Episode 59: Embracing Imperfection on Your Scientific Journey with Kate Ahl

perfectionism and imperfection

In the 59th episode of The Struggling Scientists podcast, hosts Suzanne and Jayron delve into the topic of perfectionism, a common trait among scientists that can hinder their progress and lead to various challenges. To gain insights into this issue, they invite Kate Ahl, an integrative psychotherapist specializing in academia, to share her expertise and experiences. Through their conversation, they explore the definition of perfectionism, its manifestations in academia, its potential drawbacks, and whether it has worsened over time.

Guest Introduction:

Kate Ahl, an integrative psychotherapist based in the UK, introduces herself as someone who grew up in an academic environment and eventually transitioned from working in academic publishing to becoming a therapist. After working as an in-house therapist for Cambridge University’s counseling service, she now runs her private practice, focusing on academics and knowledge workers.

Perfectionism Definition and Common Signs:

Throughout their conversation, Kate explains that perfectionism can be approached from different perspectives. It can stem from an emotional standpoint, portraying a sense of self-worth based on the perfection of one’s work. Alternatively, it can manifest as a cognitive trait, where individuals experience discomfort when things are not right or incomplete. In academia, the cognitive aspect of perfectionism is particularly prevalent, leading to an incessant need to perfect systems, morning routines, and every aspect of work.

Positive and Negative Aspects of Perfectionism:

When discussing whether perfectionism has any positive aspects, Kate acknowledges that individuals who display perfectionistic tendencies often possess valuable intellectual capacities and dedication to detail. Society benefits greatly from their determination and meticulousness. However, she highlights the importance of managing perfectionism at an individual level to ensure it does not become corrosive, hindering personal growth and creating unnecessary stress.

Perfectionism's Impact on Scientific Progress:

While Kate does not provide specific examples of how perfectionism hampers scientific progress, she shares her observations from working with academics. She mentions that individuals often struggle to complete tasks, such as finishing drafts or collaborating effectively with others, as perfectionism creates roadblocks at every step. Moreover, she notes that as researchers progress in their careers, the pressure to excel in multiple roles, such as mentoring and supervising, can lead to burnout. The desire to be perfect in all aspects becomes overwhelming and unsustainable, affecting job satisfaction and overall well-being.


In this episode of The Struggling Scientists podcast, Suzanne, Jayron, and guest Kate Ahl shed light on the topic of perfectionism in academia. Acknowledging the positive side of perfectionism, they emphasize the importance of managing this trait to thrive personally and professionally. By examining its impact on scientific progress, they highlight the challenges individuals face when unable to strike a balance between excellence and attainability. Ultimately, this insightful discussion reminds listeners that perfectionism, if left unchecked, can impede growth and hinder collaboration, underscoring the need for self-awareness and self-compassion in managing this common trait among scientists.

If you enjoyed this then consider checking out our episode on Burnout or imposter syndrome as well.

If you would like to learn more about perfectionism or how to embrace imperfection on your academic journey then you can follow Kate on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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