Imposter

09/18/2010 By Shawn Burns

Emily brought home a nice little present from work: “Apparently there’s such a thing as Imposter Syndrome.”

This is not, as I first thought, a disorder in which people adapt to stressful environments by faking their way through them. My first reaction to that was “Hey, I totally have Imposter Syndrome!” But no.

It is instead a disorder that prevents people from seeing how good they actually are at what they do. They cannot internalize their accomplishments or any metrics by which others measure success.

Oh. I definitely have Imposter Syndrome.

My conceitedness in other areas aside for a moment, I wonder on a near-daily basis if I’m just faking my way through graduate school. I think “This isn’t good enough; I’m not good enough; how did I get here? Why haven’t I been kicked out yet? I can’t possibly keep doing it this way without failing. I’m going to get caught. I’m going to pay for this.”

Past academic successes are all irrelevant when I think about what I’m doing now. I cannot believe that I deserve to be where I am, no matter what I’ve done before, no matter what anyone has said before.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry on Imposter Syndrome I see this unsurprising claim: “It is commonly associated with academics and is widely found among graduate students.”

Well.

I spent all summer avoiding my advisor because I’d given a talk to the department in May that I thought went horribly and I was heartbroken over it. Even though in her e-mail immediately after she said the talk went well and that other faculty members agreed, and even though I spoke to other members of my committee who thought it went well, and even though other graduate students I spoke to thought it went well, I could not believe them. I still don’t believe them. I don’t. I think “Well, they just don’t know enough about the material to be good judges of the talk,” or “She’s just saying that…” or “The ones who actually do think it was garbage aren’t going to say anything about it so of course I only hear the good, ignorant, feedback.” I make up ways for them to be wrong about me, for me to just be pulling the wool over their eyes.

Whether I genuinely suffer from Imposter Syndrome, actually am undeserving, or even cannot possibly suffer from it because it’s not a real disorder, I think I know why graduate students seem unusually prone to the feelings associated with it.

In graduate school we are training to become experts in our fields. We are learning how to learn to be experts. But we are also learning from experts, people who are at the top of their game, and we read nothing but papers written by people at the top of their game. We measure ourselves not only against our peers (though we do that as well), but against those who have been doing what we do for twenty, thirty, or forty years longer than we have. Some of us can accept that fact for what it is, a fact that shouldn’t impact our own self-valuation, but others of us can’t. We look at our own research, our own writings, our own conclusions and compare them to these lauded, well-respected, well-circulated thoughts and we always find our own to be lacking. It’s no wonder we think we’re not good enough.

We might actually be good enough to be exactly what we are: graduate students and young academics. But the only way to convince ourselves of that is to spend more time reading each others’ work and seeing that we are all making the same mistakes, that we aren’t just getting lucky or fooling people.

But getting graduate students who already feel like imposters to share their work with other graduate students, who they feel will find them out as imposters, is like herding cats into a bathtub full of water. Moreover, even if we do all share our work we would never accept the judgment of other graduate students as valid, because they are just graduate students. “Aren’t they all imposters too?” we’d think to ourselves.

So.

There’s that.

Any other grad students out there feeling Imposter-y? How about people feeling like fakers in other areas? I’m not alone, am I?