practical phd

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Imposter syndrome can manifest as a feeling of panic and fear: “Was it a mistake I got into grad school?”  Or as a sense of doubt: “Do I really belong here?” Or a surge of anxiety: “When will someone figure out I don’t belong here?”  It might surface as you read alone in your office: “Am I smart enough to be doing this?” Or around the seminar table: “They all seem so much smarter than I am…”  Or in a conversation in the hallway: “That person just brushed off my idea…Something must be wrong with it.” It’s something that we all experience as applicants to graduate school, as graduate students, as job market candidates, as postdoctoral fellows, and even as tenure-track professors.  Achieving any level of success, such as getting into graduate school or advancing to candidacy or getting a job, doesn’t eliminate the feelings of inadequacy, fraudulence, uncertainty, and lack of belonging.  Some of this comes with the nature of academia. We’re surrounded every day by incredibly smart people and, as the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.  So of course you experience doubts about your research, your teaching, and your expertise.  The problem arises when imposter syndrome becomes debilitating.  It can completely halt work on a project, discourage you from reaching out to a potential collaborator or mentor, or lead you to skip a deadline for a fellowship, a special issue of a journal, or a conference.  Gill and I have both been there. She is on the job market, and I just started a tenure-track position. So we’ve combined forces to think through how to counter imposter syndrome and prevent good scholars—grad students, junior colleagues, even senior colleagues—from restricting their opportunities because of the voices in their heads.  

There are of course, some predictable times in which imposter syndrome might creep up in your life—moments when you are entering new phases of your career and moments when you are entering new and unfamiliar spaces, such as giving a talk at a new conference or experimenting with a new literature or methodology.  Gill, for example, recently experienced imposter syndrome when a senior scholar questioned her research question. “Given all of the potential opportunities and research questions you could ask, why would you focus on just race and gender?” While Gill responded in a way that made her proud and represented her work well, she spent the next two weeks with the question rattling around in her head, and she found herself looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact, especially with senior scholars, and over-apologizing and over-thanking senior scholars for simple things, such as forwarding a relevant news article to her or inviting her to a public talk.  Zawadi experienced severe imposter syndrome at the start of graduate school. As a student new to Sociology, she was unclear whether and where she fit in the discipline and felt lost in classes like Classic Theory where the instructor assumed students were already familiar with the readings. She felt inept and behind. 

Imposter syndrome flares up at different times and looks different as we move through our professional lives, but the feeling is similar regardless of when it occurs.  Gill and Zawadi both experienced imposter syndrome throughout the graduate school years and now after, even with the PhD in hand and the title of Dr., both still experience imposter syndrome.  While it may no longer be about citations or knowledge of the literature (although Gill did recently experience a moment of imposter syndrome around her knowledge of a specific literature after a question at a conference), Gill and Zawadi both have moments of feeling like outsiders and questioning their place in the academy as a postdoc and assistant professor.  

So, what can we do about it?  We brainstormed a reflective activity to help ourselves in those moments of feeling like a fraud.  It won’t eradicate imposter syndrome, but it can help reorient our thinking from a negative to a positive perspective.  Here’s the exercise: (1) Make a list of traits that answer the following questions: 

  • What does being a “good” scholar mean to me?  We focus on the ideal self here as the tendency to compare to others can actually trigger imposter syndrome instead of address it.  Had grad student Zawadi focused on how well Gill appeared to understand Durkheim in theory without the context that Gill majored in Sociology and read Durkheim before graduate school, it would have made Zawadi feel worse about her progress and performance.  Instead, focus on what your best you looks like.  
  • In an ideal world, where I am the best version of academic I can be, how would I spend my day? 
  • How do I act in the classroom? 
  • How would I approach my research? 
  • How will I enter a faculty meeting? 
  • What are the characteristics that I want to embody as the best version of the academic I aspire to be? 

Focus here on traits (e.g., read broadly), not specific tasks (e.g., complete qualifying exams).

(2) Then, look back on what you did in month or semester.  Make a complete list of everything we have done related to your research, teaching, and service work, as well as your personal and professional growth in that time period.  We found it helpful to consult our calendars and to do lists so we wouldn’t overlook the little things that are easy to forget. 

(3) Finally, much like a word match from the kids’ menus, compare your list of characteristics of a good scholar to your list of accomplishments.  Match your accomplishments with the trait that they demonstrate. 

The activity provides three opportunities.  First to visualize your belonging in the academic space of your choosing.  By drawing connections between your activities and behaviors you hope to embody, you can see the progress you are making to be that “good”, nay “great” scholar. Second, the activity allows you to identify where your actions don’t match your ideal goals. Unfortunately, these shortcomings are often on the personal side of the equation for many of us.  Think through how you can make space in your daily or weekly lives to actively become the well rounded person you aim to be. Finally, we encourage you to not just do this for your professional and work-related activities because life often interrupts work. Documenting the major move you just completed, the health challenges you just underwent, and other interruptions can also be a kind reminder of the challenges you have faced and that you still accomplished something despite those challenges. Below, we model this with our own lives, baring our vulnerabilities to the internet, hopefully for the common good.

