• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

Title

Learning Through Intentional Underqualification

Using your lack of knowledge to propel you into taking on new projects.

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October 10, 2018
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Imposter syndrome: if you have it, it means you're going to feel underqualified whether or not that's true. And there are plenty of ways to fight the feeling that you're an imposter, even when you don't feel like you know what you're doing.

That's one option. Here's another one: intentionally take on projects your only partially qualified for. This is the strategy I employ to fight the feeling of being an imposter. And I'm not being sneaky when I do this, by the way. When I threw ideas for a chapter on auto/biography studies at an editor, for example, I was very clear with her what I was and wasn't familiar with. I've done work on autism and representation. I've done autoethnographic work. I'm familiar with theory of mind theory and its effects on autistic narratives. But I had not engaged with auto/biography studies as a field.

Nevertheless, the editor liked the ideas I gave at her, even while I was completely open about not having applied the tools I needed in the context of her field before. So I wrote up a formal abstract. Then she asked me to write the chapter and to read at least some writing on auto/biography that is part of the formal auto/biography studies canon, which meant I could engage with the field. That was fair, and I did it, announcing to my friends that I had no clue what I was doing all the way.

About 7500 words later I had that clue (and a chapter about autistic auto/biography). I'd read about twice as many new-to-me books, chapters, and articles on auto/biographical writing than I actually cited, thanks to the book proposal’s bibliography and Google Scholar. I’d written about common ways of interpreting autistic auto/biographical writing, and suggested some unusual interpretations. The editor liked the chapter!

This is a pattern. By agreeing to do something where I only half know what I'm doing, I force myself to learn. This worked for the chapter I wrote this summer, and it failed to be a disaster for my first conference presentation. If imposter syndrome means I'm going to spend the whole research process feeling underqualified regardless, I might as well be somewhat underqualified and learn what I'm doing on the job. It's kind of the nature of research: no one knows the answer yet.

I still feel like I have no clue what I’m doing sometimes. But because I keep taking on projects where I actually don’t know what I’m doing (yet), I now have familiarity with topics I didn’t know before, like auto/biography studies, queer studies, neurodiversity and representation, brain computer interfaces, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten about. Some of those things might even help me with the next project I’m only half qualified for.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user COD Newsroom under the Creative Commons license.]

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