The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: “Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make you a Fraud.” (A Guest Post)

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.com).  I also have two amazing feminist sons (ages 8 and 10), two annoying but cute dogs, and two stinky turtles. Aside from the pets, I would not be where I am if it weren’t for these people (and my parents and my sister), like not even a little bit.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.


Comments

The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: “Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make you a Fraud.” (A Guest Post) — 46 Comments

  1. Thank you. This is exactly how I’m feeling, my first year out, part time teaching this fall and nothing (academic anyway) for the spring. Still hoping for interviews at the upcoming conference.

    Maybe I’ll force myself to go to yoga today after all!

  2. I love, love, love that you wrote this. THANK YOU for writing it. I’m going to print it out and put it in a file on my desk so that I can pull it out every time I feel like an impostor myself. For me there is so much value in knowing there are other accomplished women who feel this way. Thank you!!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. As an ABD who is going on the market after the first of the year, I am TERRIFIED, and I mean utterly frozen by fear, of sending out job letters and applications because I feel like I will be laughed out of the interview (if I’m lucky enough to get one with my pithy CV). I’m a single mom and have worked my way through a Ph.D program at a snails pace (compared to my colleagues) and constantly battle feelings of inadequacy and ineptitude. My advisers are supportive (the nice types Dr. Karen warns of) but have also warned me these feelings don’t wane which makes me dread finishing my degree. Then what? Then I keep feeling like a fraud? Really? So then why the hell have I invested $120,000 and a decade of my life?
    Okay, I will end my little diatribe here. Suffice to say I appreciate knowing that I’m not alone. Perhaps there is an anonymous support group for this affliction? If not, someone should start one.

    • First, sorry for the bad english, I’m brazilian and not really good with the language. I realize that I’m 2 years late with this comment but I NEED to tell you: I read just until this sentence “I’m a single mom and have worked my way through a Ph.D program at a snails pace”, then I read this “(compared to my colleagues)”, and my first thought was WTF?! She’s a single mom working through a Ph.D and still think that is less than her colleagues??? I mean seriously girl?? You rock! (And now I trully understand this syndrome).

  4. Thank you for writing this! When I was ABD and on the job market, I felt like a complete fraud. It seemed so phony, in my job talk, to use phrases like: “my research focuses on blah blah blah….” Like I was some seasoned researcher rather than someone who had participated in, oh, two little studies. (“Oh yes, my program of research is very theoretically informed.” Program? Program? What program?)

    Now, 5 years later in a tenure-track job, I STILL feel like a fraud. I actually DO have a program of research now….yet still feel like a fraud. I thought I might someday feel legitimized once I receive tenure. But to see that this article was written by a tenured faculty person….it actually makes me feel better. Cause now I know I shouldn’t expect these feelings of inadequacy to magically disappear upon receiving tenure. Hmmm….maybe they’ll even get worse???

  5. OMG! I relate 100%!!! I even felt an imposter during my undergrad. engineering studies!, which is completely ridiculous. Actually, now that I think about it, it started just then. Maybe it was because I was also interested in other things, such as literature or history and loved to read books. I felt I did not have the “engineering profile”, even if I deeply enjoyed engineering. And the further I get in my academic career the worse the feeling gets!!

  6. I have discussed the Imposter Syndrome with Other Others in Academia since graduate school. I completed my PhD by the skin of my teeth – as a single parent raising a child with a serious disability. I secured an excellent postdoc and a tenure track job at a mid-range university in the middle area of the country. I have pubs in the top journal in my sub-field but never been interviewed by NPR. I guess what I am saying, what about those of us who do not have an amazing career at an R 1, multiple offers or therapist partners to talk us down from the ledge and remind us we are not imposters? Am I not getting something here? Because this does sound a mite whiny to me. Or are you saying that despite all of your accomplishments, you still have imposter syndrome? Hmmm.

