I regret suffering in silence from academic impostor syndrome

Shaking off impostor syndrome can be tough for isolated academics who pursue niche areas of study where grant funding opportunities are limited, says Rachael Hains-Wesson

九月 10, 2022
Stressed male student suffering from anxiety
Source: iStock

Choosing a niche and non-traditional research topic is always a risk in academia, even if you strongly believe in its importance.

The problem is that many peers will not appreciate your work as you do. I’ve missed vacations and family time to complete grant applications that I knew were never going to be successful as my research interests around education fell well outside those in favour. I’ve also felt discouraged and downhearted after senior researchers suggested that I should stick to teaching rather than pursuing teaching and research.

Even though I consider myself an outsider and a non-conformist, these criticisms over the supposed low impact and value of my research compared with non-education disciplines have helped to fuel my sense of being an academic “impostor”.

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined to better explain why high-achieving women attributed success to luck rather than accomplishment. I’ve had this disease of the mind since entering academia in 2012. It is quite common in researchers (as many as 70 per cent of us have it, according to some surveys) and is undoubtedly at its most powerful when the system fails to support us.

My constant feeling of being an impostor has only dissipated since I decided to pursue what matters to me. I focus on completing research that makes the greatest impact on university student learning and teacher practice. This was a tough decision to make.

In Australia, our research is often measured by the prestige of a grant received, an institution’s world ranking or publication in high-impact journals. The demise of the Office of Learning and Teaching did not help, either, further reducing federal-level grants to support research in higher education teaching and learning practice.

It has taken me years of purposeful reflection and self-massaging my damaged confidence to keep building and pursuing a research career that I know matters. It is the real bread and butter of universities, despite it rarely being seen this way. Without students, where would higher education be? Where would non-education researchers be?

Despite the many barriers, I continue to innovate in research in higher education teaching and learning. I do this in many fields, such as work-integrated learning, reflective practice, teacher support and employability, centring on university students’ learning experiences, including industry partnerships and employability skill development to improve graduate job destinations.

What are the key pointers to staying on target and avoiding impostor syndrome? Be yourself while respecting others. Talk to colleagues. Take part in thinktanks, network and speak to success and failure as equal to success, not separate from it. You can only learn by taking research risks. Ask those dumb questions – isn’t everyone trying on an impostor outfit? Do this without fear and be brave about what you do not know. Be curious and welcome others’ curiosity. Do your best and recognise your own skillset.

These days, I tend to listen more, observe and reflect. I mentor others and pursue research that matters to me and university students while ensuring I share it with like-minded people; I participate in research seminars where others express similar feelings of not fitting into academic life.

I never thought I would ever do that. I thought I would be alone and talking to the mirror, suffering these self-doubts alone and worrying when I would be found out.

In fact, it was when I stopped worrying about impressing senior non-education researchers that people found me and saw the value of my research.

Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney.



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Reader's comments (2)

I empathise and share the sentiments expressed. As I happen to work in a field where earning capacity outside of academia for the most successful is enormous compared with anything realistically possible inside of academia I have long taken the view that the only point of pursuing an academic career is to enjoy it and to feel that what I have contributed (both to students and to my research field) is worthwhile. I’m happy in this mindset. Over the years I’ve even come to feel a bit sorry for those who have ruthlessly pursued life in academia such that every decision, choice of research field etc, seems to be based on seeking ‘success’ rather than deep and genuine interest. What a waste of a fantastic life opportunity.
So very true @Concerned Academic 77, a lot of academic identity is tied up and spills over into actual life. Getting the right balance that suits can take time and a space for failure to learn from is essential - but is very worth the effort via continual reflection and regulation. I try very hard to keep work-to-work identity and so my life remains mine without the spill over.