Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is so common in academia that my school actually has workshops on avoiding it.

Basically the symptoms are this: You do really well at something, and then you can't believe that you actually deserve it. They must have made a mistake! You are not actually that awesome! The reason it's so common in academic circles is probably that most people in academia went through college thinking their professors were infallible holders of wisdom and knowledge. And then when you're about to become a professor it's like...wait a minute, I don't know everything! How can I possibly be a professor! Or how can I possibly have gotten into this top 10 ivy league university! I'm not actually that smart! Any day they are going to figure out that I'm not as smart as they think I am! And then BAD THINGS will happen! Holy crap!

One of my dear friends has what I believe to be a strong case of impostor syndrome right now. She is starting a new job next week, and can't believe that they are going to be paying her as much as they told her they would be paying her. She is absolutely 100% convinced that when she shows up on Monday they will realize that it's a mistake, and actually bump her down a pay grade so she'll be earning $10,000 less than they told her she would be. So convinced of this, that she speaks as if it's already happened. Impostor syndrome!

A blogger friend was so convinced yesterday that she was going to have a miscarriage that she started making plans for what she was going to do afterwards. She couldn't believe that she was not having a miscarriage. She went to the doctor this morning, and everything seems fine. Impostor syndrome!

Anyways, I suffered from impostor syndrome my first semester or two of grad school, but then pretty much got over it when I realized that pretty much every person in my cohort (that is, the people who started grad school at the same time as me) thought the same thing; that everyone else in the cohort was smarter that them, and that they had been admitted by mistake. It took until the summer after my first year, when we were all reminiscing about how lost we felt when we first started, for me to realize this.

Since then I've pretty much accepted that I belong here. I may not be the 'best' person in my cohort, but we started out having 8 people and now we only have 5. So I at least have outlasted 3 other people (2 of them dropped out and one was kicked out).

However, today, on the eve of my dissertation proposal defense, this impostor syndrome is back with a vengeance.

I remember my first year of grad school, I befriended a third year grad student. I thought she knew everything. Anytime I had a dumb question (like: in grad school are papers supposed to be double spaced or single spaced?), I would ask her, and she would know the answer! (double spaced) And not just dumb questions, hard questions as well, like how to detach myself to an adviser who was using me to do bitch work and not helping me at all! And she knew the answer to that too!

Now I'm done with my fourth year of grad school, soon to be a fifth year. Most people ahead of me have already graduated, so I'm what in my department we call the "old heads"; people who have been around for a long time and know what's what. I thought by this point I would know what the hell is going on. But I still don't! They're giving me a first year student this Fall as a "grad buddy" in this thing my department does where they assign an advanced student to make sure you don't totally fuck up your first year. What the hell! I can't be responsible for making sure other people don't fuck up! I've having a hard enough time making sure I don't fuck up!

Meanwhile, this all seems suspiciously waaay too easy. I read lots of academia message boards and blogs and such, and everyone seems to freak out a lot more than I do. And work a lot more than I do. Someone commented on my blog yesterday that they want to take a year off to work before going to grad school, so they can have an easy 50 hour a week workweek and take a year off. Um, I don't work more than 50 hours a week. Even when I was teaching last semester, I worked like 40 hours a week at best. Now I have a steady work schedule of 10 or 11am to anywhere from 5pm to 7pm, Monday through Thursday. So what is that, like 25-30 hours a week? And approximately 50% of that was spent fucking around on the internet. Is everyone working 80 work weeks but me?? What if I'm not working as much as everyone else is!

And yet I seem to be right on schedule..I have 2 peer reviewed journal articles out, another I am revising per an editor's comments, and a non-dissertation project I'm working on with a prof that will hopefully end up as at least 2 journal articles. I've jumped through all the hoops that I am supposed to have finished by this point for my joint phd program (20 courses, 3 comprehensive exams), with the exception of my proposal, which should be done by tomorrow. Along the way I even got a teaching (at the university level) certificate and a women/gender studies certificate! I have a few semesters teaching experience, have presented at conferences around 10 times, and have a pretty damn good curriculum vitae if I say so myself. If you google my name you'll find 4 pages of links to articles I have written and honors I have received.

So why do I have that sinking feeling in my stomach today? Why am I asking myself 'What if they've just been humoring me all along?' and 'What if I've bullshitted my way through this proposal, and tomorrow they will find out and not pass me!!' Why did I have an anxiety dream last night in which my committee chair died on the way to my proposal defense, and they brought in a new guy who was all "Oh man, your chair was letting you off waaaay easy, there is no way this proposal is acceptable." Why, when people reassure me that only a real douchebag of an adviser would allow me to defend my proposal without being ready, do I think to myself "hmmm, you know, my adviser IS kinda a douchebag!"?

