Everyone has Imposter Syndrome these days, particularly academics and particularly women. Sheryl Sandberg had a bout of it early in her career, Professor Stephen Curry recently outed himself as a sufferer on his blog, and Ruth Barcan wrote about it in the Times Higher Education magazine. The occasional speaker at our graduation ceremony last year called the women graduates out on it, saying they all looked more timid than the men crossing the stage (personally, I blame their shoes). Imposter Syndrome is a bit like thrush – it is an annoying discomfort that gets better or worse from time to time but never seems to properly go away, we all have it, we all know we all have it, but it still feels weird when an older woman stands up in academic dress and says it out loud.
The point of most of this sharing is to help us all to realise that even people who look successful and confident on the outside might be feeling just as uncertain as you are, particularly early in your career. If you have the same qualifications and experience as everyone else in the room, then you are no more faking it than they are. This problem can’t be necessarily be solved by more hard work, it just takes time and that magic ingredient ‘confidence’. As they say in AA, ‘fake it until you make it’.
Barcan’s THE article has a slightly different take. Her point is that that Imposter Syndrome is a more recent scourge of academia, brought on by unrealistic expectations from universities, students, government and the public. We can’t all be ground breaking researchers, inspiring teachers, brilliant public speakers and social networkers, entrepreneurs, administrators and colleagues all of the time. But this is what the job demands, and so we pretend. We don’t have the time or energy to do anything as well as we would like to and we end up feeling like imposters. As Stephen Curry wrote in his blog, interdisciplinary research brings its own sense of inadequacy, always in between established points of knowledge, acutely aware of everything you don’t know. What this implies is that on some level, we actually are imposters. This is important in distinction from the version of the syndrome described by Sandberg and other boardroom feminists.
I have reached a point in my career where I am reasonably happy with my capabilities and I hope that I have a fairly balanced view of my limitations. I have been in academia long enough to know that I have as much right to be here as any of my colleagues. It was not always like this. For many years I was actually pretending. I was an imposter.
I am the first generation of my family to go to university and the only person in my extended family to have a PhD. My mother and grandmother had barely set foot on a university campus before they dropped me off for O-Week. At every stage of my career, from that very first day as a fresher right through my early years as an academic, I had to learn everything myself, from scratch. I am reasonably bright, and I learned quickly, but for much of that time I was one small step behind my colleagues from more academic families. When I was a kid hanging around listening to my Dad negotiate car deals, some of my colleagues were playing quietly down the back of the seminar room or doing their homework in proper, grownup libraries. I will bet my left foot that I could sell a car faster than most of them, but when it comes to knowing how to negotiate the nuances of academic life, they had a head start. They already knew a lot about how to be an academic, I was just pretending. But I learned. And so now, for the most part, I feel like I know what I am doing, and I have probably benefited from learning it all first hand.
There is a more dangerous strain of the syndrome that I now worry about. It is asymptomatic and often undiagnosed. This is the version of the illness that causes academics who are well recognised for their expertise in one specialist field start to pretend that they can speak or write knowledgably about others. I am highly susceptible to this. When my instinct says that I should decline an invitation to contribute to project or event on the basis of limited knowledge, it is tempting to tell myself that I am just suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Everyone is faking it, the devilish voice says, so I shouldn’t let my lack of confidence stop me from contributing and taking my 15 minutes at the podium. This is a very hard balance to strike, particularly when others seem willing to pretend to knowledge outside their narrow field. Interdisciplinary work means that, like Stephen Curry, I feel insecure in my own expertise most of the time, but this insecurity keeps researchers like us honest. It shows respect for colleagues in other fields of study and for the basic principles of academic work.
If you feel like an imposter, you probably are. If you are early in your career, keep working, keep growing older, and it should go away. If you are later in your career, stop, listen, and remember to show respect to your colleagues and the standards of knowledge we are paid to uphold. It is not necessarily a reason to hold back from contributing, but it can be a warning that you still have a lot to learn.