I've written briefly about my experiences with Impostor syndrome on this blog once before. Impostor syndrome, for those of you who may not have heard about it, is -- roughly speaking -- an inability to internalize evidence that one is competent (or even good) at something one does. In philosophy, then, Impostor syndrom can take several forms. One can fail to believe that one is a competent or good philosopher even though one has plenty of evidence to the contrary. Alternatively, one may believe one is an incompetent teacher of philosophy when, once again, one has evidence to the contrary. Alternatively still, one may believe one is a good philosopher and teacher, but believe that one is an incompetent colleague for some reason or other, one's evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. And so on. There are in principle, I suppose, hardly any limits at all on the ways in which one can be convinced of one's own incompetence, regardless of what the "objective evidence" may be! :)
Anyway, although I've written briefly on the subject before, I'd like to thank Rob Gressis for requesting further discussion of the issue on the Cocoon. Before I open the issue up for discussion, I'd like to share a few thoughts that I immediately had when Rob raised it.
I am going to begin by suggesting something that might at first seem needlessly provocative, but which, once clarified, I think is pretty clearly true and worth discussing: namely, that some of us, especially early on in our careers, really are impostors. Impostor syndrome, if you recall, is the inability to internalize evidence that one is competent or good at what one does. I want to suggest that, given the way the humanities job markets work (and the philosophy job market in particular), many of us are not competent or good at what we do, at least in the relevant context, early on in our careers. Let me explain why. In the hard sciences, such as physics, there is a standard progression for those pursuing academic jobs: (1) one finishes one's PhD, (2) one spends a few years "learning the ropes" in a post-doc or two, and finally, if one is lucky enough, (3) one gets a tenure-track job as an Assistant Professor. This, of course, isn't how things work in philosophy. Given the financial realities in academic philosophy, there just aren't many post-docs. Most job candidates are hired directly out of grad school into either a VAP position, a tenure-track Assistant Professor job, or into high-teaching-load adjunct positions. And here, I think, is a simple truth about all this: grad school just doesn't prepare people very well for any of these positions. Yes, completing a PhD is hard (trust me, I know!) -- but still, every person I have met who has left grad school remarks on just how much of a "fish out of water" they feel once in their first job. For those of you who are still in grad school, I mean this seriously. Once you're in your first job, you have to (1) teach anywhere between 2-5 courses per semester full-time, (2) expect yourself to publish at least a couple of good articles per year, and (3) deal with a ton of other stuff you never expected (committee work, departmental and university service) -- and do it all at a very high level (if you want to score a TT job), all at the same time. The simple truth is this: unless you are an absolute genius (and probably not even then), grad school does not prepare you for this. My first couple of years out of grad school, I felt like an incompetent teacher, incompetent researcher, and an incompetent colleague...and I probably was. And I don't think I am alone, or to blame for it. Academic philosophy throws people right out of grad school into jobs they are not well-prepared for, and people have to "figure it all out" on the fly. It's just the reality. As difficul as grad school is, nothing you do in grad school prepares you very well for the conjunction of tasks -- teaching multiple courses full-time, publishing multiple articles per year, advising students, working on committees -- you have to perform at a high-level to succeed in a full-time academic job. It takes a ton of hard work once you're out of grad school to figure out how to actually become a competent, let alone good, professional. It would be nice if there were more post-docs, but there aren't -- and so most of us are forced to be incompetent for a while before learn not to be.
Anyway, that's my first suggestion. I'll be curious to see if others who have gone through the experience share my point-of-view (again, almost all of those who I've actually spoken to about the transition from grad school to professorial roles voice similar points -- but admittedly, I've only spoken to people on an anedotal basis).
