Battling Imposter Syndrome in Academia

June 16, 2016

By guest blogger, Ima Syke 

Many months ago, following a reader request, I was tapped to guest blog on the topic of Imposter Syndrome (cue internal voice asking, “Am I worthy of writing this post? Did they ask me to write it because they know I don’t belong here? How did they figure me out?”). I’ve been assured the invitation had nothing to do with anyone’s perceptions of my inadequacy but rather a belief that I could do a great job and hopefully help many others similarly plagued by this type of pesky internal monologue. So here goes…

Imposter Syndrome is generally defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that are prevalent despite success. Researchers have found this is more prevalent among women, graduate students, academics and interestingly, among those with evident success. This topic interested me for personal reasons; I have battled with aspects of Imposter Syndrome for years. While this is not a DSM diagnosis, it has impacted my career in academia in various ways. Let me give you a few examples from my professional life, hopefully others can relate.

Recently, I sat in a meeting with a group of fellow academics as we prepare to write a large-scale collaborative grant. As I hear what other people can contribute to the data collection, writing the grant and other key aspects of this work, I wonder, “What can I contribute that others can’t?” and “My section will not be nearly as strong as theirs” and countless other comments revolving around self-doubt that ran through my mind. In other situations, I have remained silent during conversations that directly relate to my teaching or research for fear of “intellectual fraudulence.” And don’t even get me started regarding reading vitas! Others with Imposter Syndrome may feel like “luck” has more to do with their success than ability, or they may downplay their success. While I logically know that these behaviors hinder my productivity, collaborative relationships, and ultimately my perception in academia, I also never knew how to change these feelings until working on this blog post.

Like any good academic, I started my assignment by doing research (i.e., investigating what has already been written on this topic). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Imposter Syndrome has been addressed in numerous academic magazines and blogs because it is all too common. Below are some strategies I have found in the literature for battling Imposter Syndrome.

Recognize it within yourself and in others. Imposter Syndrome does not necessarily relate to low self-esteem or confidence; these are two different issues. If you suffer from chronic self-doubt and feelings of intellectual fraudulence, these are signs that you are battling Imposter Syndrome. If you see these traits in others, acknowledge what you see and allow for conversation on this topic.

Regularly remind yourself of your accomplishments. Create lists or email folders of accomplishments and refer to them when these feelings of inadequacy strike. Part of Imposter Syndrome is the inability to internalize accomplishments, even when highly successful.

Become keenly aware of your strengths. Learn what you excel in and utilize these abilities often, especially in collaborative relationships. This will heighten feelings related to your usefulness and contribution. Utilize others to help you with this task as it may be challenging for some to identify personal accomplishments.

Discuss Imposter Syndrome with your students. Recognize patterns within the classroom (such as comments from students that may indicate these feelings) and have open discussions about this topic. Furthermore, talk with your students about how you overcame your own doubts or how you are still working to overcome them.

Seek support. People who have Imposter Syndrome may find benefit in seeking therapy to improve their coping mechanisms. Group therapy might be particularly beneficial as relating to others and their experiences and coping strategies can be powerful.

If you are interested in learning more about how to overcome this problem, Academic Coaching and Writingis offering a free webinar, Managing Imposter Syndrome in Academia, on June 30th, 2016.

Additional resources on this topic:

Feel Like a Fraud by Kirsten Weir in APA’s gradPSYCH Magazine

Faking It: Women, Academic, and Impostor Syndrome by Kate Bahn in Vitae

The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: “Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make you a Fraud” by Phyllis Rippeyoung for The Professor Is In

‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia by Jay Daniel Thompson for The Research Whisperer

An Academic With Imposter Syndrome by Joseph Kasper in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Do you have any further coping strategies for imposter syndrome? What works – and doesn’t work – for you? Don’t be afraid to share. You are not alone.

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