Impostors, Performers, Professionals - I

Steven J. Corbett and Teagan E. Decker reflect on challenges to confidence (and overcoming them) in graduate school.

October 15, 2012

This is the first of a two-part essay.

"We must be prepared to see that the impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by a very minor mishap."

          --Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Teagan and Steven, Impostors or Professionals?

We met at the University of Washington when we were both around 30. Steven was finishing up his undergraduate degree in English and Teagan was the assistant director of a writing center. Steven applied for a job as a tutor, and we have been friends and close colleagues ever since. We applied to the Ph.D. program at UW at the same time, and both felt lucky to be accepted. During the application process, however, we both worried a bit over whether our applications were as competitive as those of our new classmates. Steven’s application was not accepted initially, but a few well-placed requests for reconsideration and a new application letter got him in the program. Teagan, since she already worked for the department as a professional staff person, had a niggling feeling that her application had been accepted based more on familiarity and the understanding that she wouldn’t need funding than on the quality of her materials. And so the anxiety over our writing and ourselves as academics began.

Of course, this type of anxiety is not uncommon, or new, among professionals. In 1978 psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes wrote in The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women that "Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise." The Impostor Phenomenon (also called The Impostor Syndrome) has been documented as a continuing problem for women and people from working-class backgrounds ever since.

On her website, Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, gives readers an opportunity to consider whether or not they are suffering from Impostor Syndrome by taking this short quiz:

  • Do you chalk your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?
  • Do you believe "If I can do it, anybody can?"
  • Do you agonize over even the smallest flaws in your work?
  • Are you crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your "ineptness?"
  • When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?
  • Do you worry that it’s just a matter of time before you’re "found out?"

If so, join the club!

Looking back now on her time as a student, Teagan remembers precisely those feelings. She was from a low-income background, the first in her family to attend college, and a single mom on welfare and food stamps while working toward her B.A. and M.A. degrees. While she was in her doctoral program her husband drove to the food bank once a week to ease the burden on their income. She often felt deeply frustrated that she would have to wait and work for so many years before earning her Ph.D. and finally earning a middle-income salary. Her gender, background, and financial status all point to a person with Impostor Syndrome: someone who doesn’t feel that they fit in, who doesn’t feel that they deserve what they have worked for.

It is not just women who can feel the Impostor Phenomenon. Steven experienced these same issues during his graduate training and apprenticeship. Like Teagan, Steven came from a nontraditional background (working-class, high school dropout) and worked hard as both an undergraduate and a graduate student to professionalize. He started presenting papers at conferences and publishing in academic journals as an undergraduate, and continued this creative academic momentum as a grad student. He served as assistant director of both the Expository Writing Program and the English Department Writing Center. Perhaps somewhere inside he was attempting to allay any doubt that he was a legitimate academic performer.

For the two of us this anxiety was both eased and intensified through writing. Writing was a way to prove ourselves and also a potential site of unmasking. Erving Goffman analyzes the many complicated ways social actors judge and prepare to be judged or legitimized. In relation to the Impostor Phenomenon he writes, "Paradoxically, the more closely the impostor’s performance approximates to the real thing, the more intensely we may be threatened, for a competent performance by someone who proves to be an impostor may weaken in our minds the moral connection between legitimate authorship to play a part and the capacity to play it" (The Presentation of Self). The further we moved through our processes of becoming academic professionals, the more proficient we became at writing our way through the academic hoops we were being trained to jump through. The more competent our authorial performances became, the more we felt we were opening ourselves up to unmasking, to judging, to de-legitimization.

Taking Our Qualifying Exams

Both of us did well in our Ph.D. courses and both managed to publish seminar papers as articles. When we received positive comments on papers, high grades on transcripts, or positive feedback from reviewers we shared them with each other and gloated a bit. We slowly realized that it is not acceptable to show off about publications or other successes in academic circles, but, between the two of us, we did. This created an outlet for our exuberance over success, but also, inevitably, created a climate of competition between us.

For example, when Steven heard that Teagan had an essay accepted for publication in the collection On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring, while at once being happy for Teagan, he also immediately became a bit envious and wished he could have answered that call as well. Later he met with the primary editor of On Location, the late Candace Spigelman. They hit it off, and Steven let Candace know that he also had an essay on the topic of classroom-based tutoring that he felt would make a great fit with the collection. She invited him to submit the essay. After a few revised drafts, Steven found himself in the (subsequently) award-winning collection alongside his friend, and good-natured competitor, Teagan.

