We Are Not Impostors

It's normal for graduate students to feel a bit intimidated sometimes, but they need to remind themselves that they belong and that they are learning, writes Stephen J. Aguilar.

April 13, 2015

To my fellow graduate students I say this: I am not an impostor, and neither are you.

You might not believe me, but before you begin pushing back against my assertion and dismantling your confidence with thoughts such as, "but peer X is a much better writer/researcher/scholar than I am, and I don’t belong here," you should read on.

First the bad news: you might be right. Peer X might very well be more accomplished in the dimensions that you have identified. This is the reality in every human endeavor -- and is especially salient in academe -- but that doesn’t make you an impostor. Impostors are pretenders focused on maintaining an illusion of belonging in the spaces they invalidly inhabit. That isn’t you.

It really isn’t.

As Ph.D. students, we already belong. Those whom we admire and hope to emulate have invested many hours vetting us. We were admitted on the merit of both our accomplishments and how we communicated them. In many instances faculty have committed their time, energy and resources to mentoring us as we progress through our programs.

Their initial judgment is over, and we’ve won; our prize is being invited to join a community of scholars in our respective disciplines and contribute to them, albeit slowly and clumsily at first.

It’s O.K. to be slow and clumsy at first.

As budding academics we are tasked with understanding the work and methods that predate us so that we can begin to push the frontiers of our respective disciplines. This can be clumsy work, and it takes a certain amount of courage, resolve and optimism to quickly apply what we learn and to then have our work products reviewed by our more experienced peers (e.g., faculty and advanced students). This process can be uncomfortable, but we have to learn the ropes before we can meaningfully contribute to our community.

This work, moreover, is never finished. By definition we have chosen to enter into a community that is defined by its insatiable thirst for not only the next answer, but also the next question. So when things get tough, remember that there is never a “complete” academic. Everyone -- even the most established faculty members -- has questions they don’t (yet) have the tools to answer. That’s what makes the work exciting!

Anxiety comes with the territory.

Unfortunately the process of earning a Ph.D. also comes with mistakes, setbacks and dead ends. While anxiety is a natural consequence of these downsides, it would be a mistake to be overwhelmed by it. (When anxiety and depression have medical causes, we should seek help and also remember that, even in these cases, we are in good company.)

Let me be clear: negative feelings and feelings that we are not quite good enough quite fast enough are valid. As graduate students we are inundated with messages of others' accomplishments. We're even encouraged to write down all of ours in a C.V., making comparisons that much easier. What we feel as a consequence of these comparisons is natural. To move from feeling anxious to believing one is an impostor, however, is to invite disaster.

We are Novice Experts.

I argue that we are not impostors, we are simply “novice experts” trying to figure out how best to contribute. I have read and witnessed a pervasive tendency among my fellow graduate students, despite their personal histories of achievement, toward self-reproach and self-doubt when they encounter setbacks. While I think in small doses this habit helps us hone our work, too much of it is crippling. It’s O.K. to doubt a result; it’s not O.K. to doubt your validity as a Ph.D. student.

We are not the best at what we do; we are not all-star researchers; we are not tenured faculty members. We are none of these things because we are being trained to be some or all of them in the (near) future.

Importantly, we are not impostors -- we are novice members of an academy that treasures expertise and accomplishments. In this role we will make mistakes not due to incompetence, but instead due to our inexperience. And as annoying as it may be, we have to muddle our way through inexperience before we can become experts.

Tips to avoid feeling like an impostor.

Throughout my time as a Ph.D. student I have found the following strategies helpful whenever I’m in danger of feeling like an impostor. This list is not exhaustive and may not work for you, but the spirit of the list is to remember that our place is one of dynamic growth, not of static accomplishment.

1. Build multiple relationships within your community.

One way to feel like a genuine member of a community (and not an impostor) is to actually get to know a lot of members in that community in an informal setting. Asking faculty or fellow students to lunch or coffee, for example, is a great way to nurture relationships that began in the classroom or other formal settings. This isn’t to say, however, that you should avoid scheduled meetings in an office. I’ve just found that these meetings can reinforce a presumed hierarchy (e.g., student/teacher) in a way that might inadvertently also fuel feelings of being an impostor. In general, I avoid formal meetings unless I want to have a formal conversation, usually about work.

2. Avoid idolizing your mentors and advisers.

Even the most established researchers still have their limitations. You might really like working with a prominent faculty member, but that person may not have time for regular meetings, or may tend to give superficial feedback. Perhaps they are not familiar with a methodology that you find important. Knowing and being at peace with these limitations this helps you set reasonable expectations for the relationship. It also helps you better understand and contextualize your own limitations.

3. Go to conferences -- both your field’s flagship conference and a few niche ones.

Conferences are great places to learn the hidden curriculum of a field by observing how established members of the field interact with the world outside of their institutions. They’re also great places to explore professional identities. Going to a large flagship conference helps with picking up the larger norms and trends of the field, while smaller niche conferences are great for exploring new directions.

4. Celebrate your accomplishments, but avoid the dreaded humble brag.

I’ll admit it. Humble bragging is a pet peeve of mine. Here’s a great definition of it from Think Progress: A humble brag is when someone tries to hide self-promotion under a guise of modesty.

An example in academe might be worded, “I can’t believe I just got my paper accepted in [flagship journal]! My paper wasn’t even that good!”

Aside from being disingenuous (which is irritating in its own right), humble bragging might have an alienating effect and makes it particularly hard to congratulate you. Did you win that great fellowship or just get published? By all means celebrate and thank folks, but don’t hide behind false modesty. It doesn’t fool anyone, and in the age of social media everything we share has the potential for unintended consequences. (Perhaps the humble brag just got you uninvited from a dinner another student was organizing at the flagship conference you should be going to.)

5. Don’t fear peer review -- embrace it.

Every piece of writing can be improved, and one way to understand the peer review process is to treat it like a form of collaborative writing. Reviewers comment on what jumps out at them, not on you as a person. Paying attention to the content of their feedback and not the form of it (maybe they weren’t kind) helps stave off feelings of being an impostor while also improving the final product.

It's important to keep in mind that we are all members of academic communities with their own norms and standards, so rather than focus on the negative aspects of feedback, it’s generally more helpful to treat any piece of feedback as what is it: data that help improve one’s writing and calibrate it so that the important parts of it conform to the norms of the community.

It’s important to remember that in the end none of us are impostors because we all belong to academic communities that welcomed us and are invested in our success.


Stephen J. Aguilar is a doctoral candidate in education and psychology at the University of Michigan.



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