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Are you faking it? : Impostor Syndrome in Academia

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

I really enjoyed my time at university but for me it felt almost like I’d got in by some whim of luck, I worked hard to get there but I still felt as though I had got in by chance. Which meant by I had even started; I feared others would think that too and I would become exposed. I’d picture that in class everyone would know something about a really important event in history that I was ignorant to not have heard of. I remember wishing there was a documentary I could watch or a book I could read that gave a brief summary of everything that was meant to be important so I could at least have a basic knowledge of everything and maybe I could fake the rest. 

Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away, it evolves and alters and that doesn’t mean it necessarily grows or decreases in time. But rather it just seems like an annoying person sat in the back of hall that occasionally shouts loud enough that you can hear it.

I think it’s important to talk about it, I’m not even sure what it could be regarded as, I don’t believe it be a disease or a form of anxiety but rather something just in its own class that to a degree I like to think everybody has. It doesn’t have to ruin your university experience, it didn’t ruin mine, but it was certainly a part of it, almost like a step in the process; go to lectures, deal with the feeling that I’m pretending I belong there, go home, revise.

I had really only became aware of it properly further in my studies and it continues when working in academia. The labels of what degree you have or what level you are and how many certificates you have can give you the confidence you need to overcome this, but it can also feed it.

There will be students starting University in the next few weeks who already feel like this, asking questions of themselves or even dreading having to talk in lectures in case they reveal what they most fear – that they are a fake and do not actually know what they think they should know by now. There will be others submitting essays or dissertations who think they have got to where they are by pure luck and chance and that this is the time where it might be made public that they are not worthy of their previous grades. There are individuals who are considered as ‘Experts’ on a particular subject by everyone but themselves as they feel the area is so vast that even they are at the basics of the subject.

Even when I received high grades, or was given positive feedback, it didn’t silence the thoughts that I somehow didn’t earn them. From graduation to working in academia, I thought that would be it, I would prove to myself that I knew enough and that I wasn’t an impostor. To an extent, it did help, mainly because I didn’t have to prove myself in an essay or a test anymore. But I still think it’s there, because I know there is always another step when you are in academia, you can keep going forever and you’ll never truly be done.

If that sounds familiar, it is something you can take some comfort in the number of others with the same feelings. It should give you comfort because it shows the inaccuracy in those intrusive thoughts, as surely, we can’t all be faking it and impostors in our academic journeys? And if we are… then there isn’t really a problem either. 

I’m not a psychologist nor would I be so impostorous to claim to be (do you like what I did there?) but I think we all know that the negative things we say about ourselves are not true, but they are a way to stop ourselves from doing something out of our comfort zone, which in itself is subjective – but that’s starting a philosophical ramble.

This blog post isn’t to make you overly aware of your fears nor do you have to address them right now. But rather, my intention is letting students know you are not alone, it doesn’t go away but it can get better if you separate how you think you feel about yourself from the reality of what you are achieving whether that be good feedback or even achieving a degree. The same way as receiving negative feedback, should not reaffirm your fears. Learn to accept that you will never know everything and that it’s okay to not know something even if everyone makes you feel like you should. Be kind to yourself in your studies, otherwise you might forget to enjoy the process of learning.

Which mindset are you? This may depend on the sort of week you are having…..

foucault

 

This blog is inspired by an article posted on our Facebook group by my colleague @paulaabowles, from the work of Dweck (2016), suggesting mindsets can be categorised as either growth or fixed. It is interesting to consider how such a mindset can shape the way your life goes, but for me, any psychological analysis is always just part of the picture. That said, Dweck’s work is interesting and made me reflect on my life up until this week. This is a week where I seem to be waiting patiently (mostly) for acceptance of PhD corrections and to exchange contracts on my new house. Both of these processes are out of my control, require continued patience and a need to accept there is nothing I can do but wait.

