Am I really good enough to be an academic?

Imposter01I’m currently buried in exam revision – and taking a bit of time out to write this, while dinner is merrily cooking away. I say exam, it’s more in the nature of a test – practising the skills that we, the students on the course have, rather than what we know. Still, there is some knowledge that needs to be absorbed and of course I have to practice the skill itself (and you’ll understand, I’m sure, that I can’t get any more specific than that).

Preparation for exams always involves a certain element of fear: fear of the unknown. Will this be covered? Will the examiner be crafty and put that odd thing in? Is this nugget of info something I should be memorising? And then, sometimes, for some of us, underneath it, is that sneaky little fear: am I good enough for this? Is this where I fall? Is this where I’m found out, is this where people realise that I’m not as smart as they think I am?

I struggle with Imposter Syndrome (this page has lots of info on this). I’m not alone in this, and its not linked to my deafness (or at least, I don’t think so – I’m not a psychologist so I have no idea if there is a commonality in these two things). I know I have it, and there are many many articles out there detailing it and what to do about it. Its commonly found in high achievers – in fact, one graph out there, on this page, specifically says that the higher you achieve, the lower the likelihood that you will think you’re as good as you are (in other words, if you have imposter syndrome, you likely are a high achiever). I’m not sure that little nugget is any comfort to those who have it (it ain’t for me). I only know that I have spent the last four years absolutely convinced that at any moment one of my lecturers would tap me on the shoulder and says “I’m dreadfully sorry, but we’ve made a mistake, you don’t belong here. Please leave.” … I know. They just wouldn’t do that (they’d send a letter, if they had to do this) and it certainly wouldn’t come out of the blue with no indication or warning that something was wrong. And it certainly doesn’t apply to those who have a first class undergraduate degree as I do. Nevertheless, I still worry.

And now I’m at Masters level, the worrying is worse. I hear, in the back of my mind, my father telling that “people get promoted to their level of incompetence”. The worrying was made worse, I think, by the university’s unclear guidance as to the difference between marks at undergraduate level and postgraduate level. Does a 70% mark mean the same thing at both? does a 70% mark at Masters level equal an 80% mark at undergrad level? The first assignments of the year fell either side of Christmas. I was reasonably happy with the assignment I handed in before Christmas, but, due to some stuff that happened over the Christmas break, and the fact that I struggled to conquer a particular software programme that I needed to use meant that I didn’t feel so good about the second assignment. In fact I handed it in with the attitude of ‘well, I have to hand something in. Better than nothing at all.’ When my lecturer came up to me about a week after the hand in date and said, with a huge smile, jokingly, “I just got done reading your assignment. It’s rubbish!”, I think he really did not understand when I just gasped (with relief) and said “yeah, it is, I know, I’m sorry”. He apologised and said “no, its not really rubbish. I wouldn’t have said that if it was… I was just joking”. In the end I got 71% for it – distinction level – and 72% for the assignment from before Christmas. So… shows what I know.

Imposter syndrome isn’t linked to my deafness… but is it made worse by it? In some ways, I think it is. That little voice in my head that tells me I’m a fraud, also tells me that I only get good marks because I’m deaf, or that they give me the good marks, that they invite me to things, because I make up a quota, that I make the university look good. I know, too, that I am almost certainly being incredibly unfair to the university and to my tutors (and quite apart from anything else, assignments are marked anonymously (with student numbers, not names) and each assignment is co-marked by a secondary marker, and a selection of assignments are marked from outside the university at the of the year, so that there is NO way that the system or a tutor can favour any one person … and … breaaaaaathe!) and that, you know, I actually DO deserve to be there, I AM that good, but still… there’s that little voice in the background that just … doesn’t … go away.

I know I’m not the only postgrad student feeling this way. In fact, its incredibly common amongst postgrads, as this article from 2008 reveals. But if we’re not alone in feeling this way, what’s the solution?

To talk about it.

It sounds obvious, but … talk about it, to friends, family. Tell them you struggle with this. Ask them to listen when your little naggy whiny “you are SO a fake!” voice is particularly loud, for whatever reason and TELL them you feel that way – even if you only feel able to do the equivalent of waving a placard going “help”. Have people around you who are willing to kick you up the backside when you do.

Other things that you can do:

  • Accept that you may be contributing to the  problem by having unrealistic ideas of what your classmates are capable of, and what your attainment level should be right now – in other words, stop feeling bad, because you don’t exhibit the knowledge that a senior lecturer with 20 years research behind him can show. Try to address that, to develop a more realistic attainment level by talking to your classmates and understanding what they’re doing – ask to read their papers.
  • Understand what you do when your syndrome is kicking in, what your patterns are. Do you procrastinate? Do you go over papers again and again, striving for perfectionism? do you want to quit because you’re so sure that you’ll never match up to the required standard so you may as well give up now?
  • Understand too the normalisation of where you are now – right now, you’re in a place where taking a postgraduate degree is normal to you. You’re mixing with other people who have Masters degrees themselves, maybe even doctoral degrees, so you’re in a group of higher achievers than would otherwise be normal in a given population. It’s important therefore to remember this, to remember that not everyone in the world has a bachelor’s degree, let alone a Master’s degree, let alone a doctoral degree, and even just studying for one, let alone achieving one, is really not the norm, and is something special. Attempting it and failing does NOT make you a fraud.

I actually have a piece of paper stuck to the wall behind my computer, with all the things I have going for me right now, all the blessings in my life, all the things I have achieved, some of which some very special friends have told me (and I am so blessed to have them). At the bottom are two sentences: “You deserve to be happy” and “You can do this”. I look at it often and feel inspired, and it shoos the voice away for a bit.

If you’re a deaf student, and struggling with imposter syndrome, then know this: I think you’re incredibly brave.  It takes guts to continue, every day, fighting the fear that someone is going to call you a fraud, and yet you’re still there, in the lectures, in the seminars, learning away. I know this cos I have to do the same thing.

But I say to you – keep on fighting it, keep on learning, cos, you know, you deserve to be happy. And you can do it.

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