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Robert Neubecker

Stepping up to the podium: Wrestling with impostor syndrome as a teacher

The universe is an unfathomably large place. But from the front of a lecture hall, it can feel suffocatingly tiny. Standing behind a podium at 8 a.m., I looked out into an auditorium at 360 students; 720 eyes staring intently back at me; 3600 fingers furiously pounding away at keyboards, transcribing my uncertainty for posterity. Did I say “polymerase” when I meant to say “primase”? Was my answer to that question clear? The heat radiating from the projector felt stifling. With 5 minutes remaining, I fumbled an explanation. My chest tightened as I scanned the lecture hall, searching for an escape but finding only four walls that seemed to be inching closer. An eternity elapsed in 30 seconds. When I heard a chuckle (or was it a snicker?) from the corner of the room, I yielded to my inadequacy and dismissed class with a precious 2 minutes to spare, promising to rehash the topic at the beginning of the next class.

Later that day, I recounted the gaffe to a colleague. “We’ve all been there,” she said sympathetically. Rationally, I knew she was being earnest. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to truly believe it. What if my mistakes reflect a real deficiency as a teacher, a scientist, a scholar? Unlike her, I don’t have years of experience to validate my ability. The Ph.D. diploma that sits on top of my bookshelf is less than a year old. It was only my second time teaching my own large lecture course to undergraduates.

Ever since my first experience as a teaching assistant in graduate school, I’ve looked forward to the day I would be the person standing behind that podium. Now that I’m there, I can’t shake the feeling that some cosmic accident delivered me. What qualifies me to stand in front of a classroom and explain the mysteries of biology to hundreds of eager students? Three recently earned letters behind my name? A carefully ironed blue Oxford?

In my classes, I preach the gospel of facts and data. But intellectual knowledge and emotional conviction don’t always match up. I’ve spent immeasurable hours convincing my students and peers that they are qualified, that they are good enough, that they are extraordinary. I worry that I may be the exception. Am I a qualified biologist? Am I a good enough mentor? Am I an extraordinary teacher? My degrees and teaching awards should theoretically provide some evidence of my abilities, but emotional conviction remains elusive.

What qualifies me to stand in front of a classroom [of] hundreds of eager students?

A few days later, as I lay in bed dwelling on my resume of perceived failures and shortcomings, my phone buzzed: an email from a former student. “Dear Dr. Maloy,” it read. “Your class was my very first college lecture. You made an amazing impression with your kindness, approachability, and encouragement. I discovered that I love learning about the molecular processes of life so much that I really want to continue learning more.” I smiled and dragged the email to my reminders folder, for reference in future moments of doubt.

Maybe I am faking it. Maybe students can see through my façade of confidence in class every day as I navigate a landscape littered with landmines of uncertainty. And in the expanse of the universe, my classroom is just an infinitesimal stage. But I cannot brush off the small dent my existence has made in the experience of one student. One student who sat down at her computer on a Friday evening to say that I made a difference.

The next morning at 8 o’clock, 360 students trickled into the classroom, the groan of folding plastic chairs announcing their arrival. I exhaled and allowed the clamor of the lecture hall to wash over me and drown out my doubts. I plugged my laptop into the projector and walked to the back of the classroom to greet the students.

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