Is it a problem of fit or Imposter Syndrome?

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.

Imposter Syndrome

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.

5 comments to Is it a problem of fit or Imposter Syndrome?

  • I’m so glad you wrote this post Julie!

    I have a book coming out soon that has an entire chapter to help readers untangle the question — am I afraid because I don’t think I CAN do it… or is it that I don’t really want “it” — the job, the promotion, the career, growing a small business into an empire…

    Thanks for shedding light on the fact that success is complicated.

    Valerie Young

  • Warnis

    This is one of the better posts I’ve read about the Impostor Syndrome. I find that the majority of posts/articles are centered around feeling like an impostor in the sciences, rather than the humanities. I’m in a MA of Women and Gender Studies and I’m so passionate about promoting social change, but I feel like I just don’t have the right brain for academia. I definitely slacked off in my undergrad – I feel like I did the absolute minimum there. Now, in grad school, I feel like I don’t even know some of the basic concepts that we’re looking at. For example, a student in the class that I’m TA-ing asked me about neoliberalism and I froze. I remembered looking up the concept in the past, but for some reason it didn’t stick, and in the moment I couldn’t answer my FIRST YEAR UNDERGRAD’s question. That definitely made me feel so unbelievably stupid, especially since all the other grad students are sooooo smart and not only seem to know so much more than me, but also have the ability to analyze and understand complex articles that I can’t seem to grasp. I know grad school is a learning process and I’m well aware that the Impostor Syndrome exists, but I still feel so stupid 99% of the time. And having clinical anxiety is only exacerbating my feelings of inadequacy. Either way, thank you for this article.

  • You’re welcome! And I’m so sorry things are feeling hard.

  • Lindy Loo

    Thank you for sharing. I am experiencing the same! I am graduating with a Masters Degree in less than 6 weeks. My marks are high but I have had to work twice as hard as the others. I have suffered so much anxiety when having to present or hand in papers. I feel stupid all of the time. I know I am good at my work, but I wish I had more of an academic mind. I wish I could grab concepts, retain and explain them too. But I don’t. I have even tried hypnosis! I don’t know how I got this far. I think that people came into my life and helped me along each time. I do believe in myself at my core and that is what gives me strength at the end of each day.

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