9 Tips for Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

I have been thinking a lot about impostor syndrome lately. Mainly because I see my fellow postdocs and assistant profs (and let’s be honest some associate profs) suffering from it. One of my last conversations with a fellow postdoc before I left for the summer was about how hir imposter syndrome kept hir from writing and submitting an article for review. I wanted to shake hir, tell hir s/he’s wonderful and smart (since I had read hir work and seen hir present), but some how I didn’t think that would do the trick.

Others have been thinking about impostor syndrome as well, such as Nate Krueter who defines it as, “the lurking, sinking, throbbing feeling that they will soon be exposed for the intellectual and professional frauds that they sometimes suspect themselves of being.” He suggests asking questions when transitioning into a new job and being honest when dealing with grad students as two ways to deal with imposter syndrome. Jacquelyn Gill writes about how mentoring and feminism helped her overcome impostor syndrome. Scientopia has a wonderful Diversity in Science Carnaval on impostor syndrome. Minority scholars or scholars on the margins can be particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome as we receive implicit and explicit cues that we do not belong or are presumed incompetent.

I offer my suggestions in the spirit of these internet posts, books, and articles on the subject of impostor syndrome. These are some observations I’ve made and ways I have dealt with impostor syndrome. Please add others.

1. Understand that all knowledge is contingent and incomplete.

I was talking to someone about my research here in research country and s/he indicated that I simply had to talk to someone they knew, who lived in another city about 6 hours away. “You’re project won’t be complete,” they told me, “if you don’t talk to so and so.” I did not talk to so and so for a variety of reasons. As an empirical field worker, I find that people will send me on wild goose chases to talk to someone they know. I don’t want to go into too much into detail with the research methodology aspect (b/c every discipline and project is different), but I bring up this small conversation to note that, in the past the suggestion of incompletion may have sent me into a flurry of activity and anxiety. Now I realize that all knowledge is incomplete and the BIG PICTURE is not something only I have to provide, but something to which we all contribute.

2. Take critique with a grain of salt.

In acknowledging that no research is complete, some of the critiques one may receive could be that there is a “hole” or a “gap” in your work. Of course we want to be thorough and rigorous (which I think are very subjective words but I digress) but sometimes taking critique with a grain of salt involves acknowledging that the “hole” is not your project. And honestly, you cannot fill every gap. Also, taking critique with a grain of salt involves acknowledging that sometimes the critique is more about the person making it, than about you, and sometimes you can fill the “gap” by citing said critic.

3. Crave critique and engagement, but beware of viscous attacks.

As academics I think we generally know that critique is the way we engage with one another in professional (and other) settings. Once I accepted that and realized that critique was the way of the academic world I submitted to it and even began to desire more. Really I just wanted someone to engage with my writing, but I realized that most of the engagement would only come through critique. If that’s what I can get then I’ll take it. But also know that viscous attacks are not cool and, again, are (generally) less about you than the person attacking. Female Science Professor has a post about dealing with attacks.  

4. Read widely and critically in your field and realize that others may not be doing anything better or worse than you.

When I started to write my dissertation I stopped reading because I was intimidated by the scholarship already published. I thought that nothing I produced could live up to what I had already read. Then I finished my dissertation, gave it to my committee, and found myself with some time on my hands. I began to read again, except this time I read from the vantage point of someone who had produced something larger. This perspective changed the way I read and I began to look at the kinds of rhetorical moves other scholars made, how they marshaled their evidence, and what kinds of claims they made. I also began to see myself as having the possibility to produce work like this as well. I also began to ask prolific people about their writing process and it finally sunk in that most scholars took a long time to produce the final, published piece that arrived at my doorstep in the latest issue of the Journal of Besketweaving. Maybe the right word isn’t to read critically, many academics already do this. Read for process and for tips on how to guide the reader through an argument. Already published work may clue you in to the structure, but it should not be a straightjacket.    

5. Think about academia as a practice and less as a state of being.

It appears to me that some people think of being as academic as an all encompassing identity. I think of academia as a series of practices such as, doing research, writing, reading, reviewing other people’s work, presenting research, submitting articles for review, writing grants, teaching classes, etc. In other words, I break everything down to its constituent parts and I consider each part a skill to be learned through practice. Thus, being an academic is more something that I do, and less something that I am.

