Q: I’ve just started a faculty position at a good university—this is my first year—and it’s freaking me out a little. Everyone else here seems to know what they’re doing, but to me it seems like a foreign country. It’s probably because of my background: I’m from the South, and I’m the first in my family even to go to college, let alone serve on a university faculty. I’m self-conscious about my accent, and there are so many things my colleagues seem comfortable with—cocktail parties, faculty meetings, hallway conversations—that make me very uncomfortable. My work is going fine, but in social situations I do a lot of cringing, stammering, and staring at my shoes. I find myself wondering how they’d handle a chainsaw or how they’d like squirrel stew—I’m not kidding; we eat that—but I’m afraid they wouldn’t think much of my gun-toting, tobacco-chewing relatives, many of whom didn’t finish high school.
I just don’t feel like I belong here—so much so that I’m considering bailing out and doing something more appropriate for a person of my station. Not that I feel that much more comfortable back home.
Can you help me?
A: Welcome to the Marginal Club. There are more of us than you suspect. Marginal Club members are those who have left one social group and are just joining another social group. These social groups can be based on region, culture, race, etc. We are not part of the new group, but we are also no longer a part of our previous group. We are somewhere in between. Going back is not the answer, because you are no longer the person you were. Your old friends already see you as different. We are the marginal people.
Be yourself. Be able to laugh at yourself. Knowing that there are many members of this club should make you feel less self-conscious. Soon enough, you will find that you have more things in common with the people around you than you thought. I happen to love squirrel gravy and could even trade recipes with you.
The first time I met a Nobel laureate, a Frenchman, he told me that on the morning of the announcement of the prizes that year, he was packing to get out of Paris because he was sure that he would not be named a winner even if his co-authors were. He was insecure and remained that way for the rest of his life. Women in science have a name for this: impostor syndrome. The idea is that somehow they are just pretending to do science well; deep down they know they don’t belong. That’s how it feels.
You have a lot going for you. First, you have made it to a faculty position. You would not have been hired if they did not think you would fit in. There are quite a few outstanding scientists who grew up in your region. In fact, many people like a soft southern accent. Here are some suggestions to help people get to know you and to make yourself more relaxed in social situations:
- At social events, find people who share your scientific interests, and ask them questions about their work, or tell them about yours. You can always ask for advice on a technique or get their interpretation concerning a recent paper. You may learn something new or discover something about the reputation of a competitor.
- You can get a conversation going by asking people about themselves. Stick to topics likely to be of interest to those around you. Subscribe to one nonscientific publication that everyone around you seems to read—a literary magazine, say, or a magazine on the city or town you live in or on a common hobby or sport. These will give you something besides science to talk about.
- Have you considered that others may feel uncomfortable around you because they don’t know what you are interested in? Or they may feel uncomfortable because they’re not sure how to approach you in a social setting? That’s almost certainly true—and if you feel more relaxed, the people around you will relax, too.
Finally, remember that science is an egalitarian pursuit. You are judged by your intellectual prowess—by the contributions you make—and not your accent or where you came from.