When am I going to be found out? Tackling academic impostor syndrome

Do you find yourself thinking ‘everyone knows more than I do’ or ‘I shouldn’t have got this promotion’? If so, Jo Clift has tips for challenging your impostor syndrome

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Jo Clift Consulting
1 Dec 2022
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Impostor syndrome is common in higher education

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When I work with academics, I’m struck by how often they lack confidence. For example, they usually want to publicise their work but don’t believe that the world beyond their institution will want to hear from them. They often spontaneously mention struggling with impostor syndrome.

Clearly, academia is a competitive and pressured environment. When stressed academics are juggling their research and teaching responsibilities, the idea of promoting themselves and their work on top of everything else can feel overwhelming. This resistance is sometimes to do with time poverty, or fear of engaging on social media, but sometimes it is more pervasive: a feeling that somehow they don’t deserve their position or authority. They fear that if they become more visible they will be “found out”.

These fears are all aspects of impostor syndrome, a term that has entered our language in recent years. These insecurities are often heightened when someone has come to academia later in life, or through a non-traditional route, but they can easily apply to any academic. 

Many of us experience times when we lack confidence and our self-esteem feels fragile – and this is often triggered by difficult situations at work. These challenges become problems if they are holding us back from making progress in our careers and academic endeavours. Some indications of having impostor syndrome are hearing yourself say: “Everyone knows more than I do” or “I shouldn’t have been given this post/promotion/responsibility”.

For the past few years I have been working with academics, helping them understand and engage with the policymaking process. I was talking to a group of academics recently who had been invited to a policy networking event in London. They had fears around “What do I say?” and “Why would they be interested in my work?” Although these questions are understandable, they miss the point of networking, which is to have a chat, have a dialogue, possibly find some points of mutual interest and intersection, exchange contact details with people and maybe ask if they can put you in touch with someone they work with who is directly interested in your area. Networking might feel scary, but it’s not an exam and can be relaxed and enjoyable if you go with the flow and are not too “outcome” oriented. You’re looking to create relationships, which means being yourself. And don’t forget that the policymakers may also be dealing with their own impostor syndrome!

Here are some of my tips for academics who want to challenge their impostor syndrome:

Try to silence your negative voices

Negative self-talk is the enemy of confidence and progress. Try to challenge these voices. If the voice says: “Well that’s never going to work,” try counteracting with another voice saying: “Well, it may not work, but if I don’t try I’ll never know – and it might work really well. I’d rather try and learn from the experience.”

Whose definition of success are you using?

Try to create your own image and definition of success, so you’re not continually pegging yourself against others who probably have a different skill set, experiences and goals to you. This is obviously hard in academia where lots of people are chasing a limited number of posts. But learning to value what you are rather than what you think you should be a good start.

Remember what you are good at

Are you focusing on the things that you’re struggling with, rather than seeing all the things that you’re good at? Remember that your skill set comes easily to you, so you may be taking it for granted. Remind yourself that your skill set is not shared by most of the population. Document your skills (ask a colleague to help if you are struggling with this), then try to own your skills and be proud of them, rather than dismissing them as “normal”.

Are you being a perfectionist?

No one can get everything right, and it’s helpful to remember that perfect is the enemy of good. Setting impossibly high standards for ourselves is a route to misery. Also, remember that the person who never made a mistake never made anything! James Dyson created 5,126 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before he was ready to take it to market. Remember that you only need to be good enough. 

Take a few risks

It’s only by trying out new things and pushing ourselves slightly outside our comfort zone that we gain confidence. Academics tend to understand this but can still struggle to move beyond the fear. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen? Those of us who have a tendency to procrastinate are normally worried that when we get down to the task we simply won’t be “up to it”. But that’s normally a fear of being visible and therefore being judged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Remember where you flourish

There are generally areas of our lives where we feel strong and confident. It could be situations outside work, hobbies or just parts of your work that you really enjoy. Identify these and hold on to them. Let these positive experiences define you, too, rather than feeling identified with the activities that trigger your insecurity. This creates a more balanced picture of who you are and what you’re good at.

Jo Clift worked at the heart of the UK government for more than 20 years and now works with academics who want to engage with – and influence – policy. As part of this work, she helps academics to gain confidence and overcome their impostor syndrome.

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