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Impostor Syndrome

Each day last week, after I completed a section of my comprehensive exams, I was bombarded with the same question - "so, how did you do?" As I answered, "ok, I guess," the anxiety welled inside of me. What was I afraid of exactly? It's the same fear I always have as I pass another milestone in completing my doctorate - what if they find out I have no clue what I am talking about?

Here's the thing, the longer I study (22 years of schooling to be exact... sheesh!) and the more I learn, the more I feel like I know nothing! They call this impostor syndrome and apparently it is incredibly common, especially among female academics.

But why do so many women (including myself and Brittany) fear that they are intellectual phonies? While I think it is important to question yourself and your competence every once and a while (after all you can't know everything), feeling like a fraud isn't healthy and could potentially sabotage your success. I am particularly concerned that this seems to be more of a problem for high-achieving women.

This article argues that successful women are more susceptible to impostor syndrome because they have internalized long-held cultural norms that tell women they are less qualified then men (I mean we still earn less than men for the same job!). Furthermore, impostor syndrome thrives in highly competitive fields, like grad school. Not only is graduate school competitive, but there is also a "criticize first, praise later" mentality. This is meant to push you, but often leaves you wondering if you can hack it.

Furthermore, many women today seem to think we've achieved some sort of gender equality in education. But as this article highlights, outdated gender norms still affect classroom dynamics (at every level) and women's perception of their own qualifications and abilities, which only contributes to the impostor syndrome.

So what can we do about this? It is imperative that we talk about it. As simple as that sounds, realizing that your fears are common, and rooted in centuries of patriarchy, helps you sort fact from fear. Celebrate your accomplishments and successes, no matter how small they feel. Britt and I are both still working on validating our accomplishments rather than chalking them up to perseverance or luck! Finally, don't let feeling like an impostor derail your confidence and ambition. Use it to drive yourself to work hard and do your best.

And if all else fails, take it from the expert Jessica Collett (a professor of sociology at Notre Dame), who says “... [R]esearchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” I don't know about you, but that quote made Britt and I feel much better!

Do you ever feel like an impostor?

Ashley B
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  1. There was a really good article about this in previous addition of Porter magazine. If you could get your hands on it I think you'd really enjoy it. I hope you did well on your exams!


  2. I do at times. I certainly do not have the academic credentials that you have, but upon completing a whirl-wind master's program, which I loved, I could not quite grasp it all. I cannot explain it any better than that. But slowly, as I have proceeded professionally, the knowledge that I accumulated during that time has begun to unfold and I actually use the post graduate experience daily. Now I don't feel so phony. I am especially gratified when I can help co-workers or answer questions. My work situation is far less glamorous than history (teaching Kindergarten) but the framework remains the same. I always appreciate your thoughtful, well written, posts. In "history lingo" I think you are a Renaissance woman

    1. Your work maybe less glamorous (why are kids so sticky?), but it is incredibly important! I agree that whirlwind grad programs are really time/life efficient, but sometimes the results can't be seen for years to come (once you've had time to process and apply what you've learned). And thank you for the sweet compliment!

  3. I agree that this is definitely a problem many women face. Since I am applying to college and looking to get a major in Musical Theatre, there have been so many times that I have wondered, "should I actually be doing this?" Luckily I have such a great support group and I know, regardless of the fear, that I will do well in whatever my field ends up being! I wish you the best of luck :)

    Prep on a Budget

  4. This resonates very true for me, I'm a first year PhD grad student in a field that men dominate. I'm the only girl in my cohort. Many times during the week I feel like I'm not qualified and should drop out.

    1. Stay strong! Your first year or two is the hardest. Most men rarely doubt themselves, so why should you? Just repeat the last line to yourself whenever you are in doubt - impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors. You've got this!

  5. I cannot tell enough people that going to a womens college was the BEST decision I ever made! At Salem College all the ladies were there to support each other. We should be building a sisterhood to counter balance the boys club.

    1. I can definitely see the value in this... if only we could make the world all women... just kidding (mostly).

  6. Wow, I've never heard of imposter syndrome but I have fed felt it! Thank you so much for sharing, so often I worry that I am not intelligent enough for all of my academic goals. The more I learn the more overwhelmed I feel by everything I don't know! It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who worries she doesn't belong in the world of academia she so desperately wants to belong to. We need to believe in ourselves!

  7. Love that you take breaks from your (amazing) fashion posts to discuss important topics for women like jobs and self-esteem. As someone who is still trying to move up within the company, I feel like I will never fully know everything for the job at hand. I just try to eliminate that "male dominated workplace mindset" and remind myself that believing in myself is all that matters.

  8. I feel this way sometimes--Every so often I'll be so worried I'll be fired for being incompetent! The worst part is knowing more makes it worse because the more I learn the more I realize how much I didn't know.

  9. I feel this all the time at my internship and when I'm posting my schoolwork for my master's. I feel like everyone else knows what they're doing, and I'm just faking my way through. I feel like I'm stumbling every day while everyone else is on their groove. Talking about it kind of feels like admitting failure to thrive, even though that's not reality. I'm in a master's program, I'm interning in a museum, I'm doing fine, but it absolutely feels like failure. Glad to know I'm not alone.

  10. I'm really thankful that you posted this. I just passed my bar exam and kept telling everyone that I was just waiting for the Board of Bar Examiners to call and tell me they made some kind of mistake. Everyone laughed, unfortunately, I was serious. My best friend from school said the same thing to me. We were terrified that our names would not be called at the swearing in ceremony or that someone would realize we weren't supposed to be there. The same reaction came from countless women that I spoke with. It wasn't until I talked to some of the men I had graduated with that I realized this feeling was one shared by most of the women, but nearly none of the men. It astounded me. I worked my butt off through school, interning while taking classes, being in leadership positions in multiple organizations, attending professional conferences, doing everything the school tells you to do, but still I felt I hadn't done enough. Then here were these male friends I had, who went to school, worked only in the summer time, and weren't involved in any other activities and they felt assured and acted as though it was obvious they had passed, as though failure was never a potential path.

    So thank you, Ashley. Thank you for reminding me that I'm not merely being insecure. That it is a feeling women on all paths share.

  11. Absolutely. I got hired to teach in the history department I got my MA from as soon as I graduated at age 23 - I'm five years in now, and I still fight this battle every. single. day. Despite knowing in the back of my head that the guys in the department wouldn't have hired me if they didn't think I could hack it (PARTICULARLY since they already knew what I was capable of as a student), and certainly wouldn't have kept me around all these years as someone with only an MA in an area where there are like, a thousand out of work PhDs if I had indeed proved to be a not good teacher.

    Gaining some age and experience has definitely helped keep the "Am I really qualified to do this?" thoughts at bay, and my interactions with my students only help to reinforce that no matter how insecure I feel this is where I should be right now, but the creeping insecurity still finds its way in from time to time. I'm really relieved to read that I'm not the only one who struggles with this.

  12. I just started my MA and I'm already finding this to be true. From the first day of class I felt silenced sitting in a room predominately male, not giving an answer even when I knew it was right but I figured one of the guys would answer first. I'm slowly learning how to be more outspoken but it's difficult when I study in a field that's predominately male (International Security) and am made to feel belittled by my classmates who often comment on my girly dress or personality.

    I really appreciated this post and the attached article, you're my proof that a female can be girly, smart, professional and successful. Keep it up!


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