The game’s up, you’ve been caught. Thought no one would notice? Well you’ve been spotted in the reading groups, shifting in your seat and not joining in; silent at the seminars, tremulous with fear that you’ll be unmasked as a pretender. Look here, everybody already knows you’re a fraud and you don’t belong at your institution.
I was once pantsed by an esteemed professor at a well-attended poetics roundtable. Rushing from a previous seminar, I was excited to get to this one as it was on the subject of one of my favourite poets. As the session progressed I jumped into the conversation with a point of my own, but, before I could finish, I was roundly censored and accused of dealing in abstractions by the aforementioned professor who pounced and pantsed (Me. I got pantsed). I didn’t say another word for the entire session and resolved to never speak again. Not only had my pride suffered a career-ending tackle but I felt utterly stupid. I had long suspected that I wasn’t fit for purpose to be a PhD student and this moment all but confirmed it for me. It was humiliating, not least because I had invited my friend along and had been singing the praises of my college and the local academic community moments before being unmasked as a fraud.
I took my concern to my supervisor, I didn’t mention the incident, but surely there had been some mistake: How had a dumbo like me managed to get through the application and interview phases to obtain a place when everyone around me – my peers, my colleagues, my teachers – were so much better, more capable than I? My supervisor then told me about an early career experience, which I won’t repeat here because it’s her story, but the themes were similar and involved her being left somewhat speechless and unable to answer probing questions following a presentation. Her final words settled the matter: “You’re not here by accident”.
After this I spoke to some of my PhD pals and each confessed the same secret: they felt like imposters too (see Alex Scott’s post for more on dealing with this). Imposter Syndrome is a shared phenomenon. We all feel it at times, some more than others. If you don’t you may be a psychopath or a policy advisor.
A week after the embarrassing scenes of the seminar I received an email. It was from the professor who had taken me to task over my improvised contributions. He asked to meet and so we did where he apologised for what happened. Over a coffee I told him about my thesis, practice and research interests. He gave me some pointers and has since, very kindly, introduced me to various academics with whom I share interests and recently invited me to read at the book launch of a poet and writer who features in my thesis. Not that these gestures validate me, rather, they show that I had used a simple disagreement in a discussion as something to beat myself over the head with and confirm my presupposition that I didn’t belong.
Confidence in oneself owes a lot to experience and failure (more than success I would argue). Whenever we create, write or publish we take a risk and we may be subject to criticism but this is how academia works. If someone is giving serious thought to you or your work and is criticising it then it means you have a place in the debate. In order to re-establish my focus I had to accept my supervisor’s words and embrace my position through some cognitive wrangling. If you feel like a fraud then you should accept her words too: they apply to all of us.*
*Unless your qualifications come from a Degree Mill, in which case see paragraph one and good day to you.