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Imposter syndrome

October 1, 2009, 4:16 am

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?
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