Astro Hack Week and the Impostor Syndrome

At the first Astro Hack Week in 2014, our resident ethnographer Brittany Fiore-Gartland (whose blog post on Astro Hack Week is a fascinating read, please go and check it out right now!) pointed out something in her field notes, which she presented at the end and which I think stayed in all of the organizers minds. During the hack week, she heard many participants feel uncertain about their own expertise and their contribution to Astro Hack Week, often referencing one specific person or group of people who seemed more expert at any given topic. This, I think, is largely a product of Astro Hack Week and a major way in which it differs from a summer school: at a summer school, there is a group of participants who are clearly there to learn, so know little about the topics discussed in advance, and a group of teachers who are clearly experts in their fields and there to teach.

Astro Hack Week, conversely, aims to be as broad as possible in terms of expertise, and that expertise is mixed along all layers of academic seniority. Some PhD students have a vastly greater expertise on some topics than all the senior professors in the room combined. This, I think and have experienced myself, can be intimidating. It can result in the skewed perception that everyone else at Astro Hack Week is more experienced than any conceivable topic than I am. In turn, this can lead to the perception that I don’t really belong among all the smart, knowledgable, talented people in the room, or, in short, the impostor syndrome.

From that position, I might be less likely to pitch a hack (because it might not be as clever and sophisticated as all the other hacks), or I might be reluctant to join a team for hacking, or I might not speak up with my awesome idea for how to solve a problem, or I might be less likely to present our awesome plot at the end of the day.

All of those are detrimental to everyone: to myself, because I’m sabotaging my own accomplishments from the start, and to everyone else, because that actually awesome hack never made it out there, that awesome idea never got implemented, or that awesome plot never got shown and received its deserved cheers.

What to do about it?

During the organization of Astro Hack Week 2015, recognizing and mitigating the threat of impostor syndrome in our participants was a discussion point from the start, and developed from there.

One strategy to mitigate impostor syndrome, especially in minorities in a given field, is to make sure there is an adequate representation of those minorities during the hack week. We worked reasonably hard to have a good fraction of women among the participants (though the high fraction of women among the applicants made that fairly easy) and at least one woman aside from me on the list of tutorial lecturers. Through informal discussions during the hack week, in particular with junior female participants, I learned that they almost unequivocally appreciated that effort, especially given the more technical nature of the workshop. This year, building on last year’s experience, we are including more demographic factors than just gender in our participant selection (which you can read about here), in the hopes of building a diverse, inclusive community at Astro Hack Week.

The single-most important thing, however, that I believe helped mitigate impostor syndrome in all of our participants was discussing it at the start. Phil Marshall did an awesome job pointing out its existence at the beginning of the first hack session on Monday, and told people not to let it stop them from standing up to pitch a project or help out. I think just recognizing its existence and prevalence among the group helped put many participants, especially junior ones, at great ease.

David Hogg also did a great job of encouraging people to speak up, and we awarded prizes for the best (=most insightful) non-expert question during the tutorials in order to get them to ask questions, no matter how stupid they might perceive them to be.  The other measure that I think helped, again facilitated by Phil Marshall, was a round of introductions where everyone had to stand up and say three things: (1) their name, (2) their home institution, and (3) either pitch a hack or list at least one thing they were an expert at that was relevant to Astro Hack Week. This, too, made many of the junior participants, who often came without a specific hack in mind, realize that there was, in fact, a lot for them to contribute, even if they don’t consider themselves experts on Python or Bayesian statistics.

I hope these strategies helped. I think they did (but perhaps this year we ought to do a proper assessment in the post-workshop survey). I hope we can find more ways to address this problem in the future. If you have ideas, I’d be very interested in hearing about them in the comments.

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