About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Advice to the young

To mark the occasion of my 40th birthday I have one piece of advice for younger women – keep getting older.

In my first four decades I was given all sorts of advice for life from all sorts of people. The nature of advice giving is that it tends to pass from the old to the young. Some advice is helpful, but most of the things that old people really want the young to know can only be learned through lived experience. It is also the case that a lot of what people tried to tell me when I was young I already knew or knew to be wrong. If I was ever bold enough to point this out I was condescended to even further. One of the great advantages of getting older is that there are fewer people who are older than you. You don’t have to put up with other people sharing their pearls of wisdom as often, not because you are necessarily wiser, but because there is a bigger pool of targets who are younger than you, and the purveyors of wise pearls prefer youth.

I kept a diary, on and off, through my twenties and early thirties. I had a lot going on. I lived in two cities, three country towns and two countries. I studied, worked and travelled, sometimes simultaneously. I fell in love and had my heart broken several times. I made many good friends, and lost some. Last year I pulled out the box of old diaries and spent an afternoon reading them. The thing that struck me was how ‘wise’ I was for one so ‘young’. The most important things I know now, I already knew back then. This made me feel proud of my younger self, but also a bit angry. I remember really struggling with people who tried to convince me I was wrong, and I remember them pulling the ‘you’ll realise I am right when you get to my age’ trump if ever I tried to talk back. They were being lazy and disrespectful, but they were older and so were able to pretend that I was the one who was foolish.

And now I am that age. I still have basically the same set of beliefs as I did back then, but because of my age fewer people bother trying to convince me that I should think differently. When they do, I know to simply ignore them. Whilst it is tempting to supplement my one piece of advice with ‘ignore all other advice’, the ability to discern who to ignore and who to listen to is one of those things that can only be learned through experience.

The most important things that I have needed to know about how to live my life this far fall into two categories: the things I have always known and the things that I learned by living, not listening. Along the way I have benefited from the insights of science, religion, art, scholarship, family, community, sport and friendship. Maybe engineering even helped. But my ability to synthesise these different teachings and makes sense of them in my own life is something that couldn’t be taught. Today, I am older, and I intend to get older still. I wish you all the same privilege.    

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Will the real imposter please stand up

Imposter Syndrome is the latest disorder of choice for those of us lucky enough not to have anything seriously wrong with us, but unlucky enough to be afflicted with a persistent sense of being out of our depth, standing on the outside looking in on all our competent and confident peers. It is a mild strain of inferiority complex. It is the feeling that we don't really deserve to be in the position we find ourselves, and one day those who know better will find us out and send us back to where we belong.

Everyone has Imposter Syndrome these days, particularly academics and particularly women. Sheryl Sandberg had a bout of it early in her career, Professor Stephen Curry recently outed himself as a sufferer on his blog, and Ruth Barcan wrote about it in the Times Higher Education magazine. The occasional speaker at our graduation ceremony last year called the women graduates out on it, saying they all looked more timid than the men crossing the stage (personally, I blame their shoes). Imposter Syndrome is a bit like thrush – it is an annoying discomfort that gets better or worse from time to time but never seems to properly go away, we all have it, we all know we all have it, but it still feels weird when an older woman stands up in academic dress and says it out loud.

The point of most of this sharing is to help us all to realise that even people who look successful and confident on the outside might be feeling just as uncertain as you are, particularly early in your career. If you have the same qualifications and experience as everyone else in the room, then you are no more faking it than they are. This problem can’t be necessarily be solved by more hard work, it just takes time and that magic ingredient ‘confidence’. As they say in AA, ‘fake it until you make it’.

Barcan’s THE article has a slightly different take. Her point is that that Imposter Syndrome is a more recent scourge of academia, brought on by unrealistic expectations from universities, students,  government and the public. We can’t all be ground breaking researchers, inspiring teachers, brilliant public speakers and social networkers, entrepreneurs, administrators and colleagues all of the time. But this is what the job demands, and so we pretend. We don’t have the time or energy to do anything as well as we would like to and we end up feeling like imposters. As Stephen Curry wrote in his blog, interdisciplinary research brings its own sense of inadequacy, always in between established points of knowledge, acutely aware of everything you don’t know. What this implies is that on some level, we actually are imposters. This is important in distinction from the version of the syndrome described by Sandberg and other boardroom feminists.

I have reached a point in my career where I am reasonably happy with my capabilities and I hope that I have a fairly balanced view of my limitations. I have been in academia long enough to know that I have as much right to be here as any of my colleagues. It was not always like this. For many years I was actually pretending. I was an imposter.

I am the first generation of my family to go to university and the only person in my extended family to have a PhD. My mother and grandmother had barely set foot on a university campus before they dropped me off for O-Week. At every stage of my career, from that very first day as a fresher right through my early years as an academic, I had to learn everything myself, from scratch. I am reasonably bright, and I learned quickly, but for much of that time I was one small step behind my colleagues from more academic families. When I was a kid hanging around listening to my Dad negotiate car deals, some of my colleagues were playing quietly down the back of the seminar room or doing their homework in proper, grownup libraries. I will bet my left foot that I could sell a car faster than most of them, but when it comes to knowing how to negotiate the nuances of academic life, they had a head start. They already knew a lot about how to be an academic, I was just pretending. But I learned. And so now, for the most part, I feel like I know what I am doing, and I have probably benefited from learning it all first hand.

There is a more dangerous strain of the syndrome that I now worry about. It is asymptomatic and often undiagnosed. This is the version of the illness that causes academics who are well recognised for their expertise in one specialist field start to pretend that they can speak or write knowledgably about others. I am highly susceptible to this. When my instinct says that I should decline an invitation to contribute to project or event on the basis of limited knowledge, it is tempting to tell myself that I am just suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Everyone is faking it, the devilish voice says, so I shouldn’t let my lack of confidence stop me from contributing and taking my 15 minutes at the podium. This is a very hard balance to strike, particularly when others seem willing to pretend to knowledge outside their narrow field. Interdisciplinary work means that, like Stephen Curry, I feel insecure in my own expertise most of the time, but this insecurity keeps researchers like us honest. It shows respect for colleagues in other fields of study and for the basic principles of academic work.

If you feel like an imposter, you probably are. If you are early in your career, keep working, keep growing older, and it should go away. If you are later in your career, stop, listen, and remember to show respect to your colleagues and the standards of knowledge we are paid to uphold. It is not necessarily a reason to hold back from contributing, but it can be a warning that you still have a lot to learn.