In Conversation: Academia, Imposter Syndrome and the Patriarchy

Sketch by Holly Jones

It’s extremely difficult being a young woman PhD candidate aspiring to be in academia. Not only do we have to write a 100,000-word thesis — which, in itself, is a Mount Everest-sized task — we also have to publish peer-reviewed journal articles, go to conferences, network and tutor. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing all this. Every morning I get to wake up, work on my research, and ponder and explore the questions that I find important and interesting. However, it is extremely difficult in the sense that you’re constantly working, usually alone, and have to rely on yourself for motivation.

Some days, you just don’t feel that motivated. Some days you feel down, depressed even. Most days you are second-guessing yourself: your intelligence, your willpower, your originality, hell, even your speaking voice. You don’t often get feedback as you do in your undergraduate studies, so you often compare yourself to those around you. This can leave you feeling worse, as what others usually make visible are their achievements and a veil of success — so in contrast, you feel like you’re stuck in a pot-hole filled with drying cement, looking up at those flourishing while you’re floundering to get out of the mental hole you’ve dug.

This hole is also known as Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is technically a psychological pattern where those who experience it often have an overarching fear of being exposed as a fake or a fraud. Sufferers are usually convinced that they do not deserve the successes they have achieved and often downplay their achievements as being purely based on luck or deception. This fear can have many negative impacts on the sufferer as they are less likely to apply for jobs and promotions. In the academic world they are less likely to submit papers to journals and conferences and are less likely to network with other academics in case their deception is exposed. Overall, it increases stress, anxiety and can create depression-like feelings in relation to work and self-confidence.

My name is Blair Williams and I am a sufferer of Imposter Syndrome. I have suffered since my Honours year, though looking back to my undergraduate years, I also considered myself to be a fraud who pretended to be intelligent. However, these feelings intensified when I moved to ANU to undertake my PhD. I know I’m not alone as it is extremely common to experience these kinds of feelings when you’re doing your PhD — especially if you are a woman or someone with intersecting oppressions. So, as a young queer woman with a mental illness, I know I am much more likely to feel like an imposter.

I constantly look at other inspiring women academics for empowering tips on navigating academic life. I decided to interview a few of these women, to soak up and share the wealth of insights they have in dealing with, not only Imposter Syndrome, but the patriarchy of the academy.

I caught up with Joyce Wu, a research fellow at the Crawford School and CSIRO, Jill Sheppard, a lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations, Sarah Scott, a lecturer at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory, and Anne McNaughton, a senior lecturer at the College of Law.

How has Imposter Syndrome affected your work or day-to-day life?

Wu: For me it’s less about myself and more about how others treat me. I call it ‘denial syndrome’: where other researchers deny the importance of my research as it focuses on gender issues. It boils down to inequality and the trivialisation of women’s issues. They don’t see it as important research — it’s just women’s stuff.

Sheppard: I’ve absolutely experienced it, although it’s starting to disappear. During the first year out of my PhD, the fear of being an absolute fraud stopped me from submitting articles for publication. I’m much more confident now.

McNaughton: Yes, particularly early on in my career. It can be debilitating … almost a paralysis on occasion. It’s very constraining.

Can you tell me a bit about your experiences of it?

Sheppard: I felt like an imposter when I didn’t know what contribution I could make — to my discipline, to my School, and to my students. It takes longer to work out than you probably expect (or hope).
Scott: I did go through a very difficult and dark period a few years back when I just lost all confidence in myself as an academic and it took a long time to rebuild that confidence.

Collage by Eilis Fitt

How do you deal with the imposter syndrome?

Wu: Having a little bit of self-doubt is always good so as to not be too cocky. However, it’s important to understand whether it’s pure insecurity, anxieties and self-doubt, or is it about what genuinely could go wrong? You have to recognise which one it is in order to try and deal with it or solve it. Find ways to address your fears. For example, try and make your research even better, improve your methodologies, etc. Try to understand your doubt.

Sheppard: I just had to work through it. It takes time; don’t expect to feel like you know what you’re doing straight away. In fact, if you do feel like you know what you’re doing, then something’s wrong. Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating, but it’s also a useful reminder of all the things you still get to learn.
McNaughton: It is important to become conscious of it and to be able to name it and set it to one side and continue to work in spite of it rather than necessarily overcoming it. Once you recognise it, it’s beneficial to see it as an aid rather than something that’s debilitating, because what it means is that you’re on the edge of your comfort zone and you are stretching out to the unknown, which is a good thing, but also can be a challenge.

Do you have any tips for other women, whether they are students or academics, on how to deal with Imposter Syndrome?

Sheppard: Don’t fear modesty. I know that as women we tend to run ourselves down and be overly self-effacing, but I don’t know that the answer is to mimic false confidence. Be honest, and respectful, and eager. If you can’t feel confident, at least be a good person.

Wu: Try to reach out to other feminists — for example, the Gender Studies Institute. Look for your discipline’s gender groups, reach out to feminist women mentors, get women’s support! Figure out who are your supporters versus who are you detractors. And also look after yourself.

Scott: It may seem a funny thing to say, but my number one tip would be ‘work-life balance’. Look after yourself. Don’t drive yourself into the ground with work trying to prove to yourself and others that you are ‘not an imposter’. Slow down and only take on what you can manage. Learn to say “no” if necessary. Also, if you are struggling, seek support from friends, family and mental health professionals. It’s okay to admit that you are not coping. Not everything is ‘your fault’. Sometimes there are external factors that can make life difficult.
McNaughton: The more you push against the Imposter Syndrome, push your boundaries and go out of your comfort zone, the less intimidating it becomes. Mindfulness enables us to recognise these feelings much earlier and to set it to one side and figure out the best course of action to take and then you just press on despite the anxiety. Over time the overall anxiety dissipates. Also, concentrate on your strengths rather than your shortcomings.

Joyce Wu, what is it like as a Woman of Colour (WoC) in academia and how does this impact on your imposter syndrome?

Wu: Australia has a long way to go in regard to understanding intersectionality. White men have more cache — people listen to them. The notion of ‘expert’ is racialised. White men are seen as the experts. It’s a very real issue. It’s harder for me as a WoC because I can’t speak out because I don’t want to be seen as a victim — people are more likely to see us as playing the victim if we speak up about inequalities. I am still working on how to navigate these politics. I have recently been talking to other white people about power dynamics and ways of creating space for equal participation. My biggest advice is to go to women’s conferences or women’s spaces and recharge your batteries, because it is hard.

After talking to these strong and successful women, I feel comforted in knowing that I am not alone in my feelings of inadequacy and that it can still affect experienced and seasoned academics.

So, how do I personally try and deal with the Imposter Syndrome? I try to not let it affect my work and, as Anne advised, I try and persevere in spite of it. I also maintain the philosophy of ‘having the confidence of a mediocre white man’ to boost me up when applying for tutoring roles or submitting articles to conferences or peer-reviewed journals — though this does have to be balanced with a healthy amount of self-reflection.

I guess I am used to feelings of inadequacy since I have been dealing with mental health issues most of my life and, really, the imposter syndrome is just another state of anxiety. However, it’s not easy. It’s an uphill battle to constantly boost your self-esteem and thus that crucial self-motivation. Though being aware of it, acknowledging it while feeling the fear and doing it anyway, is crucial in being able to overcome it.

Through listening to these women talk about Imposter Syndrome and how their relationships with other women have helped them, it is important to remember that we are not alone in our experience and there are many fantastic women in our social groups or communities who we can reach out to.