Impostor Syndrome Lives

A provost asked me if professional writing students actually get jobs. When I paused to consider how to best answer her question, she asked, “Don’t you know the answer?”

This weekend a student asked me if I like her research question and I thought, “Why are you asking me?” 

When I encouraged a student to rethink her approach, she later told me that she thought she wasn’t a good enough researcher and writer. 

A colleague asked me to recommend a theorist, I thought “They don’t respect me as a scholar” when I couldn’t namedrop fast enough.

I asked a student how she was doing. She responded, “I’m not very smart. I’m not sure I belong here.” 

A colleague asked me under her breath, “Will I ever feel good enough?” 

I once thought that I would get my PhD become Dr. Lukowski and believe in myself. However, two years later I can confidently say that I still feel like an impostor. Every time I’m observed teaching, present a conference paper, or submit am abstract I am sure that this will be the moment the they find out.

What am I afraid the spectral they will discover? That I’m a fraud. That I don’t deserve my degrees. And, that I have no business being in academe.

Of course, my rational mind knows that this is ridiculous, but the fears remain. Psychologists Clance and Imes (1978) coined the term “impostor syndrome” while describing high-achieving people who can’t accept their accomplishments fear being exposed as frauds. While Clance and Imes’s study focused on young college women, over the years we’ve discovered that many high-achievers complain of never feeling adequate. Business publications like Forbes and the Harvard Business Review post stories about over coming the syndrome by “re-framing failure” or “seeking support.”

However, for women in the workplace and the academy, failure and seeking support can have more consequences for our careers. So, while women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, seeking support may not be an option. Women still face persistent sexism in academia; this Guardian story noted that while 66% of men have tenure, only 42% of women do. Moreover, several studies have shown that women are more likely to experience poverty and job loss. In other words, women have more reasons to be afraid and feel like frauds.

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jorge cham from Piled Higher & Deeper

As I think about all of the women I quoted above, I wonder when we will feel good enough. How many awards, accolades, atta-girls, or great classes will it take? Or, is impostor syndrome part of our success? I sometime feel like my drive to do my best comes from my desire to prove them wrong. That, when the time comes, I’ll prove worthy because I’ve done enough.

Then again, maybe they‘re right.

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