I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the frequent invocation of imposter syndrome. I recently heard someone say that all academics have imposter syndrome, and that claim confirmed why I am hesitant about the designation. If everyone suffers from a particular syndrome, it starts to seem less like a syndrome and more like the human condition. Or, in this case, the academic condition. But before I explore my objections, let’s consider what imposter syndrome is.
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that we aren’t qualified or entitled or competent but that we have somehow managed to fool people into thinking that we are. It is often described as a failure to internalize success. (If you want more information, here is a webpage with an extensive bibliography.) It’s easy to see how these feelings take root in academics. At many points—especially early on—we are judged on our potential while being given very little concrete feedback on our finished work. The emphasis on the potential over the actual easily leads to anxiety. We are admitted to graduate school on the basis of past performance and a statement of what we hope to do in the future. The grant application, the conference abstract, and the dissertation proposal all follow the same pattern: we write a compact and aspirational text and then start to worry that we won’t be able to produce the actual work. Not living up to our promising promises will lead to us finally being revealed as the frauds we secretly believe ourselves to be.
Needless to say, this description rings true for lots of us and shows an awful cycle in which successes can make some people more uneasy. Instead of enjoying being ABD, a doctoral student might believe that, with all the ‘easier’ steps completed, she will now be unable to write the dissertation. The imposter mindset is pernicious because it often feels cumulative; each new success means that the fraud has still not be detected, making the eventual unmasking of the imposter even worse. Imposter syndrome thrives when we fail to take into account the meaning of all the success we experience. The antidote is to trust the people who grant us approval along the way. Think of how easily we often denigrate that approval: ‘I was just lucky.’ ‘It was a weak field of applicants.’ ‘Nobody else was available.’ Any of those statements could be true—and there are real benefits to humility—but we almost never know them to be true. We all need to trust the experience and expertise of the people who express approbation. Of course, any given evaluator may in fact be throwing a stack of papers down the stairs and using the results to make decisions, but such randomness is rare. Over time, positive results mean something, and dismissing those positive responses as error or luck denies us the opportunity to deepen our confidence in our own abilities. (Here is a helpful post from Inside Higher Ed on the role of mentoring in managing feelings of inadequacy in graduate school. And another from The Singular Scientist blog that deals with the full spectrum of under- and over-confidence.)
Given all this, surely it seems useful to talk about imposter syndrome. I certainly encourage graduate students to be reflective about the way that approbation functions in academia. We can all benefit from being able to take a compliment. And there are people whose sense of their own imposterhood is so deep as to be a significant impediment to their work. So I am not objecting to the use of the term, but rather to the notion that it applies to all of us. In other words, my objection is to the way that a universal application of the term appears to pathologize inevitable aspects of academic life.
This overuse of the term concerns me for two reasons. In the first place, if the term is used to describe everyone, then it doesn’t have much power left to help those who are genuinely suffering. Those who need resources to help them find a way to internalize their successes might be helped by having the term reserved for a more specific condition.
In the second place, I worry that treating dis-comfort as exceptional contributes to the notion that we ought to feel comfortable. In particular, I am troubled by the notion that we ought to feel comfortable about academic writing. Writers must learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability. Exposing our ideas to public scrutiny is uncomfortable, and recognizing that discomfort as inevitable can actually help make us more comfortable. The recognition of discomfort acknowledges the inherent and ongoing challenges of academic expression. It helps keep us humble, which matters if we are going to produce interesting and honest work. It makes us work harder than we might otherwise do. Academic writing is a struggle and not a realm in which confidence and complacency are ever likely to predominate. It’s not my intention to valorize any notion of suffering for art, but rather to accept the likelihood that producing good academic prose that we are willing to present to the public will be a struggle. Students often seek out writing instruction so that the writing process will become easier. However, in many cases, it’s more realistic to focus on writing better than to focus on lessening the emotional costs of writing. This acceptance of writing as an intrinsically challenging act seems particularly important for novice writers who often assume that the challenges come from their inexperience rather than from the very nature of academic writing.
Overall, while I see great benefit in understanding the dynamics of imposter syndrome, I want to be cautious about the idea that there is something wrong with us if we find academic writing deeply challenging. For most academic writers, the best course of action may be to acknowledge the psychic toll that writing takes and to focus on acquiring strategies to make both the writing and the writing process better.