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March 09
Imposter Syndrome: Dr. Dan Klessig Continues the Discussion

Editor’s note: Below is a response to the article in the last issue on imposter syndrome, which was written by Michelle Marks and Katelyn Butler. This response was written by IS-MPMI Interactions Advisory Board member Dr. Dan Klessig. As you will learn from his response, imposter syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of his or her career achievements. I encourage you to continue the discussion of this topic by sharing comments after the original article or after this one. (You must log in to see and submit comments.) Or perhaps talk among yourselves in the lab, at a department seminar, or over a drink after hours. Thanks again to Michelle and Katelyn for initiating the conversation.

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By Dr. Dan Klessig, Boyce Thompson Institute and Member of the Interactions Advisory Board

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Katelyn and Michelle:

You are correct, and you are not alone! Your article really hit home. I have dyslexia, which the British Dyslexia Association defines as “a difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling” and is characterized by “difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.”

From a very early age, I felt that something was not quite right. Despite being able to learn things rapidly in many areas, I was a terrible reader. Reading aloud was both embarrassing and horrifying, since I could not hide how poor a reader I really was.

Three events are particularly memorable. The first occurred while I was preparing my valedictory address for my high school graduation with the student guidance counselor. In his opening comments, he indicated how amazed he was that I had achieved a highly unusual perfect 4.0 average (this was before the days of grade inflation), despite my “modest” IQ score.

The second memorable event was my attempt to increase my reading speed during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison by enrolling in a speed-reading course. To obtain a baseline against which my progress/improvement could be measured, I had to take a reading exam. It consisted of reading a several-page article and then answering various questions to measure both my reading speed and comprehension. After the teacher analyzed my results, she asked what my GPA was. I replied that it was about 3.85, since I had received a few B’s. In astonishment she uttered, “Really? You read at only a fifth-grade level,” to which I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

The third event was the discovery that I had a disability and it had a name: dyslexia. This happened purely by accident during a return trip to Boston from a Plant Molecular Biology Gordon Conference in New Hampshire with three other professors. The driver, who was a highly accomplished scientist and chair of his department, was discussing his dyslexia symptoms with the front-seat passenger. EUREKA! They were a near-identical match to mine. WOW! What a discovery. I finally knew what had been plaguing me for more than three decades.

Unfortunately, knowing what I had did not make it go away. I compensated for my dyslexia and kept it hidden by working tirelessly: three to four hours of homework each night during high school, relentless studying during college, 18-hour days during graduate school, and 80-hour work weeks as a professor, with both class lectures and seminars written and then more or less memorized. Yes, I succeeded, but I always wondered when I would be found out. When would they—my friends, my colleagues, the world—discover that I really was not that good, not that smart, just average at best—i.e., an IMPOSTER! I felt that while I had earned my successes in part by working harder than others, I had also been LUCKY. When would my luck run out? When would I be discovered?

Two periods during my career were particularly trying because of my dyslexia and the associated imposter syndrome—my “constant companion.” The first was during my tenure as a Marshall Scholar from 1971 to 1973, when I travelled to the United Kingdom to study in the newly formed Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh. I was one of 24 students from the United States selected to study at the university of their choice in the U.K. as part of the nation’s symbolic repayment to the United States and its Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. I was surrounded by some of America’s “best and brightest.” (Justices Breyer and Gorsuch of the U.S. Supreme Court were Marshall Scholars.) How soon would they discover that this farm boy with dyslexia was an IMPOSTER, who did not belong among these intellectual elites?

The second period was while I served as president and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute. Re-invigorating the institute’s research portfolio—including developing a new program in molecular and chemical ecology with Tom Eisner and Jerry Meinwald and making room for and obtaining nongovernment funds for a cohort of new faculty, plus dealing with a diverse board of directors (in addition to directing my own research program)—stretched my work capacity to its very limits. After having open heart surgery and three bouts of pneumonia, I was actually relieved to have an excuse to step down and return just to doing science—before I potentially failed and/or was identified as an IMPOSTER!

The irony of my story, and perhaps the stories of others, is that success does not necessarily suppress the impostor syndrome. In fact, it can exacerbate it. Success often leads to new opportunities, which are associated with new challenges. These, in turn, can evoke fresh fears of being discovered. Even at age 69 and nearing the “dusk” of my career, my “constant companion” is still with me. Its presence is much diminished, however, and this is part of the reason that I am truly ENJOYING doing science more than at any other time during my 45-year career.

Upon sharing my story with a few trusted senior colleagues, several important points emerged. First, self-doubts and insecurities are not uncommon in our profession. Second, those doubts and insecurities may have diverse origins, with a disability such as dyslexia being just one. Other sources may include hypercritical childhood influences; negative societal expectations based on gender, ethnicity, and so on; and natural variations in the remarkable mix of intellectual talents that each person has. Third, despite our self-doubts, which may diminish but perhaps never fully disappear, we can thrive and contribute to science. Perhaps now more than ever, both science and society need us to do so with as much clarity, vigor, and rigor as possible.

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