The Imposter

Sunday, October 25, 2020

I don’t know when it began, but happened gradually as the first fall quarter unfolded. First, I began by picking up little pieces that people left behind. Pipette tips from the post doc as he hurried from one end of the corridor to another; colourful tablets left by the nurse as she headed for a quick lunch at the Moffit; the latest line of the new R01 the new assistant professor was writing. Just little things that were on people’s minds as they bustled about their day.

Don’t pick them up, I was told, they will get grimy in your hands. But I did anyway. Little bits and pieces from people’s days, kept in a box tucked away only for me to enjoy. They started to fade over time, but it was fine as long as I could recognize it.

Soon, I started to progress to bigger things. Things from lunch conversations and the latest gossip between labs. “Did you hear? JJ Lee just published another paper!” “Aries Mandy just won her first grant despite passing her quals a month ago.” These pieces that fell from conversations were much more substantial. I kept them too. They held up slightly better than the little bits I used to collect. The box became too small to hold them. I started to piece these things together on my shelf.

However, these pieces didn’t always fit together nicely. How good are these high achievers? Where did they come from and what else have they accomplished? Without these questions answered, I didn’t have the glue.

I hopped on the internet and began to search. And search and search, until I found the connections I needed. LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Google Scholar, yes, even Facebook and Twitter. Not just fragments of conversations, but now whole stories, webpages even. Pictures of cake and champagne on Facebook for a job well done.

A new tweet on the latest publication. A smug new paper that boosted a ResearchGate score by 3 points. The rest of the connections I didn’t have, I realized I could start producing my own glue too to fill in the gaps. The finer details, I personally molded by hand.

My little sculpture migrated to my table, sitting ominously on it like an altar. The perfect graduate student had been made. The aspiration I bowed down to every time I used my laptop. Then, I looked at the mirror, and realized I was nothing like it. Those perfect hands that pipetted everything accurately and coded everything with scary efficiency, compared to my feeble, shaky ones. Those eyes that could see clearly, every little detail in a figure.

Unlike mine that were myopic, I needed glasses and still couldn’t spot the errors. That perfect pair of feet, that never got tired despite working a full 24 hours the night before. I feel a wave of guilt as I remember dropping a test tube rack and spilling all my samples just the night before.

A wave of panic rose within me. How did I even get here and do I deserve to be here? Why am I not enough? I began to look for sacrifices, placing my calendar and sleep schedule on the altar. Yet, the more I did, the more it demanded. More stories were added to upkeep its appearances, and no matter how hard I worked, I could never keep up.

Then I remembered. It was all just my creation, the altar of the perfect student I needed to be. It was mute and dumb with no actual power, just fragments of the things that I had amassed. Some of the pieces no longer looked like their original forms. I mustered up my courage and broke it with a hammer into many pieces.

May you never torment another grad student again! Sadly, someone else picked it up and restored it. Now it holds another grad student captive. What have I done?