6 months into my first academic post after completing my PhD, I find myself signing up for a workshop on ‘Challenging Impostor Feelings and Building your Resilience’. I did it on a particularly bad day fuelled by a lack of sleep with a teething baby and the revisiting of a rejected journal paper with a particularly wince-inducing set of comments. I thought the workshop would tell me the magic answer to why I often felt out of place and out of sync with where I was and who I should be as a newer researcher in higher education.

Inspired and relieved by this virtual offer of a future helping hand, I then read Ana Kedves’ blog about academic impostor syndrome and the ways academic life is experienced as playing a role, for which some, (particularly marginalised bodies) feel more at ease at this dramatic art than others. Yes. YES! I thought. I agree. That’s me. It’s not JUST me.

A good night’s sleep and a glass of wine later, I had to ask myself why it is that a grown woman who has completed 3 degrees, run marathons, climbed mountains, and birthed a baby felt she didn’t belong in a job she had A) been recruited for and B) gets paid well to do. These feelings of anxiety about doing a good enough job are not unique to academia. But there is something about the way academic life and its expectations are so loosely set out and how closely the ‘work’ becomes about ‘me’ that produce a particular anxious, unclear, overworked academic subject. Ros Gill writes beautifully about how feelings of stress, overload, fraudulence and shame regularly circulate in corridors and staff rooms but are secret and silenced in the public spaces of the academy. Oh it’s awful isn’t it. I’m so STRESSED. That’s neo-liberalism darling, I hear circulating always (and most often among my strong, capable female colleagues who are doing a fantastic job)! This then creates particular private and internalised models and vocabularies of doing academic life where we must be overworked and we must be unsure enough of ourselves to the extent that we keep working to ‘prove’ our worth. More than that though, it almost seems as if not been stressed or unsure (and being quite happy actually) becomes a sign that you aren’t performing your academic self well enough. The problem then lies where the ‘anxious impostor’ starts to become an identity I must perform as a new, female academic on an insecure contract. Thus the discourse of being in ‘crisis’ seems to reproduce and accentuate the pressures we face such that doing crisis and doing academia become symptomatic of each other. It’s unhelpful.  It’s individualising. And frankly I’m a bit tired of it.

While I am not denying the realities of workload, nor the affects of ‘impostor syndrome’ and recognise my own privilege in being able to speak back to it, I refuse to recognise myself only using the unhelpful, individualising notions of the insecure impostor who needs to be fixed. So I cancelled my place. Fuck it. I am going to spend these two hours I would have spent probably being told to ‘keep my chin up’ to consider forms of doing ‘academic’ differently. Indeed, the theme of ‘becoming academic’ proposed in this conference and blog enables us to re-think and expand possibility such that academic life becomes less about ‘how long can I go on?’ and more about ‘in what ways do we continue to go on more ethically, productively and collectively.’ For example, uncertainty is a powerful methodological tool rather than only an academic personality flaw – allowing us to pay close attention to our data. And writing collectively is not a lack of individual rising academic star-ness but a recognition that ideas are almost always better when emerging together and in conversation. So let’s unlearn the role of impostor as a form of resistance!

– Early Career Researcher.

Image sourced from: https://medium.com/when-women-write/am-i-good-enough-for-you-41998d085f7

2 thoughts on “(Un)Becoming Academic

  1. I enjoyed your thinking here. I wonder though, is this only an aspect of being an academic? Are these feelings and emotional responses also present no matter what job we might be doing? Whether as a mother, a teacher, an advisor – all have elements of ‘impostor syndrome’. And is this more of an affliction for women, along with taking personal responsibility for anything not quite up to ‘standard’, a predilection for never being quite good enough… Or are these pre-conditions for being an academic in the first place?
    But … ‘in what ways do we continue to go on more ethically, productively and collectively’ is a damned good starting point. And I think that collaboration, mutual support and acknowledgement, championing of effort and achievement, whether recognised by the system or not… encouragement, sharing stories of ‘un’success and what we learn through these experiences. So yes, “let’s unlearn the role of impostor as a form of resistance!”


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