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The 4 lessons I learned in Academia by Dr. Unoma Okorafor

Lesson #1: A lot of people struggle privately with the imposter syndrome, and it can follow you even after you earn accolades and degrees.

The imposter syndrome, or deeply ingrained feelings of perceived inadequacy and the belief that one’s accomplishments have been gained through luck rather than ability, can become especially heightened when starting something new, like graduate school or a new job. Such was the case for Unoma Okorafor, Sloan Scholar PhD from Texas A&M and founder of the Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation. She describes the internal dialogue her insecurity inspired when she began her master’s program at Rice University: “Somebody must have made a mistake, and they’re going to find out that I’m not supposed to be here and blow my cover.”

It is important to know that, despite high levels of achievement, feeling like an imposter is not unusual. Further, as Okorafor notes in her case, she continues to struggle with it, even as the founder and CEO of her own company: “we keep growing, and for each of those stages, we’re thinking perhaps I just got here by luck, or somebody made a mistake…So I think it’s something that we constantly—I constantly—struggle with.”

Lesson #2: Instead of suffering in silence with these feelings, ask for help.

During a particularly difficult period that included a rough transition from Nigeria to the U.S., Okorafor walked into the office of her advisor at Rice University in tears and told him that she did not think she could make it through the program. He gave her a simple piece of advice that has stuck with her: “You just need to take a deep breath and reach out for help.”

Okorafor adds: “Never feel stupid. Never feel like [your question] is so stupid. That nobody else is having this problem.” Having someone to talk to/confide in? in a position of authority made her more confident in her abilities and reassured her that she was not alone.

Another way to alleviate the isolation that can prevent us from asking for help is to create more spaces to discuss issues like imposter syndrome, publishing, grant writing, pedagogy, the tenure clock, etc. Students and faculty members can create teaching or research groups that can sometimes be formally integrated into a department or unit as professional development opportunities, and the group can garner funding for gatherings.

Lesson #3: Maintaining mentoring relationships throughout your career is critical.

Okorafor maintained her ties with her graduate school mentors after graduation. She spoke of a mentor, Deepa Kundur (now at the University of Toronto), who lauded Okorafor’s ability to manage her research along with her marriage and two children born during graduate school. After completing graduate school, Okorafor worked in industry, and she and Kundur stayed in touch and continued to publish together.

All mentoring relationships, including those between students and faculty, often transform given a shift in conditions or context. It is important to seek advice and support when you are seeking a new job or transitioning post-graduation, and former graduate school mentors can continue to be your “cheerleaders” as well as become professional collaborators. To maintain these relationships, remember to update your mentors on career moves, share possible opportunities for collaboration, and be prepared to offer your own assistance or advice to your now colleague.

Lesson #4: For faculty and those in management positions: Remember that students/direct reports are people with lives outside of research and work, and that these personal lives should not be seen as hindrances to achievement.

Okorafor said that she would not have completed her PhD without the support of Sloan.

Minority PhD Program, she also credits a mentor who identified this program as an option for her when others had dismissed her. She recounts that she was newly married and pregnant and strongly considered dropping out of her PhD program. It was difficult for her to garner consideration for positions in the department: “Because people will take a look at you and say…this is not going to be a serious PhD student. So they thought immediately that she can’t, I don’t think she’s going to produce any papers in the next two or three years. She has all these family things going on.” Okorafor credits the Sloan MPhD Program for looking beyond what some professors considered her limitations and seeing her true potential.

Okorafor has since graduated with her PhD, founded an international non-profit targeting gender equity in the STEM fields, worked for IBM and Intel, and is the founder and CEO of her own company. Clearly, she has met the expectations of both her mentor and the Sloan MPhD Program. However, it took understanding that Okorafor’s growing family was a priority, but one that could co-exist alongside her research. In fact, Okorafor was inspired to start the WAAW Foundation because of an experience she endured while in school. Consider that your students’ or employees’ work can be enhanced rather than diminished by their personal lives.

This article was first published on SLOAN Scholars MENTORING NETWORK