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Impostor Syndrome


splitends

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[i posted this in another forum on this site, but I would also be interested to know if anyone in the smaller world of Sociology has anything to say on the subject...]

I've always been relatively confident in my choice to go to graduate school and in my ability to do well in my field. After getting into several top schools, I was feeling even more so. But since I've started visiting schools, I've started developing some serious impostor syndrome. I don't know if it's from having to repeat my somewhat shaky research interests over and over again, or from meeting so many super accomplished prospective students with really interesting and/or well thought out plans for grad school, but I am definitely starting to feel like maybe I am not ready for this.

Has anyone else dealt with these feelings? Do they go away at any point? Any tips for managing them?

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Everyone gets these feelings regardless of what school they go to. They usually go away once you start realizing that everyone else feels the same way (even those that have amazing backgrounds). Once you start, you begin to feel dumb all the time, but also realize that even the smartest professors feel dumb when going to ASA conferences. It's just part of the life.

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You are going to do great work @splitends. You are intellectually curious, excited, and interesting. All those people who sound so sure...many of them are just talking up their asses to sound smart. They think they have their dissertation planned out, but they will change their minds. I hope they will be open to new things, like you.

Compare yourself ONLY to yourself. You learn a bit every day, about who you are, about the profession, about sociology. And you will get there. WE will get there. YES WE CAN!!!!

Soapboxing aside, these are the things I tell myself when I feel like an imposter. Being younger, and from a less traditional background ( you know what I mean) it's hard to not feel out of place. We will just have to make our own place. Our own niche. That's the whole point. One day, we will be creative, exciting sociologists looking back on these days with a gentle smile.

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I think everyone at these visits and entering doctoral programs has a fear that they are just faking it really well... I had a good heart to heart about this with one of my letter writers and she made me realize that the field of knowledge is so incredibly vast that you will never know everything, you will never read or understand everything you want, and that someone else (or rather, many other people, are genuinely smarter and more well-read than myself) -- and the peace in just understanding and accepting this is key to getting through academia.

What really hit home to me is that academia is not about being the smartest or best read, but understanding just enough of it so that you can be a genuine contributor in whatever unique way to the vast amount of scholarship being created. I will second @socscholar and say that I am genuinely amazed by everyone on my visits that I've met and its inspiring to know that these people will be my peers and collaborators for decades to come.

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Who at this point has their dissertation planned out?? Professors at several of my campus visits told me that students who come in with a set idea of what they want to study are set up for failure. So much of our future is haphazard and at the will of the job market. I'm just going to accept the idea that imposter syndrome will eventually fizzle down to a comfortable acceptance of my flaws.

At this point, given what you've learned about yourself on these visitation days, it might be healthy focusing on issues you want to investigate in grad school - plan out a few ideas for publication or for an NSF application. At one of my campus visits the graduate students mentioned how they have to plan out papers for each class before they have time to even touch or digest the material. Perhaps this is a parable for the next 5 to 7 to Nth years.

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I think you'll be fine...if you already got into those programs you're definitely doing something right, and we do have five (probably closer to seven or eight) years to get better at it. To me, in most educational contexts (not just grad school) time is a huge variable in development, and if you're in a good program and have the desire/energy to do so, you'll have a lot of opportunities to develop both intellectually and professionally. I mean, it's probably a good thing that you have these kinds of doubts at this point...at least you're sincere in thinking about how to do a good job!

My own strategy for coping with this is to just do a lot of reading between now and the fall, so that when I get to my program I'll have some ideas and I'll know where my own interests stand in terms of the rest of the field. I think pursuing research is really just a matter of developing a certain cognitive framework, like Andy Abbott talks about in that book Methods of Discovery. But really I think you'll be fine...like everyone else mentioned, we're all pretty adaptable and malleable at this point anyway...