For a lot of reasons, I immediately identified with the ‘growth’ mindset, being open to challenges, seeing intelligence as something to be nurtured and developed, worth the effort, understanding the need to learn from mistakes and being inspired by others. The other seems to me a life of stagnation, dismissal of anything new and creating a world which may be low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. The fixed mindset also presents intelligence and success as something you are born with and therefore little effort is required to fulfil potential – almost as if life is mapped out for you, but it also belies a sense of entitlement, and inability to deal with failure as a challenge to move on from. However, if you are not somehow ‘blessed’ with the tools necessary for success, you must accept your fate. There are obvious social and cultural influences which can reinforce these messages, so perhaps, a fixed mindset leading to a life of success aligns with a life of privilege, but a life without this success identifies someone who cannot see a way to improve, blames others for their misfortune and doesn’t value their own ability to change. My parents always taught me the value of education (well, a lecturer and a teacher – of course they would!), and I never felt any limits were placed on me. But a big part of this must be attributed to me not facing the limits placed on individuals facing poverty, loss, psychological trauma or physical disabilities – my life, so far has largely been the outcomes of my decisions, and I count myself lucky to be able to say that.

That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my abilities, suffered ‘impostor syndrome’ and come up against challenges which have tested my resolve. It seems having a ‘growth’ mindset perhaps enables individuals to strive despite what life throws at you, and also despite how others may perceive you.

So, back to my week of waiting patiently and trying not to let anxieties come to the fore. Being able to call myself Dr Atherton and having my own house in the town I also work in is something I am really looking forward to, for obvious reasons. Years of work on the thesis and years of commuting from Birmingham to various parts of the Midlands (I know the M6 far too well) are about to lead to significant rewards. However, it also occurred to me none of this would be happening if I had given up on the PhD, stayed in a job which was not right for me, decided to carry on commuting and not made this decision to buy a house. It also occurred to me perhaps having a fixed mindset would be less stressful – you have to admit, my timing is spot on – but I don’t think that is the case. I chose the PhD and new job path because I was not happy, I chose to buy a house as M6 commuting is just not something I want to do anymore, and I want to feel more settled in my new post. As for the PhD, I knew I needed time away from a full-time job to complete it, and while it was risky to leave a permanent post, it seems my mindset pushed me to strive for something which was a better fit for me. My mindset helped me believe this was all possible, crucially it was down to me to do this and also, support from friends, family, ex and current colleagues have helped get me here. But, my social and economic circumstances also enabled all of this – we cannot just assume that psychological tools can overcome disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of opportunity.

Dweck suggests that these mindsets are a ‘view you adopt for yourself’. Fixed mindsets can impede development and the belief in change, and they also seem to create people whose concerns about others’ perceptions of them can be all-consuming, and no doubt lead to them avoiding situations where they will be judged. Those with the growth mindset see their traits as a starting point, from which anything can happen and they value the unknowable – the opportunities ahead, the hurdles and rewards. The fixed mindset creates a different kind of stress, a constant need for affirmation of beliefs, disregard of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and god forbid, simply go with the flow. As much as I identify with the growth mindset, I can empathise with those who simply are unable to take risks, accept failure and manage the unknowable – there are times I have wanted to give up, take the easy path and feel more in control.

A day after starting this blog, the clouds parted and the sun shone down as the much-awaited email from the De Montfort University Doctoral College came to confirm my PhD corrections were accepted and I was to be awarded my doctorate. Suddenly after weeks of anxiety, the reward was certainly worth the wait. There will be plenty of days ahead to bask in the glory and enjoy this moment, and just for now, it is making me worry less about the house exchange, it will happen, I will be settled in my new home soon and enjoy a short drive to work for the first time in years.  So, I will continue to strive, develop and take risks – not doing this may have meant a less anxious time this week, but they also lead to great rewards, and hopefully, even better things to come.

 

Dr. Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

 

Student support

JR blog

I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.

I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.

Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.

I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.

What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.

I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.

What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.

For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.

Jessica Ritchie

(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology

 

 

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