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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhD's: Impostor
June 3, 2009 - 5:49am

A lot of my memory of college is a blur now, but a few things I stand out in my mind with great clarity. One such clear memory is a moment in a first-year orientation meeting, probably held one of the first days I arrived at the school. From among the descriptions of programs, facilities, people, opportunities came one message loud and clear from a faculty member: “You are all meant to be here,” she told us. “We are completely sure. There are no mistakes, no application snafus, the admissions committee picked YOU individually.” I remember my surprise at how this statement spoke so directly to nigglings that had been forming in my mind. How did they know to tell me this? And this was an announcement to all incoming students – as if others might have these thoughts too.

I returned to that reassuring statement many times throughout college. It did, at some level, squelch some of my self-doubts, but I didn’t always believe it. Look, analyzed from a purely practical perspective, anyone could see that even though I went to a small college the incoming class size was still large enough that it would be certainly possible for them to have made some mistakes in their admissions. And in a more internalized analysis, there was always the fear that the admissions committee didn’t know my faults the way I do – they didn’t even know they had made a mistake. Still, the fact that they specifically addressed this concern made an impression on me.

Just yesterday, reading a recent article in the journal Nature, Unmasking the Impostor, I felt a reassurance similar to that faculty member’s message from my first days in college. The article describes the pioneering research paper from 1978 identifying the “imposter phenomenon”. This is an individual’s perception that, despite numerous high achievements, including advanced degrees, funding and awards, their success is a fluke, they rarely accept it as deserved, and along with this comes the anxiety that someone will find out that their achievements are not what they should be. Evidently this phenomenon plagues many academics, at all levels in the process, from undergrads to highly accomplished faculty, and women may be especially prone to these feelings. (Coincidentally, this 1978 paper was published not so long before I started college – and, I found when I did a little googling, some of the early research was done by a psychologist at my undergraduate alma mater – perhaps explaining the reassuring remark at my orientation).

I, for one, was quite happy to see this phenomenon recognized with a name given to it and exposure in Nature, and to realize and remember that I’m not the only scientist out there comparing my perceived intellectual inadequacies to my peers. Having children has also given me perspective upon my perfectionism, how it affects my achievement and career, and how complex it is to untwine perception and reality. Through helping my daughter, who suffers from an anxious personality, I have learned a huge amount about my own anxious tendencies, how to recognize them and how to work with them, as if she has held up a huge mirror for me. Maybe one day I’ll feel qualified to write this blog…


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