Rejection and imposter syndrome are two things that no matter how many times we deal with them, it never seems to get easier. In this article Beth highlights her own experience with rejection, how she was able to overcome it and how you can too!
“Dear Beth, thank you so much for your interest in this position. The pool of candidates was very strong and we were inundated with applications. Unfortunately, whilst you gave a very strong interview, on this occasion, you were not successful. We wish you well in all of your future endeavors! Best wishes, Dr. X”
Sounds familiar, girls? I thought so.
The sinking feeling in your stomach, coupled with a multitude of emotions. Angry because of all of the preparation you’d put into the application process. Upset that you’d already imagined getting the position. Anxious that you’re clearly missing something that other applicants seem to have so easily. Exhausted from receiving yet another sugar-coated, hard to swallow rejection email. I’ve been there! And it sucks – big time. But, just like life does, I’m going to throw a curveball now and say…what if it doesn’t suck? What if it was the best thing to happen to you? And you just don’t know it yet? Hear me out…
Let’s rewind to Christmas 1999. Three-year-old Beth has just opened a Doctors play kit from Santa. Mind-blown, she turns to her parents and says “I’m going to be a Doctor when I grow up!”. Now fast forward to 2014. Eighteen-year-old Beth still wants to be a Doctor. She’s worked towards this for the entirety of her life in education. Interview done. Conditional offer in place…and she misses the offer by one grade. And in one phone conversation with the medical admissions office, she was left feeling like the world had ended. Crushed, devastated, heartbroken, terrified – you name it, I felt it. I had no back-up plan. Why would I need one? It’s all I’d ever wanted and I felt defeated.
“I’m clearly not good enough” “Was I stupid to think I was good enough for this?” “My exam results are awful”
Despite all of this, a glimmer of hope lay in the fact that I had a Scholarship to the University of Liverpool secured. I spoke to the Scholars team who advised that if I took a year out, I’d have a guaranteed place on a science-based degree programme the following academic year. Alarm bells instantly – “How can I take a year out?! Education is all I’ve ever known!”. But after some serious thought, I accepted their offer. Plan B initiated; I’d do a Bachelors degree in Genetics and then apply for post-graduate medicine. Slight diversion to the original plan but I’ll get there - even if it kills me!
During that year, I got my first full-time job working in a banking call centre and was even made a Team Manager just as I switched to part-time to fund myself through University. Funnily enough, that particular job was brought up by every interview panel I faced since. Is it directly relevant to the job sector? No.
But did it provide me with an inventory of skills that I can apply in a future STEM career? You bet it did!
September 2015 – my first day of my Genetics degree. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be there. 12 months on, I still felt like I’d failed. We sat in the office of our academic advisor and were asked to go around the room, explaining why we applied for a degree in Genetics. I sat and listened to all the other students proclaim their love for Gregor Mendel and his pea plants, how the laws of inheritance fascinated them and genetic diseases being their main area of interest.
“So, Beth, why do you want to be a Geneticist?”
It’s safe to say that my response was met with a fair bit of confusion.
I went on to elaborate and explain that my reason for being there was a means to an end. That I’d be doing post-graduate medicine and a three-year undergraduate degree was my only other way there, so it was a reluctant consolation prize. My academic advisor listened patiently and then smiled and simply said “Well, its my mission that by the end of these three years, you’ll realize that not getting into medicine was the best thing that ever happened to you”.
I nearly laughed at him. But I shrugged and politely replied “I don’t think so”. I hate to admit it, but Neil, you were right!
About halfway through my Genetics degree, my eyes were opened to the world of science and research. How you can make a huge difference in the healthcare world from behind the scenes. After all, the whole reason I wanted to be a clinician was to help people and improve the quality of healthcare as best as I could. So, I was faced with a fork in the road. Both different directions, both different careers, but either of them could lead me to the outcome I wanted.
I graduated in 2018 with a 2:1 in my Bachelors (Hons) degree and went on to receive a Distinction in my Masters in Research degree.
