Impostor Syndrome

Feb 24 JDN 2458539

You probably have experienced Impostor Syndrome, even if you didn’t know the word for it. (Studies estimate that over 70% of the general population, and virtually 100% of graduate students, have experienced it at least once.)

Impostor Syndrome feels like this:

All your life you’ve been building up accomplishments, and people kept praising you for them, but those things were easy, or you’ve just gotten lucky so far. Everyone seems to think you are highly competent, but you know better: Now that you are faced with something that’s actually hard, you can’t do it. You’re not sure you’ll ever be able to do it. You’re scared to try because you know you’ll fail. And now you fear that at any moment, your whole house of cards is going to come crashing down, and everyone will see what a fraud and a failure you truly are.

The magnitude of that feeling varies: For most people it can be a fleeting experience, quickly overcome. But for some it is chronic, overwhelming, and debilitating.

It may surprise you that I am in the latter category. A few years ago, I went to a seminar on Impostor Syndrome, and they played a “Bingo” game where you collect spaces by exhibiting symptoms: I won.

In a group of about two dozen students who were there specifically because they were worried about Impostor Syndrome, I exhibited the most symptoms. On the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, I score 90%. Anything above 60% is considered diagnostic, though there is no DSM disorder specifically for Impostor Syndrome.

Another major cause of Impostor Syndrome is being an underrepresented minority. Women, people of color, and queer people are at particularly high risk. While men are less likely to experience Impostor Syndrome, we tend to experience it more intensely when we do.

Aside from being a graduate student, which is basically coextensive with Impostor Syndrome, being a writer seems to be one of the strongest predictors of Impostor Syndrome. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic theorizes that it’s because we were too good in English class, or, more precisely, that English class was much too easy for us. We came to associate our feelings of competence and accomplishment with tasks simply coming so easily we barely even had to try.

But I think there’s a bigger reason, which is that writers face rejection letters. So many rejection letters. 90% of novels are rejected at the query stage; then a further 80% are rejected at the manuscript review stage; this means that a given query letter has about a 2% chance of acceptance. This means that even if you are doing everything right and will eventually get published, you can on average expected 50 rejection letters. I collected a little over 20 and ran out of steam, my will and self-confidence utterly crushed. But statistically I should have continued for at least 30 more. In fact, it’s worse than that; you should always expect to continue 50 more, up until you finally get accepted—this is a memoryless distribution. And if always having to expect to wait for 50 more rejection letters sounds utterly soul-crushing, that’s because it is.

And that’s something fiction writing has in common with academic research. Top journals in economics have acceptance rates between 3% and 8%. I’d say this means you need to submit between 13 and 34 times to get into a top journal, but that’s nonsense; there are only 5 top journals in economics. So it’s more accurate to say that with any given paper, no matter how many times you submit, you only have about a 30% chance of getting into a top journal. After that, your submissions will necessarily not be to top journals. There are enough good second-tier journals that you can probably get into one eventually—after submitting about a dozen times. And maybe a hiring or tenure committee will care about a second-tier publication. It might count for something. But it’s those top 5 journals that really matter. If for every paper you have in JEBO or JPubE, another candidate has a paper in AER or JPE, they’re going to hire the other candidate. Your paper could use better methodology on a more important question, and be better written—but if for whatever reason AER didn’t like it, that’s what will decide the direction of your career.

If I were trying to design a system that would inflict maximal Impostor Syndrome, I’m not sure I could do much better than this. I guess I’d probably have just one top journal instead of five, and I’d make the acceptance rate 1% instead of 3%. But this whole process of high-stakes checkpoints and low chances of getting on a tenure track that will by no means guarantee actually getting tenure? That’s already quite well-optimized. It’s really a brilliant design, if that’s the objective. You select a bunch of people who have experienced nothing but high achievement their whole lives. If they ever did have low achievement, for whatever reason (could be no fault of their own, you don’t care), you’d exclude them from the start. You give them a series of intensely difficult tasks—tasks literally no one else has ever done that may not even be possible—with minimal support and utterly irrelevant and useless “training”, and evaluate them constantly at extremely high stakes. And then at the end you give them an almost negligible chance of success, and force even those who do eventually succeed to go through multiple steps of failure and rejection beforehand. You really maximize the contrast between how long a streak of uninterrupted successes they must have had in order to be selected in the first place, and how many rejections they have to go through in order to make it to the next level.

(By the way, it’s not that there isn’t enough teaching and research for all these PhD graduates; that’s what universities want you to think. It’s that universities are refusing to open up tenure-track positions and instead relying upon adjuncts and lecturers. And the obvious reason for that is to save money.)

The real question is why we let them put us through this. I’m wondering that more and more every day.

I believe in science. I believe I could make a real contribution to human knowledge—at least, I think I still believe that. But I don’t know how much longer I can stand this gauntlet of constant evaluation and rejection.

I am going through a particularly severe episode of Impostor Syndrome at the moment. I am at an impasse in my third-year research paper, which is supposed to be done by the end of the summer. My dissertation committee wants me to revise my second-year paper to submit to journals, and I just… can’t do it. I have asked for help from multiple sources, and received conflicting opinions. At this point I can’t even bring myself to work on it.

