Thursday, 2 April 2015

Getting Real About Imposter Syndrome

Ever feel like you don't really belong? Like any day now everyone is going to realise that you have no idea what you're doing? Like your colleagues or peers have it all together while you are secretly drowning? Sound familiar? Chances are you have Imposter Syndrome

Yes, it's a real thing. 

When I first came across Imposter Syndrome, quite incidentally and in no way related to my work, I can't describe the immense sensation of relief I felt. Why doesn't anyone talk about this? To be able to put a name to what I was feeling, what I had been feeling for years, was such a comfort. Knowing that I was not alone, understanding why I felt that way, slowly coming to accept that maybe it was all in my head. Starting to believe that maybe I wasn't such a fraud, maybe I actually deserve to be where I am. 

Since learning about this syndrome a few years ago, I can report that I have experienced these negative feelings a lot less and, when they do periodically surface, I have developed strategies for coping. But recently I was forced to take a fresh look at what it means to be an imposter. 

Last week I attended an excellent seminar, given by Caroline Kuo, on how to write for publication. At the start of the seminar we did a round of introductions, including sharing our publication record with the group. I could have lied, but I took a deep breath and admitted my shameful truth - I have no publications. I am part of the Language Development Group, I run the FHS Writing Lab, I regularly lecture on academic literacy and yet, I have no publications. How fraudulent is that?  Let me be clear, I'm not unskilled or unqualified for my job. I have written both Masters and PhD theses, I worked as a Writing Centre consultant for years and I certainly understand and can teach the mechanics of academic writing, but no, I have no published journal articles. 

Part of my coping strategy for dealing with feeling like an imposter is to try and take objective stock of where I am and what I have achieved. Often, I'll actually write a list of my accomplishments and hang onto it for a few days, pondering it until my brain gets the message that I have the goods. However, on this occasion it wasn't what was on the list, but what wasn't that really mattered. When you walk around for years feeling like a fraud, the only recourse is to get real, to be real. For those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome the challenge is usually that we can't accept what is real, but when you have grappled with this syndrome and found ways to cope with it, the danger is that we might dismiss shortcoming that are real, as fraudulent feelings that are not. A fine line to navigate. 

So when you identify a real shortcoming, how do you deal with it? The same way you do with fraudulent feelings - get real. Be objective, assess the situation accurately and fairly, make a plan, stay focussed and work towards your goal (I have set aside weekly protected writing time and joined a writer's circle). 

But what about when we recognise this syndrome in our students? What is our role as teachers and mentors? 

Firstly, we need to be aware that some students are more vulnerable than others. High achieving students (those that we tend to worry about the least!) and particular women in the sciences are most at risk, but so are black students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students that have been accepted to the university on the basis of some kind of academic concession or redress are extremely susceptible to feeling as though they are not worthy, as though they do not belong. As teachers, the onus is on us to to be aware of this vulnerability in our students, even when everything may look fine on the outside, and to help them find ways to work through these negative feelings.

Secondly, when our students succeed, praise their skills and abilities, not the grade or award. "Well done on making the Dean's List" is nice, but not as helpful to the student as pointing out to them why they made the Dean's List "You really know how to develop a convincing argument in your written assignments - I wasn't surprised to see your name on the list." Constructive feedback and praise will make it easier for students to identify their strengths and improve their confidence levels. 

Thirdly, I think that it is important to temper our expectations of students. This is somewhat emphasised in the difference in academic paths between faculties. I come from science, where there is a very clear expectation that you will progress directly from Masters to PhD to PostDoc, you will publish extensively and it will be years before you ever see the inside of a lecture theater. So you can imagine my amazement when I discovered that it doesn't have to be that way. In other faculties Masters students are lecturing, PhD's are supervising, publications happen organically over time and senior lecturers in their 50's are grumbling over their own PhD manuscripts. There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one route to academic success. 

Finally, like the experience I described above, there will be times when students have genuine shortcomings which are undermining their confidence. Again, be constructive in dealing with the problem and help the student become solution orientated. Help the student find objectivity, assess the situation accurately and fairly, make a plan and stay focussed as they work towards their goal. Basically, get real.

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