The Reluctant Expert

March 13, 2012, 10:16 am

Photo by Flickr user raider of gin

When you choose a little-studied research topic, you are suddenly regarded as an expert on that topic. I conducted my doctoral dissertation research on a little-known creature in a remote part of the world, encountering many difficulties that quickly made it clear why no one else had done this before. By the time I was done with a year’s worth of fieldwork, another year’s worth of labwork, and compiling every bit of published information that had ever existed on this species, I felt like I had learned very little. From the point of view of the rest of the world, however, I was the leading expert on this animal. Graduate students who were interested in studying the same species, documentary filmmakers who wanted to make a movie about the place, conservation organizations who wanted to save the region – all of them wanted to talk to me. This attention seemed so strange and unwarranted at the time, but eventually I adjusted and realized that I really did have something to offer others who were interested.

My current area of research is quite different than what I did in graduate school, but it is again in a little-studied field, and once again I am becoming known as an expert in this area. This time, it’s a little less surprising and a little more gratifying. It’s a new area, and many other researchers are getting in on the action too – and most of them cite me, which is great. I love getting those notifications that I’ve been cited!

Now that I am becoming established in my career as a research center administrator, I am being viewed as an expert in other things too. Recently, I was invited to give an informal talk on communicating science to the public. This topic is one that I am very interested in, and one that is an important part of my job, but not something that I feel terribly qualified to teach others yet. I was surprised by the invitation and unsure if I could pull it off. But I cobbled something together, gave an interactive presentation, and it went very well. The audience was engaged and appreciative. Since I feel like I am still learning how to do this kind of outreach, I was sort of surprised that the things that I presented did not seem boring and overly obvious.

I suppose this is one of the symptoms of the insidious impostor syndrome that affects so many of us in academe. Clearly I still have a lot of work to do to overcome it!

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