Looking back on my academic career thus far, there have been three distinct periods when I came down with a bad case of impostor syndrome. The first was during my initial year of my doctoral program. My master's degree is in a different (though related) field than my doctorate degree. As a result, I spent class after class worrying that I was less prepared than my classmates. I compensated with lengthy reading lists I created on top of my assigned course readings as an effort to "catch up." Later, I started my first tenure track position and suffered the common worries of junior faculty members: What if I can't get a grant? How will I ever get from here to the stature of the academic giants around me? What if my ideas and findings aren't important to others? The remedy for this bout of impostor syndrome was surrounding myself with great mentors and seeking out advice and support when I needed it.
Now I'm at mid-career and recently found myself having familiar worries, though this time things are different. After receiving tenure at my first academic home, I decided to move to a different state for personal reasons. Before my move, I was experiencing post-tenure bliss. I was proud that my hard work and productivity that contributed to my tenure also made it possible to secure a great position at the exact department and university I wanted to work at. However, after my move impostor syndrome set in again, with new worries about whether I will be able to develop new collaborations and secure funding for new projects at my new academic home. I wondered, "Can I be as successful at my new academic home as my old one?"
I just finished my first year at my new institution and overall, I think it has been a success. I published. I submitted new grants with new collaborators. However, my recent experience has caused me to reflect on the problem of impostor syndrome. It's a common problem for academics - we have chosen careers that are based on peer review. We are always being judged. Over time, however, I have learned a number of lessons about how to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress caused by this malady.
Know that you are not alone.
Impostor syndrome is an isolating illness. We are setting ourselves apart from our colleagues, viewing them as legitimate and labeling ourselves as frauds. During my PhD program, I once had a meeting with a faculty member who seemed larger-than-life to me. As we discussed some of the stresses of academic life, she smiled at me and said, "At this point, you're just pushing forward and hoping that no one catches on that you are a fraud." This was a revelation! Others feel like this, too! Even people who I view as successful.
One of the problems with impostor syndrome is that we often don't talk about it, in fear of revealing our true selves who seemingly don't deserve to be in academia. Senior academics should especially talk about such feelings so that junior scholars can learn that we get over impostor syndrome.
Get to know successful, senior colleagues and model yourself after them.
Successful academics can often seem out of our league. They have stellar grant and publishing track records - how can we ever live up to their accomplishments in our own careers?
Remember that academics are more than their research. They have personalities and talents. They have insight on how to be professional and how to best interact with our academic peers. Mentoring should move beyond discussions of research and scholarship. Learn more about the accomplished scholars in your life. They will seem more relatable when you find out that they can also have great senses of humor, play in a band on Friday nights, or watch the same shows that you like on Netflix. Once you learn about how they approach a balance between scholarship and the rest of life, model that. They can teach us that we are more than just our research. They can teach us how to not take ourselves seriously.
Know that we all have something to offer.
Not all of us will generate groundbreaking theories in our field. Not all of us will have multi-million dollar grants or direct research centers. However, we all can make positive contributions to academia. Our contributions are unique and can be significant. I once received a standing ovation during a faculty meeting for chairing a faculty search committee that was tasked with hiring three new faculty and we ultimately hired four, receiving an additional faculty line. It's not the same as securing federal funding, but I received accolades from my Director and Dean for my strong leadership and organizational skills. That felt good, too.
There are some positive aspects of impostor syndrome.
For many of us, when we are a little nervous about the quality of our work, we push ourselves harder and try and do better. We may try to push an additional grant or manuscript out the door or try to publish in a more prestigious journal to demonstrate the importance of our work. We may try to work with new collaborators or seek out new mentors. All of these activities can legitimately improve our academic achievements, leading us out of impostor syndrome.
Also, consider the opposite problem of impostor syndrome: overconfidence. When we are too confident about our work, we may miss fatal flaws in our research or overlook new opportunities. I once participated in a week-long research workshop where I was the only faculty member among doctoral students from various universities. During lunch one day, one of the other participants was boasting the importance of his work. He stated, "My dissertation will probably be the single most important work in my career!" I felt very sad for him. If true, he would have peaked in his career before his first job.
Currently, I am in remission from impostor syndrome, but I know that it can return. I hope that my experiences may help others who are currently suffering from the anxiety and depression that can be attributed to impostor syndrome. Need more advice? contact Nicole today and learn about how she can help move your career ahead!