‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

jaythompson-croppedJay Daniel Thompson is a researcher and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne.

He can be found on the web at Jay’s Academic Proofreading, which is on Twitter as @JaysProofs.

Jay has a background in research administration, and maintains strong interest in issues facing academic researchers. He can be contacted via email at jaydthompson80@gmail.com

The scene is a conference dinner. I’m seated at a table with a number of senior academics, all of whom have high profiles in my research field. The mood is convivial and the conversation, like the wine, is flowing merrily.

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Yet, I find myself channelling Wayne’s World: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!

Fast-forward two months: I’m in my home office, writing a journal article. My research has been extensive, and I think that my argument is promising. Even so, I can picture my peer reviewers just waiting to expose my intellectual unsophistication. Again, it’s a case of “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!“.

Yes, I’m suffering from Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome has been described as ‘that feeling that, regardless of your accomplishments, you’ll still be unmasked as a fraud.’

This ‘syndrome’ is not exclusive to academia, though it has maintained a powerful presence in the ivory tower.

From personal observation, Imposter Syndrome is especially prevalent among graduate students and early career researchers. It has, however, been known to affect even the most distinguished professors.

In its mildest forms, Imposter Syndrome can manifest itself in feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. These are hardly conducive to conducting riveting research. In its more extreme forms, Imposter Syndrome can destroy careers. I know of several talented scholars who have walked away from university positions due to the fear that their perceived lack of brainpower would one day be brought to public attention.

In this post, I provide an overview of some reasons why academic researchers can develop Imposter Syndrome. I then offer suggestions on how this condition can be overcome, or at least mitigated. I also suggest how key features of Imposter Syndrome (namely, the absence of confidence in one’s scholarly prowess) can actually help researchers.

Reasons for ‘Imposter Syndrome’

There are many reasons why researchers might feel like imposters. Let’s look at three of them.

First, academia is an elite sphere. This is particularly true in an era of shrinking university budgets and widespread job cuts. Even those researchers who have secured The Big ‘T’ (tenure) could be excused for wondering why they were chosen for a coveted position, when equally capable colleagues missed out. They’re gonna find out that they hired the wrong person!

Second, academia is competitive. Every year, hordes of seriously bright folk compete not only for jobs, but also for competitive research funding. In this environment, ego is not a dirty word. Egos are paraded everywhere, from the conference floor to the photocopy room. Belittling words are frequently shared about that researcher who won that grant or fellowship. Even self-confident souls can find themselves wondering: When will they find out that I’m not as good as the rest?

Third, academia tends to showcase — and indeed magnify — social hierarchies. According to economist and blogger Kate Bahn, the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ first appeared in 1978, when a ‘pair of psychologists’ detected this phenomenon ‘in high-achieving women.’ There are many ‘high-achieving women’ in higher education, but this sector is far from a level playing field. Gender and race-based discrimination persist, despite policies designed to eliminate them. There is little wonder why researchers who are not white, male, and middle-class might feel that they are ‘faking it’ and will eventually be caught out by smarter (read: white, male, and middle-class) colleagues.

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome: You are worthy!

The following is a selection of suggestions on how researchers can most effectively deal with Imposter Syndrome. In saying ‘deal with’, I am acknowledging that there is no magic bullet to expunge this condition, but that the condition can be reduced, and even work to the researcher’s benefit (when properly managed). Some of my suggestions are relatively straightforward and individualised. Others are more complex and require collective labour.

  • Attitudes must shift: Hoo-boy, where to start? Well, we could start by judging our colleagues’ achievements on their merit, and not on said colleagues’ cultural backgrounds or gender expressions. There have been attitudinal shifts in areas such as race and gender. The fact that discrimination exists suggests that there is more work still to be done. In particular, casting aspersions on the intellectual capabilities (or lack thereof) of others does nobody any favours. Such aspersions can create hostile working environments. Also, questioning Professor X’s brainpower can lead you to seriously question your own—and this, in turn, can give you a serious case of Imposter Syndrome!
  • Develop positive and productive relationships with colleagues: These colleagues can be personal friends, though friendship is not compulsory. They can be based at the same institution as yourself, though this isn’t always necessary. In their dealings with you, these colleagues should avoid sugar-coating the truth or overestimating your abilities (the flipside to Imposter Syndrome involves delusions of grandeur). These colleagues should be enabling, offering praise when it’s required, and suggestions for improvement on other occasions. In short, these colleagues need to be honest with you. Remember, honesty is a two-way street!
  • Back yourself: This sounds just like an advertising slogan, but bear with me! It can be helpful for researchers to remind themselves exactly how they won a particular scholarship or academic posting. Luck might well have something to do with it, particularly in an era when a junior fellowship can attract hundreds of applications. So can that old maxim ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ Networking and even – dare I say it – nepotism have worked in many a researcher’s favour. That said, researchers will know a great deal about their chosen field. Most researchers will hold at least one degree in their field. They might have taught and published peer-reviewed articles. Put simply, academic researchers are all working towards the same, wonderfully lofty goal: making important contributions to an existing body of knowledge.
  • Embrace the lack of overconfidence: Yes, confidence is sexy, but overconfidence is very unsexy! Overconfident researchers are those who believe that their prowess should be reflected back at them at every opportunity (and in every citation). Unfortunately, overconfident researchers are (more often than not) suffering from delusions of grandeur. They can inspire adulation, but they can also encourage ridicule. They can win distinguished postings, but they can be the first people to complain to editors when their work gets rejected (‘the editor doesn’t know what they’re talking about!’). Most importantly, these researchers are usually oblivious to their weaknesses. Such a blind-spot benefits no researcher, especially if their career is in its early stages, and whose supposed ‘expertise’ can easily be revealed as anything but.In short, overconfident researchers run the serious risk of being imposters or, at least, being very much like imposters. Imposters are, after all, folk who pretend to be something that they’re not. Conversely, researchers can do themselves a favour by accepting that they do have areas for improvement, and don’t have all the answers they’re seeking. Researchers can accept that others will see their shortcomings, and that these shortcomings don’t necessarily spell the cessation of their scholarly careers.

Imposter Syndrome can strike at any point in a researcher’s career, and it doesn’t discriminate between disciplines.

I hope this post has helped you understand some reasons why Imposter Syndrome comes into being, and has given you some ways of keeping this surprisingly common condition from dampening your pursuit of knowledge.

8 Responses to ‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

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  7. I love this article. I’ve experienced this personally, but also seen it happen to people I know for a fact are intelligent, confident people. I attend Truman State University (a small liberal arts college in Missouri) and academia is highly respected here. One thing you touched on that I find especially true is your comment on gender discrimination. In my experience, a lot of spaces in academia are still highly gendered, and I constantly feel this ‘imposter syndrome’ when out of my element, aka taking courses outside of English. Our English major consists mostly of women and it’s a comfortable space for me to explore various topics and have in depth discussions, whereas taking classes for my Environmental Studies minor on the other hand, where most of my peers are men, shakes that confidence and comfort. I think in a way this has contributed a bit to my resilience in regards to the confidence in my work, but it shouldn’t have had to. The gendered spaces even within a single school are still highly systematized, which is why I think that promoting STEM with the newest generation of young girls and women is so important (but I digress). Thanks for the tips!


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