Impostor syndrome, burnout, and rejection are common in academia. Often, though, students and early career researchers can feel like they are the only ones who struggle. Experiencing obstacles can be particularly isolating if scholars are embedded in a culture that only highlights successes and not failures. It is easy to build a false impression that others are more capable because their careers appear to have proceeded without setbacks. Academic bios and CVs often trace neat, linear trajectories. The role of random chance and structural inequalities placing scholars at the right place and time, with the right people, hides behind lists of accolades, publications, and academic appointments. The consequences of this biased portrayal range anywhere from attrition to poor mental health.
What if the academy was not so intent on displaying only the highlight reel, but sometimes offered glimpses of the raw behind-the-scenes? The SPSP Student Committee was inspired by the "Growing up in Science" project, which publishes the unofficial bios of scientists. These are the "messy" versions of someone's career path and include biographical elements. The committee reached out to psychological scholars and asked them to share their “unofficial bio” and many graciously responded with their stories. As you will see, their “unofficial” narratives reveal that, among successes, awards, publications, and academic appointments, there is a lot of happenstance, exploration, unearned privilege, trial-and-error, rejection, failure, and emotional struggle.
The Student Committee encourages you to browse through these bios and find inspiration in them. However, this project is not just a display of unofficial stories. It is a call to action to psychology departments, programs, and individual faculty. The stories that we tell have an impact. Gently ask yourself when you are introducing speakers in colloquiums or other events attended by students, what is the message you want to convey? Establishing the speaker’s expertise and credibility can certainly be one goal. Honoring the speaker by highlighting their accomplishments can be another. But also consider each introduction as an opportunity to foster a healthier culture in academia and to inspire others to do the same. Ask speakers if they would feel comfortable sharing unofficial aspects of their bio showcasing obstacles, failures, and rejections, particularly if they are tenured and well-established.
Consider also leading by example. You can share elements of your unofficial bio when you are invited to speak somewhere, display it on your website, or list rejections on your CV. Acknowledging areas in which you have benefited from unearned privilege is also important. Your courage might lead to structural change or mean the difference between whether or not a bright undergraduate student decides to pursue a Ph.D. or a graduate student chooses to complete theirs.
Let’s honor not just each other’s academic legacies, but our trials as well. At the very least, this approach makes us all seem more human. At best, it lessens the burden of the challenges we all experience, inspires us to persevere and advocate for change, and builds a sense of connection among us.