Dealing with impostor syndrome

In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term ‘impostor syndrome’ (or ‘fraud syndrome’) to describe high-achieving individuals who, despite having external evidence of their competence, remain convinced that they’re frauds and don’t deserve their success or achievements. Although not a formal mental disorder, in extreme cases impostor syndrome can lead to  anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame, self-doubt and a debilitating fear of failure.

Impostor syndrome is incredibly common in academia (and also in the creative arts), among all levels and disciplines. I remember how, as a PhD student, I was completely convinced – even after my thesis had been passed and I’d received my graduation date – that someone somewhere in the depths of the university would realise that my whole candidature had been a fraud and take my degree off me. It wasn’t until I held the piece of paper in my hand at graduation that this fear began to lessen somewhat, but it’s still something I battle periodically, particularly as a writer.

While working in communications at a university, I saw impostor syndrome manifest in a particularly interesting way among academics when it came to outreach. Many academics seemed unaware of just how much they knew about the wider context of their area of expertise, as well as their specific field, and were loath to comment on anything that wasn’t exactly aligned with their research topic. This often led to them foregoing outreach opportunities that they would actually have been highly suitable for. For example: an academic who worked on women’s politics in a small Asian country was asked some general questions by a journalist about the upcoming election in that country. She deferred the questions as outside her area of expertise; however, she actually had a very good knowledge of the general political situation beyond her specific focus on gender. Consequently, she missed a good opportunity to promote her research because she didn’t realise just how much she knew.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should comment on issues completely outside your area of expertise, or where you genuinely don’t feel comfortable. But in many cases, academics become so fixated on their specific topic that they forget that they actually know a lot more than most people about the general context as well (and it’s often this general context that journalists are interested in). So what can you do to combat this type of impostor syndrome?

Make a list of areas adjacent to your topic that you’re comfortable commenting on.
Your specific research area might be post-Cold War China-Vietnam relations, but you’d probably also be in a position to comment on the history of the South China Sea dispute  between those countries. Having this list of what you will and won’t cover will be helpful when a journalist calls you with a tight deadline. Often, journalists will look at university experts’ guides and simply call anyone who seems to have a passing interest in the topic, so you may sometimes get asked about things that aren’t really your area. If you’ve thought about it beforehand then you can easily say either yes or no.

Don’t sell yourself short. It’s easy to get a skewed perspective in academia about how much you know, because you’re often associating with other experts in your field and comparing yourself to them. Compared to the rest of the world, however, you know an awful lot about your area, even if you don’t think you’re at the top of your field. Most broad-audience media outlets won’t be asking you the kinds of questions that your peers at a conference might – they won’t need anything like that level of detail (and are unlikely to be hostile or challenging). You know more than you think you do.

Get some media training. Most universities offer interview training, where you can practice talking to ‘journalists’ in a safe setting (some even video their mock interviews to give you the feeling of being on TV). This will help give you an idea of the types of questions you’re likely to be asked. It will also teach you how to re-frame questions if you’re not comfortable with them and redirect the conversation back towards your area of expertise. Having some training under your belt will help boost your confidence when the real journalists come calling.

Stumble It!

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