within STEM fields. “I didn’t really pass as a woman at that time, and they often treated me like I was just someone whose only concerns were of vanity because I was transitioning,” said Carmen (she/they). “I think it really inhibited my potential as a student. I was afraid to open up about my substance abuse to my professors who were my mentors because when I brought up how transphobia affected my mental state, they told me I just need to see the school counselor and get over it.” A lot of professors have never been given the tools to adequately deal with the emotional labor experienced by our community.
While I’ve had several trans mentees decide to enter other non-STEM fields, the single most painful was my undergraduate friend Hailey (she/her). At the time, Hailey and I were two of four out trans women and the only out undergrad trans women on our campus in South Carolina—not just in STEM, but our entire campus. While we first met in feminist philosophy courses, we also shared chemistry classes since she was a chemical engineer and I was an environmental engineer. Hailey didn’t feel valued in the classroom, represented in her field, or embraced by her family. On April 24, 2013, she passed away, and I lost the person who shared these struggles with me.
For the next year and through my graduation, I went into survival mode. I needed to move forward because she couldn’t be the end of our story. During graduate school, I started Queer Science. We’re a team that performs outreach to LGBTQ+ youth, so they can see representation and explore their passion in STEM. While I love performing outreach, it was a necessary endeavor because it helped me form connections that lift me up during my lowest moments. And after nearly getting kicked out, I wouldn’t have kept going if it weren’t for these connections who I now call family. When I am feeling unrepresented and fraudulent, they are there to support me.
What does this all mean? If you’re a cis person in STEM who supports trans people, we need you to be vocal. Attend an ally training; add your pronouns with your work and email signature; rock some trans pride stickers on your laptop; and help share the emotional labor the trans community upholds every day. Help cis folks who are trying to understand our struggle but aren’t quite there. Society hasn’t always given them the skills to meet diversity authentically.
Small moments of support go a long way in showing the trans community that you see us; you value us; and you’re here for us. Since there aren’t a ton of other trans people in STEM fields, make us feel like we’re a part of the family. It will go a long way into helping us succeed and overcome our own imposter syndrome.
To my fellow trans STEM siblings, I see you; you are loved; and your scientific work is amazing. Hopefully, you have access to organizations like Queer Science that can connect you to others. There are tons of oSTEM or NOGLSTP chapters, and many more groups where we can keep building and expanding our networks. If you’re more isolated, like I was in South Carolina, please join the Twitterverse or an online community that inspires you. Find your family because your success isn’t accidental, and your legacy for the upcoming generation is monumental.
In loving memory to Hailey (rest in power) and my fellow trans siblings laboring for recognition.