Form: Blog Post
Written: Spring 2013
Published by: Indiana Wesleyan University’s Modern Language and Literature blog
Imagine you’re a second-year graduate student. You’re sitting in the well-decorated living room of your thesis adviser; you were invited there for afternoon tea and a conversation about your thesis project, just two months before the project is due.
To the left of you is your thesis adviser Chelle, wearing her signature cat-eyed glasses and floor-length skirt. To your right is the literature scholar Chelle invited you to meet this Saturday afternoon; she has a Scottish accent and drinks her tea, with milk. And in your hands are six months of reading, writing, and late-night panic attacks: your thesis.
You pass the scholar the sweat-soaked draft, knowing it needs a lot of work, but you are hopeful your analysis will impress the literature scholar. She reads—no, skims—and mumbles to herself something about the organization, the thesis statement (where is it exactly?), the lack of scholarly voice. She marks with her pencil little slashes, furrows her Scottish brow.
Then she speaks to you words that magically condense all your insecurities, all your fear and self-criticism, into one simple question: “Is this an undergraduate thesis?”
Now your throat aches. Now your hands stick to your knees and you know you cannot speak a word without a watershed of tears. Don’t worry: the tears come. The dam bursts open and now you are crying in your thesis adviser’s living room. Chelle comes closer and pats you on the back. The scholar tip-toes out of the room. And then Chelle’s wide-eyed husband enters his home to see a master’s student—or is she an undergrad?—crying on his living room couch.
What that literature scholar manifested for me that afternoon was a type of self-criticism I know to my core: imposter syndrome, the fear that high achievers have that they will be exposed to the world as phonies. It’s their—my—lack of capacity to fully accept one’s accomplishments as real.
Women, I’ve read, are more prone to imposter syndrome than men. Maybe this is obvious: the way we are often discouraged from taking on high-powered traits (we’re seen as bossy or shrill) or the lack of representation of women in leadership positions. Or maybe it’s our proclivity to negative self-talk: my writing sucks. I’m not smart enough for this job. I’ll never be taken seriously with my hair like this. Whatever the reason, and despite how much I’ve accomplished as a writer and academic, I am constantly confronted with imposter syndrome.
So what is the remedy for this sickness that affects high achievers like myself? The answer is not achieve more.
In February, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program, an accomplishment that followed two years of application writing, studying for the GRE, securing recommendation letters, and long, long periods of self-doubt. I naively thought that my acceptance would cure my imposter syndrome once and for all.
One week after my letter came, I read a story about Columbia University sending out 300 acceptance letters by mistake. I was sure this had happened to me. I kept checking my email for the words, “We regret to inform you….” I kept re-reading my letter to make sure it was really addressed to me and not another Lauren interested in Ethics.
Around that time, my friend Michele called to congratulate me, and I sheepishly told her my fear, about Columbia’s false acceptance letters. A long pause filled the airway between Indy and Philadelphia. Then: “Lauren, you deserve this.”
I hung up with Michele, believing that I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program, but I was not confident that I deserved it. Remember that imposter syndrome is something internal, and it needs to be remedied from the inside as well.
I do not believe there’s a cure-all for imposter syndrome. Each of us has to figure out our own way to replace those negative messages with positive ones. As for me, my best defense against imposter syndrome was offered to me by my cat-eyed thesis adviser, the one who patted my back and later offered me gourmet chocolates—and revision suggestions—that tear-filled afternoon.
Several years ago, before sitting in her living room, I sat in Chelle’s office, asking for advice on Ph.D. programs. I told her I wasn’t sure I would be ready so soon after I finished my master’s to jump into doctoral work. What if I got another master’s first?
She responded by saying, “You will become ready in the process.” Through the application, through the coursework of the Ph.D. program and the writing of the dissertation, I will become ready.
When I internalize this message instead of the accusation of imposter syndrome, I am no longer inhibited. I don’t only bawl in front of professors but get back to my desk and start revising. I eventually finished my master’s thesis, and I believe the critique I received in Chelle’s living room helped me get there. Instead of internalizing the message of I’m not fit to be a master’s student, I internalized another one: through the process of revision, I will write a master’s level thesis. (And I did.)