Gill’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)Gill’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Keep to a regular writing scheduleReal talk: I do not write every day.  That being said, I got a lot of writing done:
-Revised and resubmitted an article—accepted!
-Started a new project with a new co-author—three skype meetings, data analysis, theoretical reading
-Wrote a presentation for a conference 
-Wrote application materials for 25 jobs
-Revised and submitted a second article
-Drafted third article
Cultivate a sense of work/life balanceI never feel like I’m doing this part right, but it does seem like I made some time to be a whole person lately:
-Visited my family
-Made a major life decision about a romantic relationship
-Joined a book club and actually read the book for two of the three months
-Saw four movies and one play
-Attended two birthday parties
-Read 5 novels and watched all of Downton Abbey
Maintain a commitment to communityAs a postdoc, I have to make an active effort to stay connected to a broader community:
-Developed mentoring program with provost’s office—had six meetings with relevant campus actors and planned first session
-Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at neighbor schools
-Attended new student cocktail reception
-Attended postdoc orientation
-Attended department and all-school faculty meetings
Keep up with publications in the field; read regularlyI did not do a great job with this one, so this is something I’m going to flag for myself.  However, I’m probably behind on this because of my work keeping up with job applications:
-Theoretical reading for new project with a new co-author
-Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at nearby schools (hey, if you don’t have time to read the book, at least go to the book talk?)
Maintains a network of both trusted friends and new connectionsThis is some of the most important work I do each week, and I rarely recognize it is as work.  It’s important to realize that, just because you’re not in front of a computer, you are still *working.*  Sometimes, work is fun, like when I’m connecting with trusted academic friends, but that doesn’t make it not work!
-Had five meetings with other scholars/search committee chairs at ASA
-Checked in with my accountability partner
-Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work
-Met with six senior scholars to get feedback on job materials; revised job materials approximately 800 times (just kidding—about 6 drafts)
-Had ten meetings with colleagues/friends on campus since academic year began
Present work regularlyThis goal is often limited by opportunities depending on when I attend conferences and receive invitations to share my work, so my expectations for this goal are low, but I try to find a way to present my work in a public venue–at a conference, at a workshop, in a writing group, or at a colloquium series, at least once per academic term:
-Presented work at ASA
-Met with colleagues three times to move forward on a conference we are planning for the spring
Develop new skillsI did nothing in this area in the last three months unless I count feedback on job materials…maybe I am developing skills around writing about and explaining my research to different audiences?  But I’d like to incorporate some more methodological thinking into my future planning.
Cultivate style–both in terms of       fashion and charismaI really value cultivating a personal sense of style.  I am bored by the greys, beiges, and other neutrals that define professional spaces.  I hate the assumption that because you care about how you look, you aren’t as serious about your work.  When I am dressed and feeling good as hell (thank you, Lizzo!), I do better work because I’m more confident.  But, academics do not make enough money to support my endless hunger for fashion, so I try to be really purposeful about how I spend my style budget.  Don’t ask me how many Sephora points I have, though.
-Got a major haircut
Make time to encourage and support others—peers, students, colleaguesThis can sometimes be the thing that’s easiest to cut because the “returns” are not immediately visible, but I really try to preserve some time for this every week.  I am where I am because folks made time for me, and I want to carry on my mentors’ legacy in my own actions.
-Met with three former students for dinner
-Met with current graduate student
-Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work
-Attended a friend’s practice job talk; provided feedback

Gill’s Reflections: I spent most of these three months thinking I was “getting nothing done” or “being lazy.”  The list says otherwise. When I listed it out, it was both overwhelming and reassuring. I realized that I had done A LOT, and I was happy with how I spent my time, but I definitely did not embody all of my “ideal traits.”  Reflecting on the list allowed me to acknowledge that I *am* living the life of a scholar–meeting people, writing, engaging with scholarship–and that I still have places to improve. By listing all of this out in this systematic way, I’m now able to set clear goals and intentions for the rest of the semester. 

