You are an intelligent person. You have successfully completed an advanced degree, secured a position, maybe even already have tenure. You may have won competitive scholarships along the way. (If you are still doing your PhD, you have still accomplished much. Getting into your program is no mean feat.)
And yet the job often feels daunting. Some days you look at all those well qualified people who don’t have academic jobs and wonder how you got here.
I read an excellent post by Leslie Madsen-Brooks, Imposter Syndrome in Academia, in which she articulates why so many of my clients (and academics in general) struggle with publishing, teaching, and the other core parts of the job.
in my experience, the vast majority of us exist beneath the thinnest veneer of confidence. Behold our traditional academic crutches: the comprehensive textbooks for our survey courses, in case we fail to demonstrate in class discussion sufficient breadth of expertise; the bulleted PowerPoint slides, lest we lose our train of thought; classroom lectures with limited opportunities for questions we might not be able to answer competently. Attend any humanities conference, and there’s a very good chance you’ll see people with multiple graduate degrees reading their papers to others with multiple graduate degrees, worried they’ll misspeak if they share their ideas off the cuff.
The down-side of specialist expertise
In the first year of my PhD, I had a conversation with a colleague at a similar stage. We were talking about theory we were reading. He was excited about Anthony Giddens structuration theory (this was the late 80s) and I felt hopelessly lost. I hadn’t even heard of it until this conversation. I was reading Dorothy Smith’s The Everyday World as Problematic and was equally excited about what I was finding there.
I can’t remember how we ended up talking about how this conversation made each of us feel but somehow I admitted that I felt kind of stupid. I didn’t know anything about Giddens’ theory. I was a bit daunted, feeling that my colleague was the better scholar.
It turns out he was feeling exactly the same way! He hadn’t even heard of Smith and thought the ideas I was excited about also sounded really interesting. He felt really stupid for not having read it.
Admitting that to each other made us both feel better.
There will always be things you don’t know
I have still not read Giddens’ structuration theory, or much else by him. Nevertheless, I successfully completed a PhD and secured an academic job. I published. My work has been cited.
You have research questions that interest and excite you. There are other scholars interested in similar questions. You present at conferences and publish your work as a way of engaging in conversations with those other scholars about these questions.
Each of you bring different things to this debate. Sometimes you will be motivated to go read things you have never heard of or never thought were relevant to the questions that interest you because a colleague has made an interesting point you want to follow up. Sometimes you will be happy to allow that colleague to be the specialist in that area and pursue a different line of inquiry.
What to do when you feel like a fraud
Get out a piece of paper and your favourite writing instrument, or open up a new document in your favourite application for writing notes.
Make a list of all the things you do know a lot about.
- What theory have you read?
- What sources/data/texts have you studied in depth?
- What arguments have you made?
- When have those arguments been received positively? (Yes, list every single occasion.)
- Who has shown interested in your work in progress?
- What have they commented positively on? Be specific.
As you do this a gremlin might appear with a whole string of “Yes but …” examples. *Tell the gremlin that you are not focusing on those examples right now. Perhaps invite the gremlin to take its tea and cookies and go write its own list in another room. Take a deep breath. Go back to your list.* Repeat from * to * as many times as you need to.
You can do this.