ideas for change

Academic Imposter Syndrome

There’s an article in the Advice section of the Chronicle today, detailing one junior professor’s struggle with clinical levels of anxiety, that mostly take the form of Academic Imposter Syndrome.

Many of us express the sense that we suffer from (sub-clinical) levels of this syndrome ourselves. I know I’ve joked about it myself, particularly in grad school, with its cohort of peers and constant competition for grades, funding, and jobs. I’m not finding this kind of joking particularly funny anymore.

The author relates the terrible feelings of fear, low self-worth, frantic productivity, an inability to enjoy or appreciate his own successes and a corollary over-acceptance of any negative feedback he receives. He writes that he feels so worthless that “I work harder, produce more, revise more ferociously, network more eagerly, and present more and better papers in the hope that doing so, and the external rewards I might obtain, will help drive away the terror and isolation I feel. But of course they do not.” The author notes that “Impostor syndrome is a psychological problem that touches on the entirety of my professional self-identity, and spoils it through and through.” He writes also that that he has received therapy for this issue, and continues to use management strategies (cognitive behavioural therapy?) to control some of the worst of the symptoms — I can well see that his issue is both chronic and serious.

But for the rest of us, those legion grad students and profs who have the more self-diagnosed kind of imposter syndrome? It is very well possible to be a successful academic without the kind of internalized browbeating that this mindset produces. And that’s something we should aim for, instead of normalizing self-hatred as a great productivity tool.

Let’s not kid ourselves — there is a strand of academic culture that seems to reward this particular kind of neurosis. Constant fear of being cast out of the garden is thought to motivate us to work harder. It keeps us sharp. Hungry. This must stop.

Like an alcoholic who claims that being drunk makes it easier for her to lecture to large crowds, or the ritalin addict who claims his abuse of stimulants make his thinking clearer, to say that a debilitating psychological problem makes one a better scholar is a rationalization. Consider: do you think, if you could rid yourself of your anxiety and dysphoria, your scholarship would be worse? Your teaching? I doubt it. Would you be measurably happier, calmer, more at peace on a daily basis? Probably. It’s time to ask what our rationalizations are really doing to our lives and our careers.

You are good enough, just the way you are now. You are complete. You are smart enough. Everyone occasionally messes up a conference paper, misses out on a grant, doesn’t get accepted to their top choice grad program. Everyone also gets a glowing teaching evaluation or unprompted praise from a student. Everyone manages to place an article. I’ve been a student, a post doc, a grants evaluator, a peer reviewer, a researcher, a writer, a member of several grad admissions and scholarship committees. Believe me, there are almost no imposters anywhere in the academy. The odds are vanishingly small that you are one of them.

What if we all just took one minute of feeling like we are actually good enough–completely well-enough qualified and competent–to be placed where we are?

I’m not going to give any more air to the imposter syndrome. I refuse to let anyone convince me that fear and dysphoria produce their best work. No. We are all good enough; we belong; we can do it.

11 thoughts on “Academic Imposter Syndrome

  1. Great post, Aimée!

    I went to a presentation once on the “imposter phenomenon,” which I thought was an interesting shift of the discourse. The speaker was trying to talk about those imposter feelings without pathologizing/individualizing them. Rather, she was trying to open up a discussion about how some forms of academic culture contribute to this set of feelings. Fascinating stuff!


  2. I was once commiserating on this very issue with a bunch of my fellow grad students. One of our colleagues turned up and asked us what we were talking about. We explained imposter syndrome to him and he responded, “oh, I really don't know what you are talking about.” I think he was being a jerk, but I guess on another level, maybe he was just making it through unscathed (unlike the rest of us).
    On a certain level, I am relieved that imposter syndrome is so pervasive. When friends in the early years of grad school contact me frantic about their own perceptions about their scholarly inabilities, it is nice to be able to comfort them by saying, “it's just imposter syndrome. everybody gets it. don't worry. you are good enough.” Of course, it would be better if academic training didn't produce these anxieties and traumas in the first place…


  3. “Of course, it would be better if academic training didn't produce these anxieties and traumas in the first place…”–too true! I often wonder if the organization of relations, values, and power dynamics within academe foster other forms of mental health issues (especially forms of narcissism) or attract those sorts. Sometimes we do have to be hard on ourselves so we can prepare ourselves for the worst of what the rest of the academic world might heap on us, especially those of us who are junior scholars.


  4. great insight! the imposture anxiety and narcissistic arrogance that are both prevalent personality types in the grad student body are actually symptoms of the exact same problem…


  5. Oh, I agree that these are “actually symptoms of the exact same problem”! What I am grappling with, however, is what systemic, ideological, pedagogical, and practical changes can be made to mitigate these causal factors? And, on a personal level, how might we do as Aimée suggests, and learn to relax and be confident in our abilities?


  6. I think one of the structural features has to do with the the narrowness of the academic pyramid. While the chances of becoming a tenured professor once you enter grad school are much better than those of becoming a big star when you join a rock band, or a novelist who can make a living on the basis of royalties from your writing, as we all know on this site, the odds are not great. And everyone who makes it to grad school is talented. So very small distinctions, sometimes even arbitrary distinctions, end up having outsized consequences. This has a warping effect, I suspect, both on the people being judged and on those having to make the judgments.

    I don't think we are going to change those facts. Kinda like how building more lanes of roadways doesn't improve traffic flow (it just means more people buy more cars and more subdivisions are built near the new roads), more tenure track jobs will increase the pool of talented people trying to get them. But another theme recently heard on Hook and Eye might help. People with MAs and PhDs in the humanities tend to get good and interesting jobs, whether in academia or outside it. They should feel proud of those jobs, and the profs who trained them should be proud to train people who can do such cool stuff. Merit is a necessary but not sufficient condition for academic employment, and alas, luck plays a role. You're here, so you brought the merit with you.


  7. Good point. I am pretty sure that if I make it through grad school I have no chance of getting an academic position (my career has been pre-ruined because of external circumstances beyond my control), but perhaps I can find something else to do with my degree. And being an academic is not the only way to conduct research . . . and certainly not the only way to use knowledge-generation as a means of improving people's lives (if we can even claim to be doing that as academics). Sure, I love research and being an academic, but I have to accept the reality of arbitrary decisions that will be (inevitably) swayed in my disfavor–so I prefer to try to be positive.


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