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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

Combating Imposter Syndrome: Gaining Confidence in Your Academic Self BY YOURSELF

As I have discussed in previous blogs, anxiety among graduate students is an extreme issue; Naspa.org’s preliminary surveys reported that over 63% of graduate students report feelings of overwhelming anxiety, 58% of students reported feeling lonely, 46% reported that their experience in academics had been either traumatic or difficult to handle, and 41% of students reported that they felt so depressed it was difficult to function in their day to day lives. These numbers partially result from rising levels of ‘burnout’ or ‘imposter syndrome.’ Both these physiological phenomena are not only analogous to each other but must be viewed as structural problems within academic organizations (Millangi & Jagsi, 2019).





As I have previously discussed ‘burn out’ in both blogs and discussion forums, this post will primarily focus on what imposter syndrome is, my colleagues and I’s experiences with imposter syndrome, and ways to combat imposter syndrome in your daily academic life.



 

Have you ever felt like a fraud amongst your peers? Have you ever brushed off your accomplishments as due to ‘luck’ rather than your hard work? Have you ever felt like you are just skating by in your department, but could be discovered as a ‘fraud’ at any moment?





I definitely have… and if you resonate with the questions I have stated above, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. And you are not alone. Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome live with the fear that someday they will lose all credibility (Bothello & Roulet, 2018). Imposter syndrome is a “physiological term that refers to a pattern of behavior where people (even those with adequate external evidence of success) doubt their abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud” (Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019). Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome live with the fear that someday, they will lose all credibility (Bothello & Roulet, 2018). It can adversely affect your ability to achieve your goals, especially if it manifests in a fear that sharing your ideas or credibility may reveal you as “undeserving and unworthy of your success” (5 Tips).


It disproportionately affects women and minority groups, who experience it at significantly higher levels. Mullangi and Jagsi, in their 2019 article, discuss how imposter syndrome is a systemic problem that needs to be confronted at the organizational level through increased engagement from leadership as well as investment in cultural and policy change (Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019). They say “imposter syndrome is but a symptom; inequality is the disease” (Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019). Some scholars claim that the aggravated impact of imposter syndrome specifically on post-graduate and master's students comes from the reliance on one senior colleague as a mentor and the pressure to ‘follow in their footsteps’ (Bothello & Roulet, 2018). Bothello and Roulet say that “junior academics need encouragement that what they do masters beyond the number of publications” and that we all are responsible for building “a culture of indulgence and benevolence in academia..these formal and informal support systems may allow anxious academics to overcome imposter syndrome and recognize the value in both their professions and themselves” (Bothello & Roulet, 2018).


Although imposter syndrome as a whole must be confronted at an institutional level, individual actions can also be taken right now to help you personally as you confront this problem in your day-to-day life. Many of these tips center around the idea that you need to “stop thinking like an imposter” (5 Tips). How do you actually do this?


List based on 5 Top Tips on How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome and adjusted for academics:

  1. Talk about your experience and your fears. Find people that feel like you and give each other support and pep talks to reaffirm what you already know… YOU ARE DOING THIS BECAUSE YOU ARE QUALIFIED TO BE DOING THIS!

  2. Collect a pocket positive feedback journal where you write down your accomplishments, keep it near you when you have a presentation or particularly nerve-racking day ahead of you so that you can read it and remind yourself how qualified you are and how completely bada$$ you are.

  3. Place blame accordingly. If you receive harsh feedback on a paper, evaluate how much of it is due to mistakes you made versus how much may be due to differences in archeological opinions/training/waves of scholarship. Don’t just assume you are a shitty student… realize that even if you make a mistake, your writing/approach will eventually get better, and growing a thick skin and not taking it personally will help you later on in the field.

  4. Forgive yourself for making mistakes. You are your own biggest critic, unfortunately, so remember no one will judge you as harshly for your mistake as you are judging yourself.

  5. Seek advice from others in your field.



 

Read about Renee and Isabelle's Experiences with Imposter Syndrome





Isabelle Johnsen’s Experience with Imposter Syndrome at Oxford


My name is Isabelle Johnsen, and I am the founder of doyoudigitnvz.com. I am currently in my MSc for archeology, and I hope to specialize in Neolithic gendered ceramic production. When I got into the University of Oxford, I actually started crying, because my first thought wasn’t ‘omg oxford wants me’ but it actually was ‘holy shit this acceptance just saved my career.’ Obviously, the mental pressure I was putting on myself to succeed during this master's program has been excessive. When I got here I had it in my head that I was going to work as hard as I had to in order to get good grades, gain the approval of my Professors, and gain the respect of my peers. However, I am learning that one, I am only human, and two, even if I achieve all those things, that won’t automatically make me a good archeologist.