  7. It may or may not be comforting for you to hear that these feelings of being fraudulent and inadequate are pervasive among women in the creative arts as well. As a composer outside of academia, I have to contend with two “truths” as well as my own feelings of inadequacy: 1) Real composers are all men, and 2) Music composed after, say, 1900 (1950 in college towns) is too hard to play and doesn’t sound good anyway. It doesn’t help my feeling of legitimacy that I have hardly ever heard a piece of mine performed after the kind of careful rehearsal that a work by a DWM like Bach or Beethoven routinely gets. As a result, I write pieces that are dumber and dumber …
    Thanks for letting me vent!

  8. Thank you for writing this fine piece. A couple of years ago at a conference I introduced myself to an editor and began describing a project I wanted him to publish. As I did this, I thought to myself, “THIS FEELS SO ADULT!”

    I feel like a fraud as an adult.

  9. THANKS. I have heard about the Imposter Syndrome, but never read something so exactly with my feelings. I am almost a Phd Candidate (if I get somebody interested in being part of my dissertation committee, because, of course, my topic is not worth it). I really thank the way you show your route of the Syndrome. I think my syndrome started at high school. Very good grades always, but never felt that I could “analyze documents.” What am I doing in the humanities courses???? I just loved them. That was the only reason that I had to support myself, and I never thought in the future. The school did not help very much, have to say. If you had good grades, you had to study something related to sciences. Humanities no way. Only law, of course (which I HATE). Finally, I went into History and, actually, did not know what really it was, but I fell in love with the study of the past… but feeling a fraud still. “Analyzing documents”?????? Ok… I had a very prestigious fellowship in my undergrad studies, but still feeling a fraud because the fellowship not only considered grades but also the socioeconomic condition of the student. Did my brain really deserve the fellowship? I got twice the award for best grades in the department, but still feeling a fraud. My bachelor thesis got a very important award from the government… but still feeling a fraud. It was about women history and we had, at that time, the first women president in the country in history (I am not American, as you can see); and every year, one of the awards was related to women, so no surprise that my thesis got the award. And, exactly as you say, my theory section… correction: it wasn’t EVEN weak. (maybe that is the reason why I am so concern now about the theory section of my dissertation and not giving any single step in the rest). While in my undergrad studies and after that, I worked in the journal of my department. Why did they bear me so many years? I was totally a fraud. I had weekly meetings with a professor, which were a sort of weekly oral exams. For six years!!!!! I have to be a very good liar. Finally, here I am. I got a very, very prestigious fellowship for Graduate School in the US. But again, I have good reasons to think I really do not deserve it, that they chose me by mistake… or by another reasons… the thing is that, in theory, the fellowship aimed to those students that, although being very talented, did not speak English, so the fellowship included English classes and the Phd. The result was all those who got the fellowship (30 people), were all from the middle and low classes. I know it sound pretty good (for us and the country), but still feeling a fraud. Did I get it because of my brain or because my dad only went to elementary school? It is something I have talked to other people with the same fellowship… As you can see, I have always found reasons to say that all what I have gotten has been for other reasons and not because of my brain. Sorry for the long post, just feeling like throwing up something for much time inside and that I can never say because everybody tell me that I can’t complain because I have had a lot of opportunities, that I have to think in all those people that had not have them. Feeling a fraud and dealing with the lack of opportunities of the rest, is just too much.

  10. I went to a presentation by Joan Harvey on the Imposter Syndrome at Harvard a few years ago. The best part? It was standing room only. At HARVARD, everyone wanted to know how to deal with feeling like a fraud.

  11. As a grad student who suffers from similar impostor feelings, I decided to do some reading on the topic and came across this book which others might also find useful. There is a detailed discussion of the syndrome, as well as strategies for dealing with it.

