I saw an article posted on Twitter the other day by Rachel Hermann about Impostor Syndrome, how it is definitely a thing, and how it is present in many graduate and doctoral students (original article here). Rachel says that “Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t belong’, ‘people believe that they aren’t good enough, smart enough, or deserving enough’.
“Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t belong”.
I’d never heard the term ‘Impostor Syndrome’ but as I read through her article I was struck by how much of what she was saying rang true with me. Rachel mentions at the beginning of her article that one of her graduate students was describing feeling this Impostor Syndrome without knowing that is what it was. I know that at times I have felt out of my depth whilst on my postgraduate degree course, and I’m not alone. I think this is such a relevant subject that it needs talking about.
Rachel mentions going home after a seminar to google ‘post colonialism’ because she didn’t know what it meant and was afraid to put her hand up in class to ask, and still didn’t really understand it after a few weeks on the subject. This literally happened to me in my first year of my undergraduate history degree. We were doing a module called Empires Through History, and I had no idea what ‘postcolonialism’ meant. Rather than put my hand up or surrupticiously Google the term on my phone whilst in class, I hid the fact that I didn’t understand the term. In the seminars I would listen to the other students use the word, and I would avoid it whenever it was my turn to say something.
I’ve heard many times in education that ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question’. Whilst that may be true, no-one wants to risk looking stupid or being told that they are wrong in front of their peers. So many times I would muse over a subject with some of my friends and moan that I didn’t understand it. But why didn’t I ask for help? that’s just it, I didn’t want to look stupid in front of my classmates and I didn’t want to appear weak and unintelligent. I felt like if I did ask, people would laugh, the lecturer would look incredulously at me and question how on earth I got into university in the first place? As Rachel says, if you don’t understand something, the chances are that someone else doesn’t understand it either.
I’ve been on my postgraduate Archives & Records Management degree course for six weeks now, and I have certainly felt Impostor Syndrome on more than one occasion. My experience in the archive sector up until starting my postgraduate degree had all been in basic archival practice: cataloguing, creating box lists, re-boxing materials, and some basic conservation. I had not come across archival theory before, and it has been really hard to get my head around particular things. Reading the bi-weekly literature reviews that we submit for one module and listening to others talking confidently in seminars often makes me feel inferior. On my long train journey home there have definitely been times when I’ve questioned my abilities, thought that I must obviously be bottom of the class, that everyone else knows more than I do. I’ve asked myself should I be here? Am I good enough? Fortunately, Oliver Burkeman writes that these Impostor Syndrome feelings are very common, and I’m not alone.
I know that if I wasn’t good enough I wouldn’t be here. I passed my undergraduate degree with a 2:1, I submitted a very good dissertation, I am keeping up with the reading and research for my postgraduate degree, I am submitting work on time, and I am really confident in the practical work I do in my two archive jobs. I’ve worked hard to get here and I do deserve a place on this postgraduate course. What it is important to remember is that people come from different backgrounds, with different educational backgrounds, different experiences and knowledge bases. Not everyone arrives with the same level of knowledge, and not everyone learns at the same pace. Everyone’s learning curve is different. Some people take more time to understand information that others, and that is absolutely fine.
Claire Cohen’s article for the Telegraph last year suggested that so many women feel like frauds, that this Impostor Syndrome can strike at any time and affect even some of the most celebrated women. (This makes me feel slightly better, but only slightly, because, y’know, Impostor Syndrome). Claire says that many (women) compare themselves to others, and I couldn’t agree more. I do find myself looking at other students in the classroom thinking that they’re better at expressing themselves than I am. I often find myself comparing my life to those of my friends – they are more successful than I am, they have their life together more than I do, their skin is better than mine, their personality is better than mine.
Just like Rachel, Claire says that the way to beat this Impostor Syndrome is to ‘share your fears’, to ask questions, to put your hand up, to ask for help.
When I did my research for this blog post, I googled Impostor Syndrome. There are about 214,000 results, but obviously I didn’t go through all of them. It is a subject that so many people identify with, and that so many people have written about in the hopes of helping people rather than making people feel even more fraudulent. Impostor syndrome in academia, and especially in graduate and PhD students seems to be rife. (This also makes me feel slightly better).
The most obvious message to take away is that it is absolutely fine to feel like you don’t fit in at times, because you are probably not alone. Be the one to put your hand up, ask those questions, get clarification, and model that good academic behaviour. It does sound like a simple task, but if you don’t know something, be honest.