Small changes have helped me in my own life that has greatly reduced my symptoms of imposter syndrome as I go through my MSc at the University of Oxford. Many of my peers have been specializing in archeology since high school, which naturally makes me feel inadequate and unprepared as I figured out I wanted to be an archeologist when I was about 22. Not to mention that I have a background in an unrelated field (history) and had no idea what the Mesolithic era even was before I showed up to my first Prehistory class (big yikes). Furthermore, many of my Professors are huge names in the field and have had extremely successful careers, and to me, I’ve always considered them ‘famous’. Imagine presenting an article to the author themselves? It’s an anxiety that I deal with weekly. While some of the small changes I have made may look silly from the outside or maybe dismissed as too minor, they have definitely helped me face my fellow archeologists and famous Professors and names in the field with enough confidence to (hopefully) “fake it until I make it.” For example, I personally walk to class with pump-up music and go through a list of accomplishments in my head to really amp myself up to feel my best self before class or a presentation. I notice that it actually works, I feel myself showing up to class much more confident and willing to share my ideas with my Professors and peers, less paralyzed from the fear of being dismissed as ‘stupid.’ Other good advice I’ve read includes keeping a positive feedback journal that you can write down your qualifications in and read them later, as well as seeking advice from mentors and peers who may feel/have felt similarly (5 tips).



In the UK school system, all my previous safety cushions for my low academic self-esteem were taken away: we don’t do grades (in fact, I won’t even know if I got exemplary, pass, or fail until the end of the program), graduate advisors aren’t obligated to hold your hand through your thesis like they are in the US, and an atmosphere of competition means that not all my peers play nice with each other. At first, this made me feel as if I was free-falling; I felt like a fraud, I felt like I couldn’t catch up to my peers who had been specializing since they had been as young as 16, I felt like my CV would always show how behind I felt. And sometimes still feel. But, I now know that all these things are natural at a highly prestigious school in the UK. I now know that I am not alone in feeling this type of imposter syndrome. Knowing others in my field are experiencing the same types of insecurities actually really helped me. My field friends, those to who I have admitted my insecurities, have helped lift me out of my imposter funk and reminded me how amazing I am. I do what I have to do to remember I am intelligent, strong, and a badass; whether that's listening to really intense cringe types of rap music on full blast in my AirPods on my way to class, being persistent (and sometimes shameless) when asking for help, or crying alone eating ice cream in my room just to “let the emotions out” so I can start fresh the next day. Although the system is very different from the USA’s, I am learning to navigate it… which–in retrospect– has helped me feel like less of an imposter in itself.


Renee’s Experience with Imposter Syndrome At Oxford


My name is Renee Trepagnier and I am a Master's student studying Classical Archeology at the University of Oxford. I was fortunate to have an amazing undergraduate supervisor who pushed me to apply for Oxford. The process was daunting and my best friend and I, Isabelle Johnsen, worked long hours on our applications, popping champagne when we finally finished. Generally, I am a humble person and I barely told anyone I got accepted to Oxford until I was practically moving. But deep down I was really proud because I knew all my academic accomplishments had gotten me to this point. However, during my first tutorial at Oxford my professor called my archeological theory “charming”. That was a real kick to the throat. I thought I had known a great deal about my field, but I realized that in comparison to my peers and teacher, I was just beginning. My confidence took a dive because in the US I was used to receiving A’s which attested to the strength of my work, but at Oxford, all I was handed was a slashed-up essay with brutal comments. In the US, I was also fortunate to have amazingly close supervisors that always praised my work, but at Oxford, supervisors are too busy to hold your hand. You have to have initiative and perseverance to not doubt your intelligence and ability.


One of the ways I found confidence again was by leaning on my peers and best friends. After talking openly to those in my college, I learned everyone felt some kind of imposter syndrome. We all had to band together to remind each other that we have amazing ideas and part of the learning process was receiving harsh criticism. If we knew everything, we would not need a postgraduate degree. There have been so many times when I felt just plain stupid and inadequate during my studies, but I try to maintain that my confidence and self-worth do not depend on my academic performance. I try to receive criticism as part of the journey, knowing it will make me more passionate, intrinsically motivated, and driven. I rely on my inner self and my supportive friends to trust that I am more than my academic progress. So if you feel imposter syndrome, please be open to your support network and remember your career is only one side of your identity and life!



Renee and Isabelle at Oxford Matriculation





References


5 Top Tips on How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome. (n.d.). SSE. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.the-sse.org/news/5-top-tips-on-how-to-overcome-impostor-syndrome/


Bothello, J., & Roulet, T. J. (2019). The Imposter Syndrome, or the Mis-Representation of Self in Academic Life. Journal of Management Studies, 56(4), 854–861. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12344


Corkindale, G. (2008, May 7). Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome


Mullangi, S., & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom. JAMA, 322(5), 403–404. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.9788


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2 comentários


Caroline Black
Caroline Black
22 de fev. de 2022

Really appreciate you writing about this!

Curtir

mmtmartine
mmtmartine
22 de fev. de 2022

Super helpful post! Thank you <3

Curtir

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