Impostor syndrome and community management – lessons on building a community while building myself

Shane M Hanlon is the Program Manager for AGU’s Sharing Science Program and a Senior Producer with the science storytelling organization The Story Collider. Learn more about the Sharing Science Community @AGU_SciComm and follow him @EcologyOfShane.

Community (and Communication) Don’t Happen Naturally

Six months ago, I had no idea what a community manager was.

I’m the Program Manager for the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU’s) Sharing Science Program. My team and I work to provide scientists with the skills, tools, and opportunities to help them share their science with any audience. We hold workshops, webinars, create tools, manager social media outlets, and more, all in the pursuit of this goal. Eventually we starting pulling folks together into a network of like-minded individuals who are passionate about, and committed to, science communication (scicomm), policy, and outreach. We called it the “Sharing Science Network.” At that point I don’t know if I would have called it a community – but it quickly evolved into one.

Shane at AGU’s annual meeting (giddily) displaying a Sharing Science Community banner. Credit: Olivia V. Ambrogio

Originally, this “network” was essentially just a list of names we’d send content to and then try to bring together in person at our annual meeting. But that changed a couple years ago when AGU implemented AGU Connect, an online discussion platform. There, the Sharing Science Network got its own home and a place for all these people to connect throughout the year, not just at the annual meeting. The problem was (and this is something I should definitely know given my profession) communication doesn’t happen naturally. This network of folks wasn’t talking among themselves on this new platform. But why? I would’ve loved to have had something like this network when I was a practicing researcher looking to get my start in scicomm. I knew that it was my responsibility as Program Manager to figure this out, but I didn’t even know where to start. Thankfully, there’s an entire body of knowledge I was about to be exposed to as part of that could help me answer that question.

To Make Your Community Succeed, Start By Investing In Yourself

A few months before our transition to AGU Connect I had applied to a fellowship highly recommended by some of my professional colleagues, the AAAS Community Engagement Fellowship Program (CEFP). I saw the announcement, actually read the description, and had a eureka moment that will probably sound very familiar to those of you in similar positions at your own organizations. I remember thinking, “I don’t really engage with ‘the community’,” thinking that “community” referred to the non-science public. See, in my current position, I’m a scientist who teaches other scientists how to talk to non-scientists. I don’t do a lot of outreach myself. But in looking at the difference between “inreach” and “outreach” and seeing the bios of the first class of fellows, I realized that I might actually be a community manager – just not the manager of the community I was used to thinking about.

After the first day of our initial training in January, I still didn’t feel like a community manager even though I could see that I was one. I manage an online community of scicomm-interested folks. They’re a community. I manage them. Community. Manager. But what do titles really mean? To my surprise, I had been accepted into a group of such high achieving and aspirational community leaders, and I looked around the room at my fellow Fellows and felt small, inferior, like I didn’t belong. Fortunately, I never really suffered from impostor syndrome as a researcher, but in that moment, I felt it, and it sucked. How could I compare to these people? How could I ever take all this knowledge I was gaining and turn it into something meaningful? Where would I even start?

On day two we talked about community lifecycles, the idea that all communities go through different stages … and those stages take TIME. And then it hit me – my community is young, especially since it hasn’t been cared for (by me) in a way that’s productive. Instead of expecting it to just flourish because it’s there, it needed care. It needed instruction and guidance, the same way I did in order to be successful in my own career, both as a researcher and communicator. So, I got over myself (or at least didn’t let the impostor side interfere with the need-to-learn-all-the-things side) and fully immersed myself in the rest of the training. That self-critical voice didn’t go away, but I was able to not give it any attention by focusing on learning from my colleagues, who themselves had struggled to get new communities up and running. I soaked up the community lifecycles. I learned about content creation and distribution. I mapped out personas of my community. And slowly, but surely, I began to feel like I was part of a community, a community of community managers. This feeling of community made me realize that I want the members of the Sharing Science Community (we did a little rebranding) to feel how I feel now being a part of the CEFP. My connection to my CEFP colleagues didn’t happen overnight. It took work. It’s taken time, and will continue to evolve throughout the year and beyond our formal training Six months ago I felt a little lost and concerned about the future of my Sharing Science Community – but now I’ve seen how the folks at AAAS have worked to make the CEFP a thriving and vibrant community and I feel like I might finally have some tools to take back to my own folks to help them learn to communicate with each other, and maybe even enable them to support their own communities by investing in themselves. After all, it worked for me.