And, when things didn’t go so well, we developed wildly different responses which continue today. When our proposal for this article was declined by another editor, Teagan’s reaction was: "Well, our proposal wasn’t as good as we thought it was." Steven’s: "Those guys don’t know how promising our proposal is!" In this case, Steven’s response was the more productive: as in the illustration above, he continued his search for publication and was in the end successful.

But at times Teagan’s more cautious approach served her well. As she was studying for qualifying exams, she confessed to one of her committee members her fear that the oral exams would "unmask" her, that without the structure of a course where she could maneuver to please the instructor she would reveal that she had no idea what she was doing.  The committee member then told Teagan "It’s normal to feel that way. I feel like an impostor every day." She is a successful, fully tenured and well-published professor. Even with this sympathetic advice, Teagan remained unsettled about the prospect of representing, through writing, nearly a year’s worth of learning over the course of a weekend. The week prior to exam weekend found Teagan beset by various ailments. One day she would come down with a cold; the next day the flu would threaten. After prompting the anxious specter of sitting for exams while sick in bed, the mysterious ailment would disappear overnight. The pre-exam anxiety played itself out in time for the actual work of writing, and Teagan felt satisfied (although still worried until the feedback came in) with her performance.

The feedback, when it did arrive, was overwhelmingly positive and went a long way toward curing Teagan of impostor syndrome. The written exams were praised as coherent, readable, and even extraordinary. When it came time for oral exams, Teagan was confident and comfortable; the committee was an interested and sympathetic audience who asked her to expand on the themes she had touched on in the written exams. They had tough questions, of course, but the tough questions were asked with the expectation that Teagan would answer them well — and she did. When the exam was over they presented her with wine, flowers and hugs along with her official candidacy.

When it came time for Steven to prepare for and perform his Ph.D. exams he, unlike Teagan, approached his exams confidently — perhaps too confidently. He planned and studied tirelessly for his written exams. He awoke at 5 every morning, reading and notating sometimes until nine or ten at night. But although he worked very hard, Steven should have worked a little smarter. He had been given sample written exams to read. Rather than seriously and thoughtfully looking at these samples as models to emulate, he haphazardly perused them (including Teagan’s!) and assured himself that he could do better. He was wrong. His ill-conceived notion was that he needed to try to include as much of what he had read as possible. He thought, in other(s) words, he needed to write a huge literature review. So rather than make the types of sophisticated arguments his committee members were looking for, he (not so) simply compiled a massive summary of as many of the readings he could stuff into 30 pages. He more or less produced an (un)impressively gargantuan annotated bibliography, but little else.

Faced with his three — suddenly stern — mentors/committee members to orally defend his written exams, Steven found himself truly on the defense. He floundered his way through three hours of brutal Q&A that left him feeling much as if the final bullet point from the quiz above had struck him, leaving him wounded, "found out, discovered, unmasked." Goffman acknowledges, "Performers often feel uneasy in the presence of a trainer whose lessons they have long since learned and taken for granted. Trainers tend to evoke for the performer a vivid image of himself that he had repressed, a self-image of someone engaged in the clumsy and embarrassing process of becoming. The performer can make himself forget how foolish he once was, but he cannot make the trainer forget."

Steven’s "trainers" indeed made him feel foolish, embarrassed. But soon he met with one of his committee members, and, much like Teagan’s committee member above, he confessed to Steven that when he first came to our university, he felt those same impostor feelings of inadequacy. He told Steven, in a surprising burst of passion, that he soon forced himself (with the help of a senior faculty colleague) to realize: "Hey, I am as fucking smart and capable as any of these other people!" From that point on, Steven set his sights back on taking care of business. He ended up writing a strong dissertation that one of his committee members lauded "as good as it gets" as well as (finally!) getting champagne and hugs (though no flowers) from all of his committee members. 

The second part of this essay will discuss job searches.


Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and co-coordinator of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University. Teagan E. Decker is assistant professor of English and director of the writing center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. They are currently co-editing the forthcoming collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Collaborative Peer Review and Response in the Writing Classroom with Michelle LaFrance.

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