It can strike at the least opportune times. Right before your paper presentation at a big academic conference, a top scholar in the field walks in the room you're suddenly filled with dread an uneasiness. What if they ask a question that you can't answer? What if they expose the holes in your academic knowledge. Or maybe you're getting ready for a meeting with your dissertation advisor. What if they didn't like the dissertation chapter draft that you just sent them? What if they decide that they're no longer interested in working with you because you're not smart enough?
These kinds of doubts and feelings are endemic among academics. Many of us question our expertise and our right to be pursuing high-level scholarship and degrees. It's called impostor syndrome, and it can manifest in a variety of ways: in the inability to recognize our own intelligence and achievements, the feeling that everyone else in our fields or departments surely knows more than we do, or the fear that we'll be exposed as frauds and kicked out of our graduate programs.
How Impostor Syndrome Can Get in Your Way
If you're constantly questioning your self-worth and legitimacy as a scholar, it can make dissertation writing extremely difficult. Among my colleagues, those kinds of feelings were a major source of writer's block. I had friends who dreaded sitting down to write because they were questioning their very ability to write and think. I've seen other colleagues who shied away from opportunities – to publish, to present their dissertation research at conference, to get involved in academic organizations – because they didn't feel that it was their position to do so.
While impostor syndrome can affect just about anyone, as Kate Bahn writes, it's particularly common among women. In addition, scholars of color, scholars from low socio-eoconomic backgrounds, and LGBTQ-identified scholars also report experiencing impostor syndrome. Scholars from marginalized backgrounds are often not socialized to feel like we have authority, and, as such, it's easier for us to fall prey to self-doubt, and the feeling that we don't belong in academia.
Don't Worry – There's Help!
Thankfully, there's a growing conversation about impostor syndrome, so we don't have soldier through it alone. And there are things you can do to remind yourself that you do have the write to be writing a dissertation.
The Crunk Feminist Collective offers an important reminder: everyone has doubts, nobody knows everything, and just about everyone in academia pretends to know more than they do. “Secret: Everybody that’s acting like they know, doesn’t really know. So ask your question. It’s probably not as stupid as you think.”
Remember: You're Not in it Alone
The author of A Year of Living Academically has nine great tips for fighting impostor syndrome. My favorite tips from this list are numbers six and seven. “Early in your career consider everything to be experience” and “Understand that the system may be set up to make you insecure.” These are crucial reminders. When you're a grad student, you're not supposed to know everything. Writing a dissertation is an exercise in learning and discovery. It's a process of learning about a topic, but it's also a process of learning to be a scholar. You're allowed to not know things, and you don't have to be ashamed of that fact. Furthermore, as this list reminds us, academia is hierarchical. We're taught to think of our professors as our superiors. It's a system designed to make us doubt ourselves.
Finally, remember that you're not alone. Many scholars share your anxiety – even those who've landed tenure-track jobs. You do have a right to be a scholar, and you can do work that matters.
If you're feeling uncertain about your research, our dissertation consultants can help you develop research and writing strategies to help you feel confident going forward. Working with a dissertation editor can help you feel more confident about your writing. If you need dissertation help, give us a call today!
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