Will the Real Academic Please Stand Up? Imposter Syndrome and the Academy

December 9, 2021

As dissertation coaches, we are aware of the many obstacles our clients face, and especially, the ones that are the most common. On a daily basis, we see clients who are incredibly smart, hardworking, and resourceful, but struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. No matter what they have achieved, they often feel like they aren’t good enough writers, or that their conclusions are weak or their methodology is questionable. In less extreme forms, these feelings may manifest simply as nervous butterflies and motivate them to achieve, but sometimes, they cripple them with doubt. They may feel like they can’t do the task in front of them, or worse — that they don’t even deserve to try.

This feeling, often called “imposter syndrome,” is common, according to researcher Jeffrey Bednar, affecting nearly 70% of us at least once over the course of a lifetime, and is particularly rampant in academia. The pressures of taking qualifying exams for the PhD or writing a dissertation can bring up profound feelings of vulnerability and shame, as can life on the tenure track. We may even think the admissions committee made a mistake in offering us a spot, or that the hiring committee really meant to go with one of the other candidates.

In part, we feel this way because the human body can’t always tell the difference between fear and excitement, and there can be a fine line between anticipation and anxiety. It all leads up to what Melody J. Wilding appropriately calls “a hot mess of harmfulness,” and can keep us from reaching our potential.

So, since imposter syndrome is so common, what can we do about it? Is it possible that somewhere in that very human but often crippling experience, we writers can discover places within ourselves that need to be healed?

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

According to Suzanne Mercier, imposter syndrome is caused by both nature and nurture, as those of us who are more emotionally reactive tend to experience more severe forms of the phenomena as well as those who had a perfectionist parent. If one or both parents or other caregivers had an “unrealistic ideal of what performance looks like,” Mercier argues, chances are their children will hold that ideal as well. That feeling then “remains latent until it is triggered by something external to us; something we react to; something that tips us into actively feeling not good enough.”

Perhaps this is why imposter syndrome tends to rear its ugly head right when we are on the cusp of something great, or as we are learning something new, because we suddenly realize that in order to leap, we must leave our original ideas and even a part of ourselves behind. There is comfort in remaining as we are, blanketed in our knowledge and certainty. To move forward in these instances is to become a beginner again, which is a scary prospect if we researchers have constructed a great deal of our identities around the need to be in the know. The mistake we often make is equating this uncertainty and ambiguity with being a fraud, and this in part happens because we’ve conflated the concepts of expertise and infallibility.

How Can Imposter Syndrome Actually Help?

The first thing imposter syndrome can help us do is to make a realistic assessment of the strengths and weaknesses in our work. If we can move through the pain of our initial response to this assessment, we can begin to test out what our doubts are saying. It may sound strange, but at The Dissertation Coach, we like to encourage our clients to dialogue with their doubts, either aloud or on paper. We suggest they write down what they believe about themselves, even if it sounds ridiculous — maybe especially if it sounds ridiculous. Then we encourage them to test those statements and see if there is a tiny grain of truth in them. Sometimes there is no truth at all, but even in the instances where there is truth (“but I don’t know about this topic” or “I’m not sure if this is the right conclusion”), they can make a fairer assessment of what it is they don’t know or can’t do and then determine a course of action. Maybe they do need to learn more in order to write that paragraph, for example, or maybe they just think they do. It’s good to be honest with themselves about these things with as little judgement as we can possibly manage, and with an eye towards actually solving the problem.

Imposter syndrome can also illustrate how being an expert is not incongruous with having more to learn. In fact, every time we are searching for more knowledge, we are showing that we are intellectually curious and that we recognize the need for what Carol Dweck termed a growth mindset (2015). According to Dweck, “in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. “And even though there will always be more to learn, we can still share our current knowledge. We can be in the process of becoming an expert in one aspect of a topic and yet already be an expert in another aspect of the same topic at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, it’s often helpful to hear that we are not alone in what can be an isolating and enervating process. At The Dissertation Coach, we get to see how much better students feel when they realize that the way they are feeling is absolutely normal, and that the feeling itself has no bearing upon the quality of their work. In fact, we’ve even noticed that there seems to be somewhat of a positive correlation between the anxiety students feel about the work and the actual quality. Often the students who worry the most and feel the worst about their work are the very ones who achieve the most.

So, if you too are experiencing imposter syndrome, remember this as you work. That fraudulent feeling is often itself a fraud, and as you work through it, you may actually end up liking what you’ve created.