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It ebbs and flows but I don't think the feeling disappears for a while, if ever. Don't stress it. It's funny this has come up recently a lot in my department--personally, I feel it more now as a second year than I did as a first. One of my classmates who's a little further on than me was recently having a little kvetch and was like, "Oy, I don't think my dissertation topic is that good, I think it's a little boring, I don't know if I can switch but it probably wouldn't be worth it" and all this other stuff and I tried to confide in him, "Yeah man, I for sure know the feeling," and he was like "You? Don't be stupid. No... everyone loves you, you're doing great. Me, on the other hand..." I think the doubt's pretty universal, though it's not constant over time. For me, my doubts weren't so much after being accepted, meeting my peers, coming to school, doing our required course work, but this year as I move into a more serious project (changing from my original proposed project), I get the "impostor" thing bad, though I guess at this point it'd be fairer to call it a "how will I ever measure up" thing. Pretty much at some point everyone will get it, unless they're an asshole. Don't stress about it.

This year and last year some other graduate students in my department flipped out a little because "the admitted students are so much better than we are." But then we went through our credentials cohort by cohort, and it turns out on paper we all seem impressive. It's just once you're in the program you're not a GPA, an alma mater, a paragraph of life experiences, a bag of tricks, and a well articulated project--you're Jimmy or Johnny or Sally or Sue. People are just folks pretty much starting day 2. It's weird we had to think back and be like, "Oh yeah that colleague of ours could have had a professional career in X" and "That friend of ours came into the program with this really impressive graduate degree" or "That person speaks this many languages" and we especially forget about the parts of our own resumes that sound impressive to other people because, to ourselves, they're just normal. Like this thing:

As far as I understand it, this is a normal feeling. I've met people that went to Ivy's and top 10 liberal art's colleges that feel this way too.

Well of course we do! Because I mean my undergraduate degree is just my undergraduate degree; it's not a big deal because as far as I'm considered thousands of other people have it; if that's what makes me qualified, most of the people I hung out with over the course of four years are as qualified. That degree's not that special to me. Or the years I've spent living abroad--that doesn't seem impressive to me because as far as I was concerned, I was mostly just chilling, you know? A disturbing percentage of my peers and friends there pathologically drank to much. But on paper to other people it (apparently) seems quite different. But that thing that you did, whatever it was, that skill that you have, wow, I couldn't do that so therefore that's special.

Two of my close, European trained friends in my program, I'm really impressed with their math/quant skills. Perhaps "envious of" is the better adjectival phrase. I think they're big deals, and they're like "This? No it's easy." On the other hand, they're impressed with my ability to recite facts off the top of my head, and my abilities as a writer, and a lot of the more humanistic skills I picked up as an undergraduate, and to me, that stuff's just basic, "Oh anyone can do that... but math! You taught yourself how to do cluster analysis last weekend!" and they're like "Pish, exactly, I did it over the weekend... it's no big deal. The fact that you already know so much about religion and you are really familiar with a wide variety of cases in your field... that took a lot of time to develop and compared to you, I don't have that and I wish I did." It's like one of my Turkish friends would be like, "I'm so impressed with your guys' Turkish--like I can't believe how well you can speak it," and we'd respond, "You're joking right, Bestoş? We speak busted, pigeon Turkish and you just said that sentence in immaculate English" and she'd just say, "Oh c'mon, every one can speak English...but learning Turkish! I'm really so impressed with you guys."

If you go around the table in the middle of your first semester in your program, and there's someone who doesn't in some way feel like an imposter, they're either a genius or an asshole. And judging by the fact that even the most promising and impressive students in my program (at least speaking of the people in the first and second year cohorts who I know best) have confided in me that they feel/felt like impostors sometimes, I can make an educated guess about which one of the two they are.

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On a more casual note, I'm developing an inferiority complex because I didn't even know what impostor syndrome meant before reading this thread.

This. Yeah I knew the feeling (oh boy did I know the feeling....), but nobody I knew I had used the term before. Welp.

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  • 2 weeks later...

A good friend of mine who's in her fifth year told me that for most of our lives we've been used to be the smartest kid in the class. But when we get into grad school, we're in a room filled with the smartest kids in the class!

By like @SocScholar said, compare yourself to yourself, because every person going into grad school has a unique background, unique experiences, and unique interests. So there's no telling where anyone will end up or how anyone's experience will turnout.

And BTW, you'll kill it fo sho!

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