Dear Examiner: I am an Imposter

By Rebecca Tapscott
January 16, 2019

“Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you are not qualified to represent your client or that you don’t deserve your accomplishments. It is estimated that at least 70% of successful people have experienced Impostor Syndrome.”

Impostor Syndrome: Dear Examiner, I am an ImposterThat feeling that you are a fraud and that, one day, people will find out you have no idea what you are doing has a name— Impostor Syndrome. It is common among young attorneys and inexperienced patent professionals and can strike when you get that first job, during law school, or during conversations with supervisors. One particular situation where imposter syndrome can be especially prevalent for patent prosecutors is interviews with patent examiners. Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you are not qualified to represent your client or that you don’t deserve your accomplishments. It is estimated that at least 70% of successful people have experienced Impostor Syndrome. So, don’t worry. If you are afraid someone will find out that you are an impostor, they are probably too busy worrying about their own fraud to care about yours. Chances are, the Examiner you are speaking with feels like an imposter too.

Here are six steps you can take to minimize the feelings of Imposter Syndrome during interviews with patent examiners:

  1. Let go of Perfectionism. A drive for perfectionism is a classic symptom of Impostor Syndrome. The more of a perfectionist you are, the more likely you are to fear being found out as an impostor. This is especially true for those who try to promote themselves as being perfect and/or those who avoid behavioral displays of imperfection. By lowering your expectations to a realistic level, the pressure of trying to be perfect is reduced. No one is perfect, so strive for realistic, achievable goals.
  2. Stop Self-handicapping. Another behavior related to impostor syndrome is self-handicapping. Behavioral self-handicapping occurs when people purposefully set themselves up for failure, such as by not practicing or reducing effort. This is seen as a way to preserve self-esteem—you can’t fail if you aren’t trying, right? Sometimes just being aware that you are self-handicapping is enough to stop the cycle. Preparation and effort are keys to overcoming Impostor Syndrome. Preparing a detailed interview agenda or script before an interview with an Examiner can help move the discussion in the right direction.
  3. Focus on Your Strengths. Everyone has a unique set of strengths and accomplishments that makes them uniquely qualified for different tasks and jobs. Realize that you worked hard to get where you are, and you possess qualities that you need to succeed. Make a list of your accomplishments, strengths and abilities and review it before your interview.
  4. Ask for feedback. Regular feedback on performance has been shown to reduce feelings of being an impostor. Be quick to give feedback when someone does a good job and don’t be afraid to ask for a review of your own work. Feedback or assessments can enhance feelings of confidence and self- efficacy. When you receive positive feedback, accept it and add it to your list of strengths and accomplishments. Ask a colleague to sit in on your interview and provide feedback and comments.
  5. Change your View of Failure. Fear of failure can be a cause of anxiety and often goes hand in hand with Impostor Syndrome. Small “failures” usually are not failures at all; but rather, they are opportunities to improve and learn. “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” – C.S. Lewis. Not every interview is going to result in the outcome you are striving for. However, just making contact with the Examiner and establishing a working relationship can be helpful in advancing the prosecution.
  6. Help Another Impostor. Instead of focusing on yourself, shift the focus to those around you. There is a good chance you are surrounded by people who feel like impostors. Try reassuring the new person that they are doing a good job or talking with someone about their accomplishments… and don’t underestimate the value of a good compliment. Remember that many Examiners are also likely to feel like imposters at one time or another in their career. Shift the focus off of your own feelings and begin with some light questions about how the Examiner is doing or how they like being an Examiner. This can lighten up the mood and further build the working relationship with the Examiner.

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The Author

Rebecca Tapscott

Rebecca Tapscott is a Senior Associate in the Northern Virginia boutique law firm, Bilicki Law. Rebecca’s practice focuses on prosecution of domestic and international patent applications, as well as patent and trademark litigation. Rebecca has a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Central Florida and a J.D. from George Mason School of Law. She prosecutes patents in a wide variety of technological areas including LED lighting systems, food chemistry, pharmaceuticals, materials science, and medical devices.

For more information or to contact Rebecca, please visit her Firm Profile Page.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 14 Comments comments. Join the discussion.

  1. Pro Say January 16, 2019 11:30 am

    Thanks Rebecca. Unexpected, appreciated subject matter. A keeper for sure.