I’ve been aiming for a career as an academic research scientist for as long as I can remember, and everyone tells me that this is what I should do and where I belong—but I don’t really feel like I belong anymore. I don’t know if I have a thick enough skin to get through all these layers of evaluation and rejection. Everyone tells me I’m good at this, but I don’t feel like I am. It doesn’t come easily the way I had come to expect things to come easily. And after I’ve done the research, written the paper—the stuff that I was told was the real work—there are all these extra steps that are actually so much harder, so much more painful—submitting to journals and being rejected over, and over, and over again, practically watching the graph of my career prospects plummet before my eyes.

I think that what really triggered my Impostor Syndrome was finally encountering things I’m not actually good at. It sounds arrogant when I say it, but the truth is, I had never had anything in my entire academic experience that felt genuinely difficult. There were things that were tedious, or time-consuming; there were other barriers I had to deal with, like migraines, depression, and the influenza pandemic. But there was never any actual educational content I had difficulty absorbing and understanding. Maybe if I had, I would be more prepared for this. But of course, if that were the case, they’d never let me into grad school at all. Just to be here, I had to have an uninterrupted streak of easy success after easy success—so now that it’s finally hard, I feel completely blindsided. I’m finally genuinely challenged by something academic, and I can’t handle it. There’s math I don’t know how to do; I’ve never felt this way before.

I know that part of the problem is internal: This is my own mental illness talking. But that isn’t much comfort. Knowing that the problem is me doesn’t exactly reduce the feeling of being a fraud and a failure. And even a problem that is 100% inside my own brain isn’t necessarily a problem I can fix. (I’ve had migraines in my brain for the last 18 years; I still haven’t fixed them.)

There is so much that the academic community could do so easily to make this problem better. Stop using the top 5 journals as a metric, and just look at overall publication rates. Referee publications double-blind, so that grad students know their papers will actually be read and taken seriously, rather than thrown out as soon as the referee sees they don’t already have tenure. Or stop obsessing over publications all together, and look at the detailed content of people’s work instead of maximizing the incentive to keep putting out papers that nobody will ever actually read. Open up more tenure-track faculty positions, and stop hiring lecturers and adjuncts. If you have to save money, do it by cutting salaries for administrators and athletic coaches. And stop evaluating constantly. Get rid of qualifying exams. Get rid of advancement exams. Start from the very beginning of grad school by assigning a mentor to each student and getting directly into working on a dissertation. Don’t make the applied econometrics researchers take exams in macro theory. Don’t make the empirical macroeconomists study game theory. Focus and customize coursework specifically on what grad students will actually need for the research they want to do, and don’t use grades at all. Remove the evaluative element completely. We should feel as though we are allowed to not know things. We should feel as though we are allowed to get things wrong. You are supposed to be teaching us, and you don’t seem to know how to do that; you just evaluate us constantly and expect us to learn on our own.

But none of those changes are going to happen. Certainly not in time for me, and probably not ever, because people like me who want the system to change are precisely the people the current system seems designed to weed out. It’s the ones who make it through the gauntlet, and convince themselves that it was their own brilliance and hard work that carried them through (not luck, not being a White straight upper-middle-class cis male, not even perseverance and resilience in the face of rejection), who end up making the policies for the next generation.

Because those who should be fixing the problem refuse to do so, that leaves the rest of us. What can we do to relieve Impostor Syndrome in ourselves or those around us?

You’d be right to take any advice I give now with a grain of salt; it’s obviously not working that well on me. But maybe it can help someone else. (And again I realize that “Don’t listen to me, I have no idea what I’m talking about” is exactly what someone with Impostor Syndrome would say.)

One of the standard techniques for dealing with Impostor Syndrome is called self-compassion. The idea is to be as forgiving to yourself as you would be to someone you love. I’ve never been good at this. I always hold myself to a much higher standard than I would hold anyone else—higher even than I would allow anyone to impose on someone else. After being told my whole life how brilliant and special I am, I internalized it in perhaps the most toxic way possible: I set my bar higher. Things that other people would count as great success I count as catastrophic failure. “Good enough” is never good enough.

Another good suggestion is to change your comparison set: Don’t compare yourself just to faculty or other grad students, compare yourself to the population as a whole. Others will tell you to stop comparing altogether, but I don’t know if that’s even possible in a capitalist labor market.

I’ve also had people encourage me to focus on my core motivations, remind myself what really matters and why I want to be a scientist in the first place. But it can be hard to keep my eye on that prize. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do the things I originally set out to do, or if it’s trying to fit other people’s molds and being rejected repeatedly over and over again for the rest of my life.

I think the best advice I’ve ever received on dealing with Impostor Syndrome was actually this: “Realize that nobody knows what they’re doing.” The people who are the very best at things… really aren’t all that good at them. If you look around carefully, the evidence of incompetence is everywhere. Look at all the books that get published that weren’t worth writing, all the songs that get recorded that weren’t worth singing. Think about the easily-broken electronic gadgets, the glitchy operating systems, the zero-day exploits, the data breaches, the traffic lights that are timed so badly they make the traffic jams worse. Remember that the leading cause of airplane crashes is pilot error, that medical mistakes are the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Think about every vending machine that ate your dollar, every time your cable went out in a storm. All those people around you who look like they are competent and successful? They aren’t. They are just as confused and ignorant and clumsy as you are. Most of them also feel like frauds, at least some of the time.

If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?