Thursday, October 01, 2009

Imposter syndrome

I talked to a friend last week about that terrible experience that sometimes happens when one is teaching when you feel like an imposter. A students asks a question that leaves you stumped and looking like a fool in front of the class. At that moment, there is a feeling that a knowledgable professor exists out there who knows everything about all of the material you will cover in class. Unfortunately, you are not him/her. You just know bits and pieces very well, and you valiantly prepare for class every week trying to fill in gaps and cover rough spots so students will not find out that you are not really the know-it-all they assume you to be.

This imposter syndrome can crop up in a lot of settings, and not just with students: presenting on one's research at a professional conference, publishing a book or article, sitting on a curriculum committee, and even when receiving a big award. The thought rushes through your mind, "If they really knew how little I know, how poorly prepared I really am, they would leave the presentation/rescind the acceptance/kick me out of the meeting/take back the award."

I don't know if this feeling crops up more often for women than men; I am guessing that everyone shares that feeling sometimes. Of course, there are also times when you feel like you actually do know the most about the subject at hand, though that feeling is seductive and untrustworthy, because you can always be corrected on some misstep or misstatement of fact.

As we discussed the classroom issue, I recalled a time I taught about a concept that, honestly, I never learned well when I was in grad school, never followed up because it was unrelated to my own work, and never thought about again until I got a teaching assignment for a class that included that concept. The concept was developed by folks in another related field, but is frequently used in our field by people who do that kind of work. Like a good girl, I read the assigned reading on the concept, read additional readings, and felt pretty much prepared for an overview. Unfortunately, I had a few students in this grad class who had undergraduate degrees from the related field, and they critiqued my explanation of the concept and offered a better, richer understanding. With little else to do, I sucked it up, acknowledged the assistance they gave and the ways is expanded our understanding of the concept, thanked them for their input, and moved on to the next concept. From that point on, however, I think that those students who helped, and some of the others, thought a little less of me and challenged me a little more.

Even as I write about this episode, though, I feel the creeping sting of shame and weakness, the reinforcement of the belief, hammered into me in grad school, that I am not really as smart as I should be.

How do you cope with the imposter syndrome? Do you get over it at some point and recognize that it is impossible to know everything and we all do the best we can? Does the fear of being found out paralyze us or drive us to work harder and do more?


L said...

Me? I gave up on it. I finally decided that I do not have to be the Valedictorian of Everything, to steal a phrase from Dooce.

This feels a little odd, because that is the attitude that got me into grad school, but really, I feel like I need to practice the humility of not having to know everything, and practice getting comfortable with saying "That is a fantastic question. I don't know how to answer it and I'll try to come back next week with an answer."

Part of it is that grad school has hammered away at my lifelong conviction that I'm the smartest guy in the room. Yeah, I probably was when I was twelve, sixteen, or even twenty, but now that I run with the big dogs, I have to be content with -- maybe -- just having the broadest knowledge base, but never again being the Best Expert On Everything.

I hope this means I'm maturing, positively. Only time will tell.

Great post.

Academic2 said...

I finally quit and admitted that I don't know everything. I've turned this into a positive in my classes by having my grad students do "guest lectures" on topics they are interested in, but I don't have enough time to research.

My students are older, more experienced, and often wiser than I. I'm seeing that as a good thing...

Digger said...

Just this past week I had a student call me on a factual point in my lecture. I couldn't find the answer quickly, so said I'd find out and let them know next class. No problem, I thought... until, after class, the student fell all over themselves apologizing for "calling me out". That felt worse than me going brain dead on the answer to the question...

I don't have impostor syndrome so much in teaching (though I teach Intros to X, Y, and Z, and I might well feel differently in an upper level course). Papers, publishing, other work stuff? Bigtime. I just try to suck it up and work through it.

Doc Righteous said...

Yes, it's more common by far in women. The Impostor Phenomenon was originally identified in bright, successful female academics by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, Ph.D. psychologists at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

I can't find a link to the original article any more, but here's one to their book:

The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success

Biological/neurological psychology is my shortcoming. When I am doing the getting-acquainted stuff at the beginning of a semester and I find nursing or pre-med students enrolled, I tell 'em right up front they are going to be my authorities when we get to those parts!

