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Nicolas Delon

The flip side of this strategy is that these people are outliers and whatever evidentiary value their case has is limited by survivorship bias. Once you become aware of that these cases stop working as a therapeutic against impostor syndrome. The syndrome is really bad in that it always finds ways to explain away the reassurances.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Nicolas: that's a good point. I definitely don't mean to imply that my strategy of collecting stories like these will help everyone struggling with impostor syndrome. It definitely helped me a ton, though, and I've heard a few other people say it helps them as well, which is why I share them. But point taken!

Joe Shieber

David K. Lewis did his Ph.D. at Harvard, under Quine, not at Princeton.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for the correction, Joe!

Guy Crain


Thinking about both yours and Nicolas' point: maybe it would be helpful to find out something like--For well published philosophers, what would they estimate is their, say, journal rejection rate (as in what percentage of papers they submit get rejected at least once)? Did that rate start out high and drop over time? Has it basically stayed the same? Do they consider their own rejection rate abnormally high or low?

Newbs like me can develop the (what I hope anyway) mistaken impression that the folks with good pub records just don't really deal with much if any rejection.


My experience with my metaphysics comprehensive exam was the opposite of Lewis'. My exam involved creating a reading list on 4 different topics, writing three essays on three of those topics, and then an oral exam on my essays and anything in my reading list for all topics, all within a set time frame. I was so stressed out in studying for this exam that I experienced sustained migraine headaches for much of the 12 weeks. Writing the essays was no problem. What really stressed me out was the fact that, during the oral exam, my committee could ask me ANYTHING on any of the readings. This terrified me because no matter how much I read the readings and tried to memorize them, I didn't feel confident that I could answer any old random question about them just from my memory alone. And I also made the mistake of picking some readings that were too difficult (too much logic, which isn't my area), which I didn't have to do.

Then came the oral exam. It was the easiest oral exam I've ever had. My supervisor maybe asked me two questions. One of my external people asked easy questions, like 'interesting paper, what do you think about x?". My other member just asked a few questions about my essays. Nobody asked questions about any of the readings. Nobody really pressed me on anything. And when they did, it was in a friendly manner. And the exam was maybe an hour long. I think something went wrong here, because a fellow grad student's oral exam in logic was 3-4 hours long, and he ended up failing the exam.

So, in my case, I think my experience adds to my imposter syndrome! Feels like my exam wasn't rigorous enough.

Instructor Gadget

A follow up to Nicholas Delon's point.

If most people who go on to be famous or competent philosophers don't fail their exams, then the point is taken. And its just survivorship bias.

But if there is not much of a correlation between people who fail/pass exams like this and people who become famous or competent, then the examples are still helpful.

It moves things from "this exam is the measure of how good I'll be at philosophy" to "this exam is part of the hazing process and there is no correlation between how well I do on it and where I'll end up".


The Lewis story may be a misleading account of failure and its relation to imposter syndrome. If I remember correctly, Lewis failed the exams because some of the questions were of such interest to him that he ran out of time while thinking about them.

Failing an exam because you had too much to say seems quite different from failing an exam because you had too little, and it seems the former doesn't really speak much to imposter syndrome.

It seems clear that Lewis himself didn't suffer from imposter syndrome. While there are certainly other philosophers out there from whom one can take encouragement, Lewis's story doesn't sound like an Abe Lincoln story at all.

Marcus Arvan

James: I guess, as someone who experienced impostor syndrome myself, I see these kinds of examples differently. The point, for me, isn’t whether David Lewis had impostor syndrome or even whether his case is analogous to someone who does. Rather, at least for me, the psychological value of these kinds of closer to what Inspector Gadget alludes to above. If even the *best* of us (i.e. those without impostor syndrome) can struggle or fail, then that can in my experience give one “some perspective” on things: namely, that a lot of the things that may make us *feel* like impostors (the countless hoops we have to jump through as academics, including exams, journal rejections, harsh judgments of others around us) may bear precious little relation to our *actual* abilities—but rather, as Gadget puts it, amount to a kind of hazing designed to make us *feel* like imposters. That, to me, is a very valuable psychological perspective to be able to take on things, so as to help one realize, “Maybe I’m not an imposter after all. Maybe this academic stuff is largely just designed to make me *feel* that way.” Fwiw!

Marcus Arvan

These cases of the New York Times panning classic books are fun too: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/29/books/negative-book-reviews.html?fbclid=IwAR36ZnQkNIRmTCeo74Qf-HWBbSVNMms9zF4KlNKgrObCou1GqPiMXLkqavA

Nicolas Delon

Clarification: I agree with Marcus that reminding oneself of cases of successful academics who have failed multiple times can help some people with impostor syndrome. My point was that impostor syndrome, like many other disorders, can be very resilient to counter-evidence. And so my point about survivorship bias was simply that we shouldn't take the case of David Lewis to mean anything for average Joes like us, who really are impostors. After all, most people who fail their exams don't turn out to be the likes of David Lewis. The odds are that, if you fail your exams but end up in a secure position, you may well feel like an impostor — precisely because you're not David Lewis. I don't know if this makes much sense but that's how I tend to respond to those cases as someone who has suffered for a long time from impostor syndrome.

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