  12. I don’t think feelings of fraudulence are exclusive to academia. Wherever there’s a job that requires experience, skill or authority there will be people who feel like imposters. This comes from my time in academic & industrial settings, as well as that one summer where I blagged my way into a management role in the housekeeping department of a hotel. I was young enough to be the daughter of housekeeping staff, not their boss…yet they accepted me as their boss just because I was wearing a suit.
    There you have it. What toilet cleaners and R1 tenured professors have in common.

  13. Excellent/terrifying post. Nice to know these feelings are shared by such an accomplished scholar, but horrifying that accomplishment is not the cure-all bane I had hoped…

    Doomed to remain a self-doubter, I suppose.

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  15. Thank you for addressing this issue. I have been this way my entire life. I did go to an ivy league school, but always felt that it was either a mistake or they were just being nice when they let me in. Despite many other successes since, if anyone gives me a compliment I always feel that they are either being sarcastic or it is out of pity because I must have done such a terrible job. Compliments very often make me feel bad about myself.
    It is also nice to know that you can both love and hate what you do, it gets tiring being around people that never admit this. It gets exhausting putting all of your time and effort into a paper or project just to have a reviewer be condescending and rude. Sometimes I wonder if it is even possible to be in a system that is based on tearing each other down and survive with confidence intact…

  16. It feels awkward to comment on one’s own writing… but I wanted to add an epilogue in reply to some of these comments, especially Andy’s fear of future doom, to offer perhaps a bit more hope. I would say that my act of writing this has made my feelings of fraudiness nearly vanish (for the last week or two). Granted the feelings may re-emerge, but part of my point was that it’s really ridiculous for many of us to feel this way, and since it has posted I really feel that. This is especially the case in seeing how much it resonates with others. I may still get that Valerie Young book, but lately I am feeling really, really balanced about what I have and have not done. (Also, seriously people, I can not stress enough the importance of eating well and exercising–and I am not a sporty, healthy type person). But don’t lose hope!

    • These are wonderful comments, and I’d like to echo how much eating right and exercising makes a difference, as funny as it is to say. I also want to reinforce that men also have these feelings, as several of the above comments make clear. I had a colleague at a previous job who was a U.S. Marine (!) and had the jarhead haircut, and also was a very good historian. He told me of interviewing for a job at a conference hotel, and after getting through the interview and closing the door behind him, he heard his interviewees erupt into laughter. I know he’ll never feel “accepted” by academia, but he did manage to get a job at a good university (in the South). His attitude was to just know that, even if he wasn’t accepted by others, he knew that he was a solid scholar. It’s a good attitude, to accept that you are a pretty good judge of what decent scholarship is. As for myself, I still hold my breath when I hit “send” on important emails, and have to will myself through the door when meeting new colleagues or even new students. And I’ve written books, published in my “dream” journals, and have tenure. Ironically, it doesn’t always help to remember such things, because there remains the nagging suspicion I am just insulating myself with the armor of past accomplishments rather than being “the real thing.” So, I counsel myself to move on to the next thing and see what I can do. Weirdly, things got much, much better after I started running, and yes I realize that I literally was running away from my problems :) Thanks for a great post!

  17. Wait, so Canada doesn’t count? This post did nothing to alleviate my sense of being an imposter, but it did trigger something akin to a panic attack. Why do lesser-ranked American schools trump top Canadian ones?

  18. I absolutely LOVED this post and found it quite affirming. Thank you for sharing in such a humorous and honest manner.

  19. Thank you for your honesty! Your post reminds me of a clip in “The Rookie” with Dennis Quaid. He is having “the moment”…when he questions what he is doing, if his dream is worth it, if all the sacrifice on his family’s part is worth it. He walks by a baseball stadium and sees a young kid playing. The next day he asks one of his teammates: “You know what we get to do today? We get to play baseball.”
    Sports aside, I was in the airport on my way to a conference and met someone headed to another conference. I got to describe myself as a “Marine Biologist”….I looked around the people at the airport and realized, that sounds like a pretty cool job to me. And I realized I was lucky. As an ABD, I hope I get to stay in it, and most of all, I hope I can remember that I think it is a ‘pretty cool’ job.

