My Life as an Imposter

In today’s blog Ann tells us that while in college her struggle to understand poetry made her wonder how on earth she could consider herself an English major. Her confession to having feelings of inadequacy and self doubt brought back memories of the times in my life when I experienced those very same anxieties.

Take for example my very first assignment as a spanking new assistant professor at LSU. I was asked to serve on an oral qualifying exam committee for an incoming PhD candidate. The scene is still vivid in my mind. I was sitting with four tenured professors at a conference table, waiting for the student to step into the room and take a seat across from us. I was terrified.

Why was I terrified? Just two short weeks earlier at Colorado State University I was sitting at a similar table with five professors seated across from me for the oral defense of my dissertation.  It was the final hurtle of my five years of grinding away to earn my sociology PhD.  

I couldn’t resist including this cartoon which reflects how I felt in my orals

To compound my angst, I had already accepted an offer for an assistant professor position in the LSU Sociology Department – contingent upon my successful dissertation defense. Furthermore, a moving van was already loaded with our household goods and our car was packed and ready to go. Not much pressure! But somehow I did pass and, with a collective sigh of relief, Ann and I gathered our two kids (and dog) and headed for Baton Rouge.

Stubbs Hall LSU
Stubbs Hall, LSU – where I felt like an imposter in a qualifying oral exam.

So, you can imagine how it must have felt to be sitting on the other side of the table in that LSU conference room just a couple of weeks later.  When the new student sat down to face us for his orals I couldn’t help but see myself in that chair. 

What in the hell was I thinking when I decided to pursue an academic career?  Who was I kidding? My mind raced to come up with the kinds of questions that would validate my claim to be a university professor.  Frankly, I was less concerned with finding out what the student knew than in convincing the faculty members at the table that I belonged there; that I was not a fraud.

I later learned that there’s an official name for such feelings of inadequacy – the Imposter Syndrome.   An article in Psychology Today defines it as

a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.

I discovered a rather broad body of literature out there that discusses the dynamics of such feelings and how to overcome them. If you are curious, you can even use a tool called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale to see just how much you suffer from the syndrome. Click here to find your score (no way am I telling you how I scored!).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that my experience at that conference table was not the first nor the last time I found myself feeling like an imposter.  Here is just a partial list of my imposter roles:

  • high school waterpolo coach – having never even seen a water polo match before accepting the job
  • lieutenant and commanding officer of a detachment in Viet Nam – why are they saluting me?
  • new father bringing our first child home from the maternity ward – no owners manual included.
  • docent at Bouverie Preserve leading 3rd and 4th graders on nature hikes – never could tell the difference between turkey and raccoon scat.
  • rising blogosphere star producing Andy’s Corner – no further elaboration needed.

My Imposter Photo Gallery

While I have never quite been able to shake these fleeting moments of anxiety, at least it helps to know that I’m not alone in the world of self doubt. And, despite my intermittent imposter episodes, I take some comfort in the fact that the syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

 At least, not yet!

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