Impostor syndrome that's why!

You would think that knowing what is giving me anxiety would help me not have it, but you would be wrong.


  1. i was just this morning discussing impostor syndrome!! as a mom i sometimes feel as if one day the kids will turn around to me and say WTF do you know about it all? you faked your way through our childhood. Sometimes when intuition is all one goes on, we do feel as if we are faking it till we make it. we are also conditioned not to be big headed, so we second guess ourselves all the time.

    apparently women suffer more from impostor syndrome than men...interesting

  2. Funny - it's not just in the academic world. I work in IT in the corporate world, for a very large international financial services company. Every few days I have to sit through a meeting where someone or other is spoting gobbledygook corporatese.

    (My favorite was "Can we leverage Scott to fulfill that function?" instead of "Can we ask Scott to do it?")

    There's also a million acronyms flying around.

    For a while I was nervous that they'll all find out that I have no idea what anybody's saying in the meetings. Then I spoke to some co-workers who said that they have no idea what the crap anyone's saying either. We've decided that Managers call these meetings just to make themselves feel important.

  3. Good Lord! Is that what it is? I thought I was just mentally ill.
    Whatever it is, I have it bad today.

  4. I'm totally convinced that one day, they're going to look at my transcripts and find out that I COMPLETELY fudged them and revoke my degree, even though they were only slightly fudged and fudged with the express permission of the department chair. Yeah, I feel ya.

  5. A little less cussing would be appreciated. What are you, a sailor?

  6. To be honest with you, as a fellow academic, I'm not sure impostor syndrome is all in the imagination. Sure, it's great to get something done, but how many very smart people do you know whose projects don't pan out?

    Did you really earn it, or did you just get lucky? It's probably a combination of both. (I mean "you" in the general sense -- I'm sure you earned your degree.)

  7. anon- if you don't like the way I 'cuss' then stay the fuck away and don't read my fucking blog. :)

  8. candy man- I think part of it is luck, yes. But I think serious sufferers of impostor syndrome go beyond that, and think that it's actually a complete mistake, and the only reason things haven't gone completely bad is blind luck. Also that any minute they will be found out and those good things will be rescinded.

  9. AE,

    anon- if you don't like the way I 'cuss' then stay the fuck away and don't read my fucking blog. :)

    But don't you know that profanity is what destroys the souls of children? They should never see, hear, or read anything that has profanity or sex in it!

    Children should only be exposed to good, healthy things, like violence and gore on TV and video games! Oh, and relaity shows where everyone betrays everyone else. THAT'S what builds a healthy personality! But cursing? Fucking inappropriate!

  10. You've been tagged!

    (Sorry, couldn't find your email address.)

  11. I'm that commenter from your last post and I really am sorry that you interpreted my comment that way.

    Please, please don't think I was trying to make you feel inadequate. There;s a lot I didn't put in that comment. I'm working 25 hours a week and taking a double course load because I can't afford to attend college for a full four years. I'm going to be rather young when I graduate from college. I need some time, a year or two off before I graduate. I want time to work and save money (I'm helping out at home, and I'll have to work throughout grad school, even if I'm fully funded) before I start grad school and doing the whole work/study and excel in both thing again. I really didn't mean to belittle your work.

    Also, impostor syndrome, I hear you. Apparently, it's very common among high-intelligence women. I was both delighted and alarmed to find that my adviser who I am a little bit in awe of, has the same issues--and she's been in academia for four decades! Apparently, success is not a cure for it.

  12. boobalah-

    you didn't make me feel inadequate, the feelings were already there :) Don't worry at all, I was just using it as an example in this post...

    your story sounds exactly like mine, except that I wasn't helping out my home.

    Good luck in the future! Working during grad school sounds like crazyness..I mean I 'work' in the sense that I teach a class each semester and work as an RA over the summer, but that's not anywhere near full time..I hope you figure out everything and are able to work less hours during grad school (student loans maybe?) cause it'll be tough...although I do have a friend who is doing it and seems to be fine :)

  13. jewish atheist- right on! I'll try to fill it out tomorrow...

  14. I think I have anti-imposter syndrome, where I start to believe my own press and think that I am better, prettier, and smarter than I really am.

    Luckily I have some built in ego checks, namely a husband and two children, who take every opportunity to remind me otherwise.


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