by Sara Hinkle
While I’m sure I had this sensation at earlier points in my life, I felt it most acutely when I began my doctoral program 14 years ago. That is, the feeling that I was an imposter, a fake, that I didn’t belong. I was in a top-notch Ph.D. program surrounded by sharp classmates, all of whom seemed very focused and confident about their research interests and career direction and very assured of their place within the program. I, on the other hand, was just feeling lucky to be there. In contrast to my perceived experience of my peers, I felt rather unsure about what I might research, what career direction I might take on the other side of Ph.D., and whether I belonged there at all.
Now somehow I persevered. I wrote some well received papers, passed my qualifying exams, co-authored some articles with my faculty advisor, won some research grants, and landed a spot as a research associate on a major national research project. Despite this, my doctoral experience was peppered with fear and doubt. With every success came that feeling of, “I’ve fooled them again.” Even after I’ve managed to turn my ABD into a Ph.D. and land a series of progressively higher leadership roles within student affairs, the imposter syndrome still haunts me. Sometimes I sit at meetings and think, What the heck am I doing here? Do people really expect me to know what I’m talking about?
Some amount of relief came my way years ago when I happened upon the book The imposter phenomenon: When success makes you feel like a fake by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance (1985), one of the earlier of many writings that have come out on this topic over the decades. Ah ha! What I was experiencing had a name and I was not alone in these feelings, which often impact women disproportionately than men. Indeed, women are more likely to underestimate ourselves, downplay our accomplishments, and attribute our success to external factors (e.g., I was lucky, in the right place at the right time, worked really hard, had great mentors) than men.
Now when I’m approached by graduate students or younger professionals seeking my advice or words of wisdom, I find myself of falling into the trap of downplaying my accomplishments. A standard response might include the following phrases, “My career has been a series of serendipitous moments…I didn’t really know what I was doing…You are so much more together than I ever was at your age…If I can do it, you certainly can do it.” While genuine modesty and humility are admirable traits, and a certain amount of self-deprecation can be endearing, I’ve realized that I do a disservice to myself, the person I am advising or mentoring, and all of the professors, supervisors, and others who have provided me with opportunities along the way by diminishing my successes. I am basically saying that all the people who have passed me in classes and hired for jobs are idiots whom I’ve managed to fool into believing I’m competent. Clearly, this is nonsense. Further, I’m not giving those seeking my advice for career advancement anything of real value to take away from our conversation. I’m simply perpetuating the “unworthy female” trope.
I recently gave a panel presentation on women in leadership along with some other female leaders within higher education. The presentation was well-received and at the conclusion we were bombarded with women thanking us for our messages and claiming that they “aspire to be us” one day. Upon hearing this I wanted to laugh, crinkle my face, and say “Huh?” However, I’m vowing to stifle this urge moving forward. Instead, I will say thank you and try to provide the person seeking my guidance with a thoughtful response as to what I’ve done right in my career, and what missteps I’ve taken along the way. That is, I will try to offer concrete advice beyond, “Oh gosh, I was just lucky.”
In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the importance of women “sitting at the table,” both literally and figuratively. While I have sat at the table over the year, I’ve often felt I didn’t BELONG at the table. So I would take this concept a step further and say, we not only need to sit at the table, we need to sit there with CONFIDENCE. We are not there because of luck or because of someone’s misjudgment of our abilities. We are not imposters. We are there because we have EARNED our seat and we need to own that.