A dear friend of mine once told me that while she looks like a successful academic on paper, she doesn’t experience herself that way. She’s not sure the institution experiences her that way, either.
I hear this all the time, both from graduate students and professors.
And, like everything else in academia, it’s kind of complicated.
A grad school friend and I coined the term “academic anorexia” to refer to what we later came to know as Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is that persistent fear that you aren’t as smart or as capable or as interesting as people seem to think you are, and one day they’ll wake up and know you for the fraud you think you are.
There’s a lot of reasons we all acquire Imposter Syndrome, including being a student for way too long, the competitive and brutal nature of some departments or advisors, the constant evaluation and judgment, and the constant need to triage a workload that is more than anyone can reasonable do.
I’m not sure many of us get out of grad school without a whopping case of it, and it does damage, especially to women.
By undermining our confidence and our trust in our environment (not always falsely, either), Imposter Syndrome keeps us playing small, asking for approval, and constantly doubting ourselves. It’s exhausting and demoralizing.
Being a round peg in a square hole
Sometimes our intellectual and personal quirks make us a bad fit for academia in general or an institution or department in particular.
Collaboration, for example, is an important principle of some feminist scholarship – but collaboration is not only not valued in the Humanities, it’s actively punished by “not counting.”
Being wide rather than deep is the way some of our minds work, but academia is based on each scholar going deep into one particular facet of one particular research angle.
When we don’t fit, we’re constantly running up against barriers and assumptions that tell us we’re doing it wrong.
Telling the difference
Having Imposter Syndrome doesn’t mean you don’t fit academia or your institution or your department or your field. Imposter Syndrome only means that you’re doubting your own excellence, even as you are getting generally positive feedback.
When you don’t fit, however, you’re constantly running up against barriers to being successful in the ways you would naturally operate. Sometimes you can think your way around them, but you’re always having to check yourself and reorient yourself. And sometimes you can’t think your way around them and you’re experiencing negative feedback.
Imposter Syndrome is painful, to be sure, but with some attention and some processing, can be transformed into a balanced sense of what we have to offer.
Lack of fit, however, can only be fixed by moving – to another institution, to another kind of institution, to another department, to something outside academia.
They both suck
Neither one of these is fun. In fact, experientially, they’re both pretty terrible, because neither of them allows you to be your full, beautiful, whip-smart self.
But doubting yourself when everything is generally working isn’t the same as not fitting. That self-doubt needs compassion, to be sure, and care, and space to process the underlying fears. But that doubting of your own abilities doesn’t mean you don’t fit. In fact, it probably means you fit really, really well.
All that being said, you don’t have to put up with it. You can, in fact, be in academia and be both confident and happy. I’ve seen it happen. And assuming that academia is where you want to be, you deserve that.