Today’s post is a Guest Post submitted by a reader of the blog named Phyllis Rippeyoung. Phyllis is an Associate Professor with tenure, and wrote in with a comment about “Imposter Syndrome.” I responded by asking her if she’d be willing to write a guest post about this scourge that afflicts so many. I felt strongly that hearing that someone with a job and tenure still experiences these feelings of inadequacy might be a powerful intervention for all of those who are secretly struggling with similar feelings. Phyllis kindly agreed, and this is her marvelous post.
Here is Phyllis’ official and unofficial biography:
Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa, having previously taught courses in research methods, statistics, social stratification, work, and gender, as an assistant professor at Acadia University. Her research has examined inequality in early childhood and gender inequality in pay, the workplace and in families. Her current research examines how infant feeding practices shape and are shaped by inequities of gender, class, and sexual orientation.
Other things about me are that I am married to a brilliant and unbelievably supportive, registered psychologist husband who left his private practice in Nova Scotia because he knew that this job would be a better fit for me (shameless plug for his new practice! http://www.matthewrippeyoung.
Last week, in the midst of one of many multi-day soul-searching internet benders, I anonymously posted to Dr. Karen’s contact us page, asking if she might be willing to do a blog with tips for how to deal with crushing imposter syndrome. In other words, how do I, an associate professor at a major research institution, stop feeling like I don’t belong in academia sometimes and why was I feeling like, at the core, I’m a fraud, ready to be found out at any moment. She offered to comply, since it is her view that the problem is epidemic among women and very common among men, but wondered if I might be interested in writing something myself.
Deep down I know that I’m not an actual fraud or an imposter. I have a Ph.D. from a Research I university that provided me with outstanding training in quantitative research. I also finished my degree quicker than anyone in my entering cohort, while having two babies, and earned a national grant for my dissertation from the American Educational Research Association, the work from which then won a distinguished dissertation award. On the market in the roaring mid-2000 academic boom years, I landed 5 job interviews and 3 job offers. I got tenure and promotion at my first position at a prestigious small liberal arts college in Canada and went on to land a second academic job at a major research university. I have a respectable publication record including an article in one of the most prestigious journals of my field, which even got me interviewed on NPR and in a number of national newspapers.
But before this makes anyone anxious, let me explain to you why I may still be a fraud. First of all, my dissertation is a total sham. Well, I wrote every word of it and spent painstaking hours ensuring that my claims were based on evidence and that my data were properly coded and analyzed. But, my theory section is too weak. I have one sentence on Bourdieu even though it was all about economic, social and cultural capital. WTF? How could I not have made Bourdieu central to it? Why did I focus so singularly on Coleman? And my structural equation models don’t really look THAT much better than a run of the mill regression analysis. So it does involve confirmatory factor analysis, but I still don’t REALLY know how to explain what the hell model fit is.
Not only this but I’m also a failure for never going to a school or getting a teaching job in the Ivy League. I did go to McGill University for my BA and as all Canadians know Harvard is the McGill of the United States. But who counts Canada? I also waver between feeling like I’m less of a sociologist for teaching so much quantitative research methods rather than theory and feeling like a loser for not knowing my stats even better. I also never read enough, watch too much TV, and really enjoy spending my bus ride commute playing Bubble Shooter on my IPod. Even the fancy article fills me with shame. Well, actually it doesn’t. I am really proud of that article, it’s quite good, you should read it. HOWEVER, now I am overcome with feeling like that was the ONE. The only. I’m convinced that that paper is destined to become the Macarena of the academic world. It was fun while it lasted, but now we’re all just so, so embarrassed.
I know. I’m whiny. You are probably thinking “what is she complaining about when thousands of people can’t escape the drudgery of the part-time teaching track. When there are people who can’t get out of graduate school.” I did almost drop out of grad school repeatedly. I endured part-time teaching while a student and it was all I could get in my first year out of graduate school. But the feelings of fraudiness have not changed hugely since I began. In fact, in some ways, I had more confidence in my first semester of my master’s program, when it felt okay not knowing anything. In other words, accolades, job offers, and awards, are not a golden ticket out of Imposter City.
In talking to a wise colleague, similarly afflicted with this syndrome, she had the most amazing insight that these feelings are a result of our loving what we do. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be afraid to lose it. I also think that suffering from the syndrome speaks to the respect that we hold for the enterprise. Ethically, I don’t want to publish something that might be wrong. What if I forgot to carry the one and now a sociological bomb was dropped on North Korea?
But then again, there are times when I hate it. IHATEHATEHATEIT! I hate dealing with plagiarizing grade grubbers. I hate getting service work dumped on my desk that no one else will do. I really hate getting mansplained to. I hate, really, really, hate spending months and months on a grant application, working 7 days a week until midnight for a final three week push, inducing anxiety disorders in my children and exhausting my husband , all to get a review by a person with an axe to grind, explaining why everything I have written is wrong (note: it wasn’t).
As academics, it is our job to be critical and to be criticized. We judge the calibre of our students and of our colleagues in grades and article reviews, and they return the favor with teaching evaluations and reviews of our own work. There is no shortage of possibilities for where someone might tell us that, in fact, we don’t belong. It is very easy to let the sting of the one nasty student evaluation or review burn most brightly in our minds. However, as my brilliant therapist husband writes about in his own blog, when we spend a lot of time regretting what we haven’t done or focusing on being not good enough, we lose sight of all that we have learned over time.
After posting my query to this website, I pulled out of my slump a bit. I started exercising and eating well again, and am finding that I don’t really feel like a fraud at all this week. But aside from individual acts to help us feel better, there also needs to be a cultural shift within the academy. There is too much bullying. I was so impressed by Dr. Karen here, when she noted on her Facebook page that she likes to leave up comments from nasty trolls that attack her because they show just how ugly academics can be to each other. We also need to be more honest about these feelings and recognize that they are a reflection of how the system operates and not just our own inadequacies.
My mother, an academic herself, has often told me that I have an obligation as a woman not to succumb to the imposter complex. I often find that advice overwhelming.
But she is right. Who would be left if everyone who struggles with these feelings quit? (PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE WITH JUST THE ARROGANT BORES!) But even the arrogant among us are quite possibly just trying to prove that they too belong here, despite their own inner fears. I really am extremely privileged to get to do what I do. And, in reality, no greater good comes from my obsessing over whether a hiring committee (or an acceptance committee) made the wrong choice. Neither I nor my job is ever going to be perfect, but we’re most certainly good enough. And frankly, at the end of the day, tough cookies if I’m not good enough; I got this job and until I get kicked out, I am going to try to enjoy it.