From “Imposter” to Insider: How I Found My Niche in Research Audiology

Science magazine defines imposter syndrome as “the feeling that one doesn’t belong or deserve their success, and that they will be discovered as a fraud.” When I first began my audiology career and discovered my niche of research audiology, I distinctly felt imposter syndrome slipping into my psyche. Research audiology was a career track I hadn’t considered before: In fact, I hadn’t even known it existed.

If you’ve never met a research audiologist or considered research audiology as a career option, you’re not alone! I’d never considered working in research as I entered my graduate program. With an assistantship outside of the department on top of coursework and clinical rotations, I didn’t have time to volunteer in a research lab. Of all the courses that I took, the grade I received in my research course was the lowest of my entire AuD career, so I didn’t think I had the “research brain” to work in the research field or to get a PhD.

But one of my clinical professors encouraged me to apply for the T35 summer research internship at Boys Town National Research Hospital (“Boys Town”) to work with Pat Stelmachowicz, PhD. This advice proved to be a critical turning point in my career path.

Research Lab Training and Mentorship

During the summer of my T35 internship, I lived with three other aspiring AuDs across the street from Boys Town. I worked 40 hours per week in Dr. Stelmachowicz’s Hearing Aid Research Lab on six different research projects focusing on pediatric speech recognition—some already in progress and others just being conceptualized. It was awesome—and a little overwhelming—being involved in so many projects at once (typically, T35 students focus on only one project).

But lab staff mentored and trained each of us while we learned lab procedures and testing procols and then implemented them with research participants. We attended lab meetings and journal groups, overcame our trepidation of cold-calling participants to recruit for our studies, tested participants on various protocols, and monitored our progress with data collection. The following spring, we presented the research we had worked on as poster presentations at the American Auditory Society (AAS) conference. By seeing projects through from start to finish, I grew to understand that research involves so much more than being able to accurately recall the “Who wrote what, and when?” minutiae of scholarly articles.

Don’t Shut Doors of Opportunity—You’ll Miss Out!

After my T35 summer internship, I completed an externship at a private practice ENT office that emphasized patient-centered care, although evidence-based practice wasn’t always feasible. It was a great wake-up call, having to “make do with what I had” after working in the university and research arenas, where I had access to every possible piece of equipment and resource needed to provide best practice for patients. The rigid schedule of doing back-to-back hearing evaluations and hearing aid fittings made me miss the flexibility and spontaneity from my T35 summer in Dr. Stelmachowicz’s lab. I missed research, but I still wasn’t sure how I could land a job as a research audiologist right out of school.

After my externship ended, Dr. Stelmachowicz invited me to return to Boys Town as a research audiologist to work on a study of developmental outcomes for children who are hard of hearing. Drs. Mary Pat Moeller and Bruce Tomblin led the study. I thought to myself, “I can’t turn down the opportunity to work at Boys Town! But I only have 3 months of research experience and limited clinical interactions with children. Why would they want me?” Imposter syndrome was knocking on my door! I had to have faith that they knew what they were doing when they asked me to apply—so I accepted the job.

In that first year, I learned that Boys Town didn’t expect me be an expert in all things research; rather, they needed someone who was clinically competent who could help organize and mobilize data collection for the project. I could definitely do that; but, over time, I saw that I had a lot to learn about project management, policies behind recruiting and interacting with research participants, and, most intimidating—statistics. Once again, I felt imposter syndrome creeping in as I realized just how much I didn’t know.

Learn By Doing

My research mentors patiently encouraged me to learn by doing and allowed me to explore my own interests to challenge my skillset and foster my independence. Alongside my increasing comfort with the test protocol and my burgeoning stats knowledge, I began thinking of questions that I could answer with our data set. An idea began germinating: What about examining the impact of frequency compression amplification on children’s production of high-frequency fricative sounds?

My supervisors, Drs. Mary Pat Moeller and Ryan McCreery, encouraged me to present it at the AAS conference. They helped guide me through the abstract submission process, and AAS accepted my proposal as a podium presentation! I knew that sharing our research findings with clinicians and researchers who could immediately use the information was important—so important that I needed to overcome my fear of public speaking.

The process of creating that presentation ignited my interest in finding effective ways to translate and share research findings outside of conferences with clinicians, researchers, and especially the families who participated in our studies. With that in mind, I led the creation of a series of infographics that have been translated into five languages and have been shared across the globe. Talk about impact!

Now, beyond managing the Audibility, Perception, and Cognition research lab at Boys Town, I regularly present at state and national conferences. I also contribute to the publication of scholarly journal articles, and I especially enjoy writing and thinking about how research findings can be incorporated within family-centered, best-practice service delivery.

Benefits of Research Audiology

My work as a research audiologist benefits me in so many interesting ways:

  • I know that my work influences clinical service delivery and future research.
  • I’m never bored! My day-to-day work changes with new projects. These changes can be as often as every few months.
  • I can take time off when I need to. My flexible schedule lets me see research participants on evenings or on the weekends and to take time off during the week.
  • I’m part of a multidisciplinary team.
  • I travel for the purposes of both data collection and presentations at conferences.
  • I interact with research participants and patients without clinical upkeep responsibilities.
  • I stay up to date with current evidence. (My younger self never would have thought I’d read another article after grad school!)
  • I get to play with data! Seeing many hours of data collection turn into clinically meaningful results is extremely gratifying and rewarding.

Research Audiologist Information Support Network

In the past few years, I helped found the Research Audiologist Information Support Network, helping connect students with research audiologists around the United States. We’ve explored research audiologist careers in academia, universities, hospitals, military settings, and industry. If you’re wondering whether research is right for you, but are intimidated by all that you don’t know, our experienced team of research audiologists would be happy to connect with you! We’re passionate about sharing our experiences with others and would love to chat with you.

Research audiology has been a great fit for my personality and evolving career goals. Most importantly, I no longer feel like an outsider “looking in.” There’s no more imposter syndrome. I know that I belong, and that I’m making important contributions to this profession.

I’m not an imposter: What I am is a research audiologist.


  1. Kate Teece (University of MN) April 19, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    Merry, this is fantastic! I can’t tell you how awesome it is to read this and know that I’m not alone with imposter research audiologist syndrome! 🙂

    1. Merry Spratford April 19, 2021 at 2:24 pm

      You are definitely not alone! Especially for those of us with clinical education backgrounds, not knowing everything comes with the territory when we start working in research. It can be intimidating working with people who are experts with skillsets very different than my own, but in my opinion that’s also what makes a great team/lab. I try to remember that everyone has their own strengths & we rely on each other in different ways to complete a project. If we were all experts in stats, we’d never collect any data! In short, you’re a really valuable member of your team with the skills you already have & anything you learn from here on out will be icing on the cake. 🙂


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