Who do you think you are? What are you playing at? Sooner or later, somebody is going to find you out…
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Imposter syndrome—being continually plagued with the feeling that you’re not qualified—is endemic within academia. Although it happens to most academics, it’s particularly prevalent and toxic among those who identify with a visible minority; one recent study of undergraduates found that black students with imposter syndrome reported higher levels of anxiety and depression.
One anonymous professor, writing for Inside Higher Ed, describes imposter syndrome like this: “I don’t think a single day goes by that I don’t feel a slight frisson of fear that I’m going to be found out—that my colleagues will discover that I’m essentially lazy, have made few meaningful contributions to my academic discipline and really have no idea what the hell I’m doing, and they will expose me for the pretender I am.”
Here, according to Quora, are five professors’ views on imposter syndrome—including those at the beginning of their careers and those who have retired, as well as the alternate perspective of somebody who had to fight for recognition and to claim her rightful place her entire working life.
Associate professor of psychology at Algoma University
I remember in grad school, about two weeks in, my supervisor gave me a grant application to read. Me, why me? I didn’t know anything. I think I commented on the font.
To this day I read articles and think, “Oh man, that’s so cool, I would never have thought of that.” I go to conferences, hear talks and think, “This is better than my stuff.”
Then I realize I was probably hired for a reason. I do my annual report and see how many citations I have. I get a Google Scholar alert that says so-and-so has cited me and I think, “Wow, I don’t even know her and she has read my work!” (It’s never as impressive when a friend cites you). I review papers for journals, I review grant applications. Either everyone is an idiot, or, perhaps, I know what I’m doing.
I objectively know I’m good. Subjectively, I often feel like an imposter. Almost all of us feel that way in my experience.
Computer science professor at MIT
It’s clear to me that my colleagues at MIT are much smarter than me and better than I am at professoring. And it’s also clear to me that many others in my discipline, who are at so-called “lesser” institutions than MIT are doing better research than I am. It’s also clear to me that if I were more disciplined (for example, spent less time on Quora) then I could do a better job.
But this doesn’t really bother me. There is so much in the world that needs doing, that those people who are better than me can’t get done by themselves. I think my work is making a positive contribution, even if it’s not as great as some other people’s, and that’s good enough for me.
I guess another aspect of imposter syndrome is the fear of being unmasked and kicked out, but thanks to tenure, I don’t have to worry about that.
Marcia J. Bates
Professor Emerita of Information Studies
Women were almost totally cut out of academia during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. It was totally a boys’ club. Only in the 1970s did major universities begin to go beyond the “token woman” syndrome, where a university would have only one or two women across the entire university, usually some professor’s daughter, or the like. One sympathetic male faculty member in another department told me that the men didn’t want even a single woman faculty member in his department, because they liked to use swear words, and felt they wouldn’t be able to if women were present. (How’s that for having your values in the right place?)
I happened to be on the leading edge of women faculty coming into the universities during the 1970s. It was very hard being in the first wave of women entering formerly forbidden territory. Some faculty—male and female—were welcoming, but most saw us as weird and “wrong” for academia. Every step of the way up the ladder I encountered resistance, hostility, condescension and under-valuing of my research. Any excuse could be used to cut women out—of tenure, of pay, of resources and so on. Men were promoted if they looked “promising;” women were promoted only after outstanding accomplishments, and even then the promotions were seldom accompanied by fair pay.
So I never felt imposter syndrome. If I didn’t believe in myself, then who would? Women are raised to be cooperative and to give credit to others. I soon learned that I had to fight for my work and put myself out there, or else I’d be completely ignored. At one point, I had been underpaid for so long that I had to take on extra consulting just to have enough money to attend professional conferences (essential for faculty) and buy my own computers.
Eventually, my work came to be widely recognized and cited. I received awards for my research and pay raises, but much later than should have been the case. I envy the smart young faculty women today who have talent and who have a fuss made over them for that talent.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Oh, yes, definitely. I didn’t really believe that I could be a successful researcher until well after receiving tenure. I hated reading referee reports and proposal reviews (and teaching evaluations.) I was surprised every time I got another publishable result, and surprised again every time a paper was accepted.
In fact, every new result is still a surprise, and I still hate reading referee reports and proposal reviews (and teaching evaluations.) But I’ve learned to trust the evidence a bit more. I’ve consistently published several papers a year for more than two decades, I’ve been promoted to full professor, my research has been well-funded, my students have been successful, all despite a constant nagging voice in my head telling me that I’ll never have another good idea again as long as I live.
Former professor at Youngstown State University
A suggestion for my colleagues from the retired bench. For 20 years or more I too had the imposter problem and it was like everyone here has described. Then one year I was recognized as a “distinguished professor of research” by my university. That did it for me. The recognition of my work by colleagues from across the university made me realize that I was not an imposter. I certainly had not accomplished all that I wanted to accomplish, but I knew I was where I belonged.
Take this into consideration the next time you nominate your colleagues for awards. This type of recognition by one’s peers from the whole university has an impact. To some extent, we tend to play it down as a simple recognition for hard work. When considered from the perspective of the effect it can have on the individual it is indeed an important award.
I suspect we all know people who would benefit from the recognition for their efforts. Some of these people are not the ones who make the most noise. Look closely. It is an honor that is truly appreciated by those who work hard for years, because nearly all of us have the imposter problem.
How do you deal with imposter syndrome? Have you experienced it recently? Tell us your story on Twitter, @tophat.