Impostor syndrome in STEM

Cracking the Code Ceiling

Professor DeNero looked out into the audience with a gentle smile and said, “Never compare yourself to others.” As I listened to him from one of the last seats in Zellerbach Auditorium, I thought about how simple yet powerful his words were.

When I was younger, comparing myself to others was healthy — it pushed me and my friends to be the best versions of ourselves. In fifth grade, my friends and I swapped math quizzes to learn how we could improve from people who scored higher than us. At my all-women’s high school, we competed with each other during college admissions season, but also supported one another by making homemade brownies to celebrate our wins.

But when I came to UC Berkeley, comparison evolved into something toxic, into a sort of impostor syndrome that made me feel like I did not belong.

Living in the dorms and constantly interacting with my peers made it so much easier for me to constantly compare myself to others. I saw how they would study for organic chemistry the night before the midterm or spend two hours on the 61A project that took me days to finish. I felt unworthy and less intelligent because of how much longer it took me to study for exams and how much effort I needed to put into things that seemingly came naturally to my peers. I began to doubt the ways I had been studying — ways I knew worked for me. Instead, I tried to emulate the actions of my high-performing peers.

When I came across concepts for my EE midterm that I knew I didn’t fully grasp, I brushed them aside and thought, “If people who don’t go to lecture can figure them out so can I.” And when those concepts inevitably came up on the exam, I tried to emulate the thought process of those people. Glancing at the guy next to me who came in late and finished his exam within the hour, I tried to hold my pencil the way he did. I hoped to simply reach the answer without much effort as I believed so many peers like him did.

As my career in STEM continued, I not only incessantly compared myself to the “idea” of my peers, but also became increasingly affected by impostor syndrome. During one discussion, I remember waiting for my GSI to reveal the answer to a particularly tough problem. I was feeling extra good about myself that day in my favorite pair of high-waisted jeans and cropped shirt. When he asked for our answers, I was shocked to see several of my classmates respond with the exact, correct answer.

I looked down at myself in the outfit I thought was cute, and I felt disgusted. “What are you doing?” I thought to myself. “It doesn’t matter that you look good, you’re stupid!” Looking around at my classmates, a majority of whom were white and Asian males, I felt like a fraud. I wondered if one day UC Berkeley would contact me and inform me that my admission was a mistake, that I was never supposed to end up here.

This overwhelming sense of feeling like an impostor left me with unshakeable insecurities and anxieties that I still struggle with. It’s easy for me to call my friends out for not valuing themselves when they exclaim “I’m so stupid” after missing a bug in their code. But when it came to myself, I felt trapped in a cycle of self-criticism and negativity. My friends, concerned with my deteriorating mental health, suggested I go to the Tang Center, but I didn’t have the time to make an appointment and was too ashamed to admit to myself that there was a problem. I was like an Indian aunty constantly comparing her daughter’s achievements to her cousins and nieces. Except no one was saying these things to me — I was my own worst enemy.

It’s taken a lot of energy and effort to try to combat my impostor syndrome and stop comparing myself within STEM. Whether it’s taking the time to write or calling an old friend in between classes, I try to remember the things outside of academia that make me who I am. It’s hard, but I’ve tried to refocus my thoughts on my own talents and capabilities.

As I vented to my dad about the difficulty of everything — the constant cycle of comparison I felt like I could never escape — over butter chicken, he nodded and said, “Don’t lose heart, beta.” And he’s right. No matter how easy it is to get caught up in what other people are doing or how quickly they finished Project 2C, I need to focus on myself. I belong and I am qualified. And if I continue to stay strong and follow my own heart, I will achieve a lot in STEM — regardless of what others are doing.

Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].