But that's not, strictly speaking, Impostor Syndrome: IS happens when you actually do know a great deal about your area, relative to others in that same field, but you don't believe it. Part of the syndrome is lack of insight: you can't really see it in yourself because, as you know them, the facts are that you really are a dummy who just hasn't been caught out yet.

Women in particular were, at least in the '70s when Drs. Imes and Clance were figuring this out, prone to think they had charmed their way into grad school, high-profile research projects, conference speaking engagements, tenure-track jobs, etc. rather than earning their positions by sheer intellect.

I don't think I've charmed my way into things exactly (I'm not very charming, as my nom de blog suggests), but do tend to think somehow I have fooled people, that I've been faking it for the past 30 years (!) and that any minute they're going to find out who I really am.

And when things go badly, as they did in that moment you got corrected in class, I think that the axe is falling. I remember doing a presentation of how gender gets determined in the womb in front of a lecture hall full of undergrads when I realized I was telling it exactly backwards. There was nothing for it but to say, "Whoops!", back up three slides, and re-do it. My students appreciated the humor but it still embarrasses me when I think about it.

Part of IS, for me at least, seems to be a companion belief that not only am I an idiot, but specifically that I am an idiot (a) because and (b) whenever I am not perfect. Corollary: People will not tolerate error but will write me off completely when I make one.

I think I have gotten past it as much as I have (I was in remission for years but relapsed last summer) only because IS is so freaking exhausting. I just finally had to stop critiquing every exchange in every therapy session, lecture, supervision hour, etc., and writing off whole hours and days because of one 30-second imperfection.

It was either that or leave the field altogether to hide out at home. Speaking of which, I'm still convinced that, after 36 years, my husband sees me as a far better person than I am. Now how neurotic is that?

Anonymous said...

I had this for about the first 6 or 7 years of teaching, but realized I'd recovered when at the beginning of the class after a lecture in which I had made an adamant yet incredibly erroneous claim, I wrote in giant letters on the board behind
me saying I WAS WRONG!!!! I then
gave them the correct information. In that moment I realized I wasn't an impostor, I was just human.

corey mccall said...

Concrete ways to deal with the humility of being human may involve the constructive use of technology. I use a blog in my upper division course in part for this reason. When questions come up to which I give inadequate answers, I try to flesh out the answers on the course blog and encourage students to post on there as well.

Anonymous said...

Imposter syndrome, in my humble opinion, is a sign of self-awareness. At one former employer, we used to say that the most dangerous people to work with and for are those who DON'T KNOW what they don't know -- usually those certain they know everything. On the other hand, being aware of your own shortcomings is a sign you are paying attention.

Brigindo said...

My ex-boss/mentor had a way of saying "I don't know" or "I never heard of that" that made it seem like (a) if he hadn't heard of it or knew about it, it wasn't important and (b) if you were asking about it, you were asking the wrong question. While I'm not comfortable with that approach, it did teach me that how you profess your ignorance of a topic goes a long way in how it is received. I am no longer afraid to say that I don't know something but I do say it matter-of-factly and not defensively or apologetically. I haven't found that my students challenge me more afterwards. If anything it has a positive affect on discussions in class. It is a harder challenge when presenting in an academic conference but so far, I haven't suffered any major casualties.

Interesting post.

Richard Sigurdson said...

LesboProf - I have long been a fan of your site, though I have never posted a comment. Anyway, your entry is thought-provoking. I wrote about IP in my own, official "dean's blog" a while back and it got a lot of feedback, especially from female colleagues. See:

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AnnMaria said...

I have to say that I have seldom felt that way. When I was a new young professor, it never bothered me to say, "I don't know, but I will find out before the next class and let you know then" because, hey, I was new.

When all of my mentors had retired or (gulp) passed away and I was the expert in situations, even among fellow faculty members, I started to feel bad if I did not know the answer to everything off the top of my head. Then, a wonderful thing happened. I'm a statistician and I went to a talk by a very famous statistician, someone who had written many books, had a statistical test named after him, etc. He began his presentation by saying,

"Anyone who claims they know all of statistics is clinically insane."

I have used that line many times since in talks I give, now that I am usually the oldest person in the room.

It's like I tell my daughters whenever they make a mistake - just because you're not perfect doesn't mean you're not great.