6. Early in your career consider everything to be experience.

If you think about academia as a practice, then one of the tasks at hand may be to accumulate experience or knowledge in each part of the practice. Many times I was made to feel like I should just know how to do things in graduate school, with absolutely no training or even brief conversation. For example, I had no idea how to present at a conference or even write an abstract. After an initial fear of presenting at conferences I decided that I would have to get over it and just do it. I HATED conferences at first, but I made myself keep going and presenting and I actually got better. (And now I actually like conferences, but I think that’s more a result of my self disciplining.) Anyway, that’s just one example, but rather than think that I need to know everything, I consider my activities practice. Right now, every time I submit an article for review – that’s practice. Every time I respond to reviewers comments – that’s practice, etc. I do this with the explicit hope that things will get better. And as they say, practice makes perfect.

7. Understand that the system may be set up to make you insecure.

Academia is incredibly hierarchical. To make a contribution to one’s scholarly field, which most academics want to do, we must make an intervention into an already existing field of work. That usually involves critiquing those who came before us in order to make some analytical space for ourselves. However, that means that the newest, least experienced people, must subject the most experienced, most visible people to critique. And sometimes more seasoned scholars do not take well to critique. Even the seemingly innocuous line, xyz subject remains understudied, can be enough to enrage some people. (Footnote: I’m not suggesting that some experienced scholars are too sensitive, or saying that it’s ok to dismiss a scholar who has committed their career to studying xyz. If xyz has been studied, then that work should be cited. Our interventions should be real and meaningful, not dismissive.) My point is, that this system is a minefield of egos, tempers, and power plays that the newbie may have little knowledge of. Advice on how to negotiate this minefield would have to come in another post. My point here is, that sometimes it’s not you, it’s the structure.

8. Read academic self-help.

When I was a grad student, one of my colleagues looked through my bookshelf at my series of my “How to Be an Academic” guides and called them academic self help. At first I didn’t like the term, but for better or worse I have now adopted it. These are basically books filled with tips on how to survive graduate school, get a job, publish an article, etc. They accompany my insistence that academia is a practice. As such, for each practice one can probably find a self help manual. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century was one of my favorites in graduate school. For writing, I also found useful How to Write A Lot and Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks

These are just a small handful of the academic self help books that lines my shelves. I also go to seminars at my university and I joined the Institute for Faculty Diversity. In short, in overcoming imposter syndrome one can use all the help they can get.

9. Read academic blogs and novels.

Academic blogs can also offer self help advice, such as Get a Life, Phd or Conditionally Accepted. Other academic blogs and novels offer a running commentary on life as an academic. These offer a more candid view of the day to day life of faculty members and grad students. I think they present professors as everyday people and provide their points of view on various situations that one may not encounter in their day to day life. In my experience, many academics speak very indirectly when talking in person. These blogs and novels present a more direct voice from academics and offer a window into more unguarded opinions. Ferule and Fescue, Reassigned Time, and Academic Jungle are some blogs that I follow. Also, academic novels are famous for depicting the petty squabbles and tense fights that plague many departments. I have found that by depicting academic life, even if in an exaggerated way, academic novels help to illuminate some of the unwritten rules and social norms of university culture that I had not been privy to upon starting graduate school. I have enjoyed novels by David Lodge, On Beauty, The Human Stain, Straight Man, and The Small Room. Also, Ms. Mentor provides a list and some brief reviews of academic novels at the Chronicle.

I wanted to provide 10 tips, but I thought I should get off my soapbox at 9. If anyone has anymore links or tips to add, please do. Cheers to a good semester everyone!

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  • rockingyourrole  On May 19, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Reblogged this on rockingyourrole.

  • LM  On November 24, 2015 at 11:57 am

    The imposter syndrome I feel can be defined as ”the lurking, sinking, throbbing feeling that they will soon be exposed for the intellectual and professional frauds that they ALWAYS ( not sometimes) suspect themselves of being.”
    The only thing that helps is taking criticism healthily and remembering praise and just plugging along. Move forward – that’s all I can do, even if I don’t feel like I can.

  • janicestjohnmatthews  On November 23, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Reblogged this on janicestjohnmatthews.


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