My second thought is this: although feeling too much like an impostor may be debilitating, a decent measure of feeling like an impostor can be a good thing. Because this post has been a bit long-winded so far, allow me to explain this one very briefly through my own example. As I mentioned above, my first couple of years out of grad school, I felt like an impostor. Feeling this way gave me motivation -- and that's putting it mildly. I felt like the only way to not be an impostor was to work myself into the ground, putting more effort into my lectures, research, and job as a whole than I ever expected myself to. For a while, it felt punishing. Then I just got used to it, coming to the realization (or at least the seeming realization) that if I want to be a good teacher, researcher, and colleague, it takes that much work. Although, again, I don't know if this is everyone's experience, my anecdotal impressions -- from talking to people -- is that it clearly is. The fact is: it takes a whole lot more work to be a good professional philosopher, however you understand this (whether your focus is teaching, or research, or university service), than you might expect. Anyway, if I hadn't felt like such an impostor, I don't think I would have put that level of work in, and for this reason, I think a certain amount of feeling like an impostor can be a good thing.
Finally, my experience is that Impostor syndrome can be overcome. Truth be told, I still feel like an impostor from time to time. Every once in a while I'll have a bad day teaching, for instance, and maybe I'll feel that evening like a bad teacher. Or maybe I'll open up a paper I'm working on and feel embarrassed about the quality of the argument or prose. Here again, I don't think I am alone. I've spoken to a number of very accomplished colleagues, ranging from decorated teachers to famous researchers, who report feeling these ways sometimes. The simple fact is, being a good professional philosopher -- a good teacher, good researcher, a good colleague -- is hard. You will inevitably fail sometimes, both in terms of meeting your own standards (however you define them), as well as in terms of meeting others' standards (the ones that determine your professional prospects). But here's the thing (again, in my experience): if you really put your nose to the grindstone and work your tail off at whatever it is you want to become good at -- whether it is teaching, research, whatever -- chances are you have the talent to actually become good at it. You made it this far, after all. If you made it through your PhD, you're a pretty damn smart person. The real question is: are you prepared to do what it takes to become a non-impostor? It will take a ton of work to become competent and good at whatever it is you value as a professional (whether it be teaching, research, etc.), but chances are, you can do it, and if you do, you will begin to feel a lot less like an impostor.
This brings me to my final suggestion, which is that, to some extent, whether you feel like an impostor depends on how you define success. I've written about this before, so I won't belabor the point too much -- but okay, let me belabor it a bit. :) In my experience, most of us are indoctrinated with a certain Message in grad school. The Message is that if you're not consistently publishing in "top-ranked journals", you are a failure. This is probably oversimplifying a bit, but whatever. Anyway, if you define success in this narrow way, chances are you will feel like an impostor. "Top-ranked journals" are tough to publish in, and while some of course do it on a regular basis, it's pretty tough to pull off. And of course it's probably even tougher to pull off consistently if, like some of us, you don't buy into some of the dominant disciplinary standards for how philosophy is supposed to be done (this is something that I have written on numerous times). Anyway, while one must of course be sensitive to disciplinary standards if one wants to obtain permanent full-time academic employment -- you must show potential employers that you can do what they are looking for in a researcher, teacher, or whatever -- the reality is that there is a vast plurality of employers looking for different things. It's really only R1 schools that are looking for someone who publishes in Mind, Nous, and PPR. Many R2 and R3 schools, SLACs, and community colleges could really care less about these things. Which leaves one, I think, with substantial room to set one's own standards of success. I, for instance, haven't published in Mind or whatever, but I'm happy with my research (I, at least, think I'm doing some pretty interesting stuff); I'm happy with the progress I've made as a teacher, and I feel like I'm a good colleague. And so I don't feel like an impostor anymore (at least not the vast majority of the time). Time will tell, of course, how well this works out for me. ;) But whatever the case may be, I still think the general point stands: whether, and the extent to which, one feels like an impostor is in large part a function of the disciplinary standards of "success" one accepts. So, if you don't want to feel like an impostor anymore, there are a couple of things you can do: (A) work your tail off to meet whatever external standards you have internalized, or else (B) set your own standards, while doing what is necessary to meet enough external standards to get, and keep, a full-time academic job. I'll leave it to you to decide which approach is better. ;)
So, yeah, these are my (rather long-winded) thoughts about Impostor syndrome. What are yours?