Zawadi’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)Zawadi’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Spend time with my familyMy husband and I have opposite schedules, so this one is a constant struggle.  
-Was primary child care for LO over the summer
-Took LO to the playground every weekend after day care began 
-Did family outings when all of us were home
-Didn’t work on weekends and evenings to focus on home and family 
Maintain balance between research and teachingI feel good about the schedule I’ve set up and been able to maintain so far.
-Mostly kept teaching, office hours, grading, and lecture preparation to Tuesdays and Thursdays
-Mostly worked on research on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
Keep up with grading and lecture preparation without letting it overwhelm meSo far so good on this one.  However, I expect this to be challenging once it’s midterm time…
-Returned grades on reading responses before the next one was due
-Finished lecture preparation for the week by the Thursday before in most weeks
-Only had to prepare for class once on the weekend so far this semester
Keep up with my research deadlinesI did miss one grant opportunity I wanted to apply for, but that was for a collaboration and we weren’t able to schedule a time to talk until after the deadline.  But other than that, I’ve been keeping up.
-Started and finished data analysis for presentation at conference
-Prepared 2 conference presentations
-Completed a revise and resubmit 
-Completed a draft of a new paper for a conference submission 
-Began revising a data analysis 
Advance research that doesn’t have a deadlineBetween the research deadlines I had over the summer, our move for my job, and some life interruptions (car breaking down, phone breaking, getting a cold and losing my voice), I’ve only been able to start working on research that doesn’t have a deadline in the last month.
-Began reviewing new literature for revising several papers (and a new course syllabus)
-Read and did some preliminary writing for an op-ed/beginning of a research project with a friend/colleague
-Submitted an IRB request and full application to access confidential survey data
-Met biweekly with undergraduate co-authors to advice them on data collection
-Finished edits on two papers and submitted them for review 
-Connected with a new collaborator to discuss how to merge our interests for a new project
Connect with people at my new jobAs a new AP, I need people to know I’m there, but also need to find community to sustain me.
-Had lunch with several faculty members in my department
-Attended all new orientation activities to meet and connect with other new hires 
-Met with several graduate students
-Attended events for faculty of color and women in STEM (and made new friends!)
Connect with people in my new neighborhoodI’m gearing up for what I know will be the longest winter I’ve lived through and know that I won’t be able to just connect with random people on the playground once the snow starts.  So I’m trying to make connections before I feel isolated.
-Exchanged numbers with several parents of kids my LO had a good time with 
-Reached out to friends who have also recently relocated to the area 
Put my health firstSince having my LO, I’ve had little time to exercise and get back in shape, and it’s lead to more ramifications than bigger pants.  It’s time to put my health first! The diet part is going better than the exercise.
-Reduced carbs to one meal a day
-Ate more veggies and fruits 
-Took vitamin C regularly 
-Ran a couple of times (Okay literally twice and then got a cold and took a break to recover)
-Set an appointment with a new doctor to follow up on some minor health issues 
Feel settled and not overwhelmed in my homeDid I mention we just moved…this one is tough!  Between keeping up on the regular cleaning and cat hair removal and the actual unpacking, I’m not fully there yet, but am also trying to unpack in a way that makes it easy for me to maintain order and cleanliness in our home.  We have a storage unit of boxes coming soon so…this will be an issue all over again. Realistically, it might take me a year to really feel I’ve accomplished this trait.
-Fully unpacked LO’s room (the only room that is completely unpacked)
-Made significant progress on unpacking every room in the house, but particularly the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen
-Got much needed furniture, so it’s starting to look like someone lives here
-Slowly organizing so that everything has a place including getting boxes and bins to keep things that way
-Kept up on weekly cleaning needs
Generally feel calm, rested, and balancedOverall, I would say I accomplished this, but that’s not to say there weren’t days that I felt anxious and overwhelmed.
-Prioritized sleep over work when needed and possible 
-Used planning to reduce anxiety 
-Reminded myself of what’s most important to me (family) when I was feeling overwhelmed
-See also all the items above about trying to create order in the chaos of our move

Zawadi’s Reflections: What stood out to me the most in writing down what I’ve accomplished over the last 3 months is how much I’m actually juggling.  As a mom, a wife, a professor, a researcher, and a person, there are a lot of moving parts, so when one overwhelms my schedule, of course other aspects suffer.  The move overwhelmed my summer and made me feel unaccomplished, but I actually kept up with deadlines for completing data analysis, preparing 2 presentations, and finishing a revise and resubmit, all things that took time and energy and I finished on time.  It meant leaving research that wasn’t on deadlines on the back burner, which made me feel less accomplished, but was necessary due to what was happening in life. Acknowledging this makes me feel less like a fraud and more like I’m doing my best towards my goals in academia and in life.

Now, we’re not saying that we don’t have imposter syndrome after doing this exercise, but it feels good to acknowledge the progress we have made.  We are both doing the things that matter to each of us for being a good scholar and person to some degree. There is certainly room for improvement, but we’re not “doing nothing” as our brains trick us into thinking.  We are putting in the work. And we most certainly BELONG. 

What’s on your traits list?  What other ways do you grapple with imposter syndrome?  We want to know!

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