  2. Pro Say January 16, 2019 12:01 pm

    O/T: Anyone know if/where the comments of the new 101 rules can be viewed on the Patent Office website?

    Thanks.

  3. Paul Morinville January 17, 2019 1:43 am

    Rebecca, This is an excellent article. It applies far beyond just the patent space or lawyers. If you do not feel like an imposter in your current position, you are not learning and advancing. One should always seek a new imposter role.

  4. Paul Morinville January 17, 2019 1:51 am

    I’d like to add one more thing… I recruited senior technology execs for 20 years. In interviews, many candidates would say that the job requires A, B and C. I only have A and B. Then they would stop. The candidates most often hired said I have A and B and because of that I can do C.

    Most companies knowingly want to hire imposters because imposters are willing to accept risk, step up and do the job even when they don’t have all the answers. This is exactly what hiring manages had to do it to get the job of hiring the position in the first place.

    I really like the way you articulated the imposter syndrome in this article. Embrace your inner imposter.

  5. Examiner X January 17, 2019 8:36 am

    Excellent article. I’m an examiner in one of the more technically difficult arts, and it took learning about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, from a John Cleese talk of all things, along with few years to get my confidence. Now, when I interview with attorneys, I freely tell them both what I don’t understand in the application and where my expertise is.

    Your 6th point should not be overlooked. In most of my interviews, over half of the interview time is relationship building. The discussion of the claims/application moves much quicker, and the application moves ahead.

  6. Gene Quinn January 17, 2019 1:45 pm

    Examiner X-

    Very interesting. I was not familiar with the Dunnin-Kruger effect, but just read up on it a bit. It seems to say that people with greater ability under estimate their abilities relative to everyone else, presumably because they think if a task seems easy for them it will be easy for everyone. Similarly, those with lesser ability over estimate their abilities.

    I’ve noticed this phenomena in the inventing world, although I didn’t realize it had a name. Many times those inventors who come up with things that are truly unique and patentable will believe it is nothing particularly special, assuming if they came up with it then it can’t really be an invention. On the other hand, too many times to count I’ve heard from someone claiming to be an inventor who has come up with something so trivial or clearly already done that it is hard to believe they have such an over inflated view of their “creation”.

  7. step back January 17, 2019 8:06 pm

    Gene @6,

    Just to be clear that is a “g” at the end of Dunning:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    I’ve seen it applied only to the case where certain people are too incompetent to realize they are incompetent. Take as an example the case of SCOTUS mucking around in the world of patent law and telling us that isolating DNA fragments is as easy as plucking leaves from a tree or telling us that a circuit having a reentrant register is not a machine.

  8. Herbert (Dick) Schulze January 17, 2019 8:42 pm

    Oh, can I ever relate! Many years ago I was appointed a judge pro tem in the San Diego Municipal Court. My first day, newly attired in the black robe, under that robe my heart was going THUMP! THUMP! as the bailiff intoned to a packed courtroom, “All rise, the Honorable Herbert Schulze, Judge, presiding.” I was terrified. I thought, “These people think they’re getting a real judge! What am I doing here?!?” But outwardly I pretended I knew exactly what I was doing, and by the time I had heard the first case, I was all calmed down and feeling sure of myself.

  9. Night Writer January 17, 2019 8:43 pm

    Thanks. This is a great article. We all need to think about these things.

  10. Gene Quinn January 17, 2019 9:22 pm

    Dick @8…

    That is a great story. Frankly, it is good to hear you took it so seriously to be terrified. Sorry you had that traumatic experience, but thanks for sharing.

    _Gene

  11. Rebecca Tapscott January 18, 2019 11:48 am

    It’s great to see all the comments on this article. I experienced Imposter Syndrome the most during law school. Coming straight from my chemistry undergrad I felt completely out of place in law school. I think realizing how many others feel the same way is a huge step to overcoming imposter syndrome.

  12. Pro Say January 19, 2019 11:24 am

    If I may suggest a great book which includes covering “human truths” like this / these:

    Psycho-Cybernetics by Maltz. (I need to read this again myself.)

    “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it.”
    Mark Twain

  13. Benny January 21, 2019 3:32 am

    Gene @ 6,
    Probably the only reason you were not familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect is that you are self-employed. The rest of us learn about it the hard way.

  14. Anon January 21, 2019 7:12 am

    It is called the practice of law for a reason.

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