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  22. Thanks, Phyllis! It’s nice to know that even such accomplished scholars still harbor these feelings, not because I want you to have them, but it shows that there is some solidarity to be had/felt.

    Two things you point out are crucial:
    1) a lot of these feelings are related to loving what we do! Yes. As with anything, from a sport to a hobby to a career, it is easy to just “leave it at the office” if it is simply a way to pay the bills. But as academics we generally study & teach something we love. And when you love something there is always more, more, more. You can play better. You can read more articles. You can write more books.

    I’m glad you pointed this out!

    2) Eating & exercising. I spent probably a full year playing sports, having fun, and eating right, rather than working on my dissertation. Now that I’m finally hard at work, I obviously have less time to play & eat right. But, you have to make a commitment to these because they are extremely important for mental and physical health.

    Finally, thank you for this! I am ABD and feel inadequate. I think this is because I haven’t been an academic from the start, but kind of fell into it. I was a varsity athlete as an undergrad and that was my love, school secondary. Then I pursued an MA and now a Ph.D. because I really like my field and felt like I hadn’t learned/experience enough as an undergrad. When I look around and see peers who’ve been as focused on their studies as I was on sports growing up/as an undergrad, I begin to feel like an imposter. Additionally, without the time commitment and mental/physical toil of a hard sport played under a conniving coach, I’ve felt like grad school has been “easy” for me. It has come kind of easily and this has made me feel like an imposter as well.

    But, I just try to work away each day, stay positive, and realize that I have plenty of skills and plenty of talent to offer.

    Thanks, Phyllis and The Professor!

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  27. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I’ve heard of Imposter Syndrome before, and blew it off as bogus. Because, after all, if we’re smart enough to recognize that we might be hard on ourselves, shouldn’t we be smart enough to not be?

    I started searching for info on Imposter Syndrome tonight after I was near tears after two company executives gave me glowing praises (independently, for different reasons). This happened very close to the end of the day, and on the drive home, I was staving off a panic attack.

    Why? Both executive’s words kept running through my head, which would give most people a sense of pride and accomplishment. All that ran through my head was “It’s only a matter of time… you just lucked into this job… luck runs out… if only they really knew you… etc.”

    Your article is a revelation and an inspiration. I intend to remember your words, “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.”

  28. Thank you so much for writing and posting this: I have felt like such a tremendous fake at everything I do for so long that I can’t remember what is feels like to be proud of something. If even the shadow of a little pride or self-satisfaction starts to sneak in, I give it a good, swift kick in the self esteem and it knows not to come back. It’s gotten so bad that I’m hiding from my colleagues and avoiding work- two very bad things for a managing director. Any other recommended resources or reading? I badly need the help. Thanks :)

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  32. Where to start? Until this morning I’d never heard of Imposter Syndrome, then came across it in the first chapter of ” Lean in”. What a revelation!!!!!

    I’m male, 55, had a v successful academic career with over 200 publications, founded and run a number of extremely successful companies with sales of over $500m and all my life I’ve been waiting to be “found out”. As far as I was concerned, all my successes were due to me being lucky, hanging around with really smart people and hitching a ride on their coat-tails…

    I am so pleased to see so many people recognising this early in their careers. I wish I had known of it earlier and known that I wasn’t the only one who ever felt this way. Still a few years of career left so now’s the time to start to learn from others successes in dealing with this suffocating fear. Thanks to all who have posted on this, and other, blogs. Tomorrow is another day and it WILL be better and different to today.

    Simon

  33. I wish I had read this in 2004. Participating in a one month, highly selective summer methodology institute was at once rewarding and scarring. The instructors were phenomenal but some of the other students were like people I had never seen. Allowing others to spill their negativity and absorbing it is never an option. Evaluating yourself according to others’ behavior is not your job.

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