The imposter syndrome is an affliction suffered by many young academics, usually beginning in graduate school but then often carrying on into their first appointments as faculty. It is characterized by an intense sense of not belonging, as if the person hired for the position is someone other than one’s self and that there has been a mistake made, something over looked, or some unspoken understanding that everyone is just humoring you.
There are self help books designed to help people over come the imposter syndrome. Women are struck more strongly than men and it is generally consider a thing to just get over.
But what if the imposter syndrom isn’t a syndrome so much as just an affliction? That is to say, what if the reason we feel so out of place is that we really are out of place.
In my years as an academic I have become increasingly disenchanted, and increasingly estranged from my colleagues. When I started my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, I had this idea that I was embarking on a journey of discovery, that I would be spending hours staying up late at night sipping hot beverages and discussing the beauty of tangent hyperplanes, or the superiority of equilibrium implementation mechanisms. I was not so naive as to think my work would somehow improve the world; I was much too much of an economist for that sort of altriusm. I simply wanted to enjoy thinking and brainstorming with other like minded individuals who found as much joy as I did swimming in the myriad theorems that are the building blocks of our field.
What I discovered instead was a group of sad individuals hoping beyond hope that they would not be culled, and a group of cold individuals caring very little for how their words and their decisions affected our lives (those would be the professors). I found a world of competition, of proving yourself “good enough” or “smarter than,” a lonely world where everyone knew that we could not ever be true friends because your success would mean my failure.
Perhaps this world was a idiosyncracy of the Penn economics department. Perhaps this world was a true microcosm of the greater world of economics. In the years since, very little of my experience has come to contradict the latter.
That I still feel like an imposter, an intense sense of not belonging, I think might be because the world that I intended to enter is very different from the one that let me in. So, in a sense, there really was a mistake, except the mistake was on my end, not theirs. That is to say, I was mistaken in thinking that the world of academia was one where people loved to learn, where people derived pleasure from what they did, and where pushing the boundaries of the known and challenging the establishment of the common sense was the daily course of business. So the person they let in was someone who didn’t want to push boundaries, but just wanted to prove that she was smart enough, or at least smarter than someone else. That is, perhaps, the reason why my syndrome has never resolved itself despite my continuing success in academia*
It would be nice if I didn’t feel this way. I often think it would be nice to be rid of this ever present sense of wrongness about my way of living, but I am forced to the conclusion that the sense of wrongness may not be the problem, but rather a warning sign. This is not where I belong, this way of life is not right. To muriyari force myself to accept what my very being screams out is wrong would be to waste my life on foolishness, or in other words, to drink the proverbial kool aid.**
*success in academia is really measured by your ability to remain in academia more than anything else. I’m still here, so I’m still successful. It’s kind of like marriage — til death do us part?
**muriyari means to brute force something that just shouldn’t be. And I don’t know why the kool aid is proverbial.