Embracing your impostor syndrome: advice for shifting between disciplines

Changing disciplines can appear impossible at times, but it’s not, especially if academics embrace the mindset that disciplinary boundaries are often somewhat artificial

Amber Phillips's avatar
University of the West of England Bristol
17 Aug 2022
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Changing academic disciplines is not as impossible as it might sometimes appear

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At various points in our careers, many academics find ourselves asking: “Where do I fit?” For me, as a researcher on the Italian mafias, this has been a particularly confusing question throughout my academic journey. I am currently a senior lecturer in criminology, but my path has been unorthodox: after an undergraduate degree in languages and an MA in interpreting and translation, a career as a translator beckoned (though I’d always had an eye on academia). Then, following a string of improbable events and encounters, about a decade ago I stumbled on my real passion: I wanted to study organised crime – specifically the ’Ndrangheta, a mafia organisation native to Italy’s Calabria region.

I secured PhD funding from an Italian studies department, reasoning that it was logical to stick with a discipline I knew – but it didn’t take long for my academic identity crisis to set in. It seemed that wherever I looked, I never quite belonged. At Italian studies conferences and in the discipline’s journals, it was often a struggle to find fellow mafia scholars. However, whenever I dipped a toe into the social sciences or law – where they seemed to be comparatively abundant – I was confronted with unfamiliar research methods and terminology, as well as a strong sense that I lacked the skills or the background to contribute anything meaningful.

This inferiority complex was bolstered by the nagging fear that my chosen approach and source material – an analysis of cultural representations of the mafia through history – was in some way inferior to “proper” (read: quantitative) studies, an impression reinforced by dismissive remarks picked up from social media, at conferences and sometimes even well-meaning peers.

I felt despondent; I was passionate about my chosen topic, and I believed in my work, but I felt locked out of the disciplines that seemed to play host to most of the events, research and communities that I was interested in. Another concern was the academic job market – the prospects for languages and humanities PhDs have been infamously challenging for some time, but the situation seemed more hopeful for organised crime scholars in the social sciences.

It was clear to me that my best chance of prospering as an academic would be to change my discipline. But how, with no background in social sciences and – as I incorrectly saw it at the time – no relevant training or skills? The answer lay in shifting my mindset and understanding my “impostor” status as an asset rather than a liability.

The first step was to look for inspiration and mentorship from academics who had followed a similar path. Luckily for me, this happened serendipitously midway through my PhD, when I attended a research seminar by an Italian studies scholar who – I was delighted to learn – was now working in a sociology department. Although their work was unrelated to the mafia, it was inspiring and heartening to see traces of familiar methods and topics being employed in sociology, and it gave me hope for the cross-disciplinary potential of my work. Emboldened, I sought out more qualitative work in the social sciences and found a surprising number of parallels with the approaches and methods in my own work but using a different academic vernacular.

This helped me to reframe my understanding of my research and to start thinking in terms of topic rather than discipline. As my confidence grew, I submitted an abstract to a specialised conference on organised crime. Much to the shock of my inner impostor, my paper was accepted, and although I was one of very few contributors adopting a qualitative approach, I was greeted with a strikingly collegiate, supportive and constructive discussion from my peers.

It was like a door had opened on to a new world; my work had been acknowledged as valid, and my mind was opened to new possibilities for the future of my research. Developing connections with scholars from a range of disciplines, I began to view myself as part of a diverse research community with a shared goal, where my different perspective was welcomed. Incidentally, this conference paper, based on a chapter of my PhD, ended up becoming my very first published article – in a journal focused on organised crime.

The final key step in my cross-disciplinary journey was to upskill and expand my knowledge. Publishing my first peer-reviewed paper was a key part of this process, and I worked as hard as I could to learn as much as possible about my target discipline. I attended workshops and courses run by my university and plundered the library for relevant texts on research methods. Ultimately, my efforts paid off, and my first academic role post-PhD was as a lecturer in criminology.

I recognise that my cross-disciplinary journey – and in particular the last step outlined above – will not be relevant for many early career researchers, who may be perfectly content within their “home” discipline. However, I would strongly encourage all academics to embrace the mindset that disciplinary boundaries are often somewhat artificial, and that instead, seeking diverse research communities around your topic of interest can be enriching and enlightening for all concerned.

My work on organised crime has led to collaborations with practising lawyers, economists, sociologists, linguists and humanities scholars, to name but a few. If in doubt, embrace your impostor syndrome; your difference is likely to be your strength.

Amber Phillips is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of the West of England.

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