by Belle Tuten
Dr. Belle Tuten is W. Newton and Hazel A. Long Professor of History.
My dissertation advisor looks nervous and apologetic. We are in his office, which is rather dark, and he offers me a cup of steaming tea in a paper cup. I’m doing my best not to cry or faint.
He had sent me an email advising me that my third dissertation reader had refused to approve my dissertation. He had found a number of mistakes in my Latin translations which, he said, made him wonder whether the overall argument of the work was credible.
I am nauseated with embarrassment and horror. I keep thinking over and over, “They’ve found me out. They’ve found out I was pretending all along. I should never have come to graduate school. I’ll end up flipping burgers…”
Since my first day of graduate school, I had known I was a secret incompetent among all these smart people. They were all better prepared, smarter, more skilled and more accomplished than I was. I should never have tried it; I had written my whole dissertation and now it was a failure. I was a failure.
I didn’t know that my feelings were not unique. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified “Impostor syndrome” in the late seventies while trying to describe a feeling of “phoniness” in high-achieving individuals. (Read the original study here.) Clance and Imes were interested primarily in women who dreaded being unmasked as frauds in their professional lives. Since then, it’s become clear that the feeling is widespread – maybe even normal.
It never occurred to me that anyone else could feel like an impostor. Years later (after I successfully fixed my mistakes and graduated) I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Impostor Syndrome” and instantly recognized myself. What amazed me was that I found it on a close male colleague’s Facebook page. He had posted it because he identified with it himself! As more and more friends and colleagues began to reply to it with their own admissions of self-doubt, I was flabbergasted and, secretly, really happy.
Every year I see the same thing in younger women: particularly in high-achieving women, many of whom somehow think that no matter how well they do, there is some perfect score that they won’t attain. Some of them obsess over the seven points they missed instead of the 93 points they earned. Some of them deliberately sabotage themselves, because hey, if they don’t try, then of course they fail – putting forth effort would mean really failing. Most of them suppose that the feelings of inadequacy they have are theirs alone. Most of them think they are less talented, less prepared, less worthy than their peers. Most of them are sure that there is some perfect student somewhere out there (or sitting next to them in the classroom) who is effortlessly better than they are.
They are wrong.
Statistics: 60 percent of Americans will never go to college; only 40 percent will get any degree above high school. More of these college-bound people every year are female – in 2015, women with bachelor’s degrees edged out men with bachelor’s degrees for the first time (30.2 percent versus 29.8 percent according to Time). By going to college, my students are edging out the majority of their peers in the United States.
So here are three rules to live by when you feel like your life has been faked.
Rule 1. Your career is not some giant yardstick against which you must measure yourself (and against which you will fall short) or be measured by your peers.
Rule 2. Your career is a pyramid of the knowledge and skills you build as you grow and the mistakes you learn from. If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t taking risks.
Rule 3. Every career pyramid is different. If your pyramid turns out not to be a pyramid, but ends up looking something like a game of Tetris, that’s OK. The important thing is that it is meaningful to you.
Your mistakes and your accomplishments are all yours.