During this year, I applied for five very different PhD projects. I was shortlisted to final stage interviews for all of them, but received some variation of the exerted email I paraphrased above for the first four. My imposter syndrome was at an all-time high. I’d suffered with it all my life without knowing it was a thing that A LOT of us feel! I thought I was the only one who would worry myself sick before exams, interviews and presentations; convincing myself I wasn’t good enough, that I’d fooled these professionals into thinking I knew my stuff and that I was going to flop. Just like my medical school application flopped. Heart racing, sleepless nights, upset stomach – you know what I’m talking about. I’m almost certain that 99.99% (p < 0.05) of us have felt all of the above at some point or another!
Low and behold, I was FINALLY offered a PhD project focused around HIV Pharmacology and developing novel methods of quantifying drug concentrations from patient samples.
THANK THE LORD – MUM I’VE MADE IT!
Oh, but small problem. I’ve got no pharmacology experience whatsoever. “What did they see in me?! I’ve fooled them again. I’ve just struck lucky this time. I’m not cut out for this! What was I thinking applying for that?!”
I think by now, you know how my brain works and how it speaks ever so kindly to me. And I’m still battling it every day. Three years into my PhD, I still get those thoughts really frequently. For example, I had to present my work at the 2021 International Workshop on Clinical Pharmacology of HIV, Hepatitis and Other Antiviral Drugs and felt like I was going to have a heart attack before it. But I need to sit and remind myself – I’m here because I’ve earned it.
By my own merit, my own achievements, my own ability and my own work ethic.
Do we really think we can fool people who are experts in their field into hiring us? The criteria they look for doesn’t provide scope for us to breeze into these positions, so why do we find it so hard to believe that we’re capable enough?
To quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (one of the best films in the world and I won’t have a word said otherwise) ‘when people put you down enough, you start to believe it; the bad stuff is easier to believe, you ever notice that?’
Sit with that for a second!
Why is it so much easier to believe the bad thoughts, feelings and rejections than it is to accept praise, compliments and achievements?
I went to a STEM imposter syndrome workshop at our University when I just started my PhD and was surprised that places had completely sold out. We were all invited to write a few of the things our imposter syndrome tells us on a post-it note & put them up on the wall anonymously. When the course leader read them out aloud, I was shocked to hear direct verbatim from my internal monologue. Echoing all the thoughts that I thought only I had! The relief was immeasurable. She also said something that made me laugh –
“So, you’re all scientists, right?” (we nodded).
“Well…you’re all absolute hypocrites” (confusion on our faces).
“Your whole careers are based on evidence. Facts and figures. Finding out the truth based on these. And I’m stood talking to a room full of PhD students and Masters students who’ve clearly earned the position they’re in today based on their hard work, determination, experience and achievements. Please, someone give me some evidence that you’re all imposters and failures?” (we all laughed, feeling a little stupid).
“See – hypocrites!”, she smirked.
We’ve all heard of COVID-19, I’m sure. All of the University shut down and research was put on hold, unless it was directly relevant to the pandemic efforts. Yet another crazy coincidence that my research group specialises in infectious diseases. So only a few months after starting my PhD, we were instructed to start looking into treatments for COVID-19. Our group is currently running a clinical trial on drugs to treat it and the data will contribute to my thesis. That wouldn’t have been the case if I’d been accepted onto one of the other four PhD projects I was rejected for.
When you sit and look in retrospect, so many things really do happen for a reason, as sickeningly cliché as that phrase may be.
As my Masters supervisor used to say to me ‘Beth, if the door doesn’t open, it’s just not your door’, and whilst that used to upset me, I know now it couldn’t have been truer. And before I know it, my PhD will be complete and I’ll finally be Dr. Thompson. A different type of Doctor than three-year old Beth imagined, but a Doctor nonetheless!
So, girls, here’s the take home messages:
YES, YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH!
Redirection > Rejection
If the door doesn’t open, it’s just not your door
It should be easier to accept the good stuff than the bad stuff (thanks, Julia)
Remember, you wouldn’t be where you are today if you hadn’t earned it
You should be so proud of how far you’ve come
If you’re in the rejection phase, please keep going - STEM needs you girl!
This article was written by Beth Thompson, you can find her on Instagram @x_beththompson