Can’t “Cure” Imposter Syndrome? Reframe It Instead [Guest Post by Melissa Phruksachart]

Guest post by Melissa Phruksachart (NYU). Have an idea for a piece about the graduate student experience? Get in touch — we are on the lookout for contributors!

“It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.” –Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, 26)

In what follows, I share three different ways to reframe imposter syndrome, which I define as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” per psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. My hope is that by finding more ways to think and talk about imposter syndrome, we lessen the shame, blame, and stigma that surround it, in order to find collective ways to manage (if not “cure”) it.                                                                        


Much of the popular literature on imposter syndrome treats it as an affliction of the minoritized – as a pathological and psychological disorder that minoritized subjects cannot get over. In some ways, this is a documented phenomenon. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the less competent you are, the less aware you are of that incompetency. In other words, smart people know what they don’t know; they have self-awareness. This is, unsurprisingly, a gendered and racialized affect. In a study entitled “Gender Gaps in Overestimation of Math Performance,” researchers found that men consistently overestimated their performances on math tests, while women were more likely to accurately predict their scores (h/t Chris Matyszczyk). Another set of studies showed that doctoral students in underrepresented minority ethnic groups and women were less likely to submit research for publication than their non-underrepresented male classmates.

Dr. Koritha Mitchell has referred to this phenomenon as “white mediocrity.” In the context of the extrajudicial killings of black people by white police officers, Mitchell notes that the low standard to which white people are held is literally killing black people. (The proof of how far mediocrity can succeed is none other than our President, Donald Trump…)

Academic job consultant Dr. Karen Kelsky has noticed this phenomenon in junior scholars too. I usually take Kelsky’s advice with a huge grain of salt, but I thought her blog post “Women Fail, But Men Bomb,” was spot on. When asked if there were any differences between male and female job candidates, she replied (and I believe this is worth quoting at length):

“The bad job talks by women candidates were run-of-the-mill bad—They were dull, or poorly organized, or unoriginal, or unconvincing, or sadly presented. But the bad job talks by male candidates? Well, those talks could be spectacularly bad. […] These male candidates had somehow managed to completely and totally fail to grasp the spectacular inappropriateness of their topics, their preparedness, and/or presentation styles. They had, apparently, blithely ignored any of the cautions or admonitions that they undoubtedly received from advisors, peers, and general well-wishers, and they proceeded with blissful abandon past the looks of shock, dismay, and outrage gathering on the faces of their job talk audiences. I never saw a woman candidate bomb a job talk in this way. Obviously, this is the flip side of male privilege. Women are not given the license to fail big because they aren’t given the license to try big. Women are disciplined (and punished) and circumscribed and admonished and chastised at so many levels, in so many ways, that men are not….that in the end it is by and large only males who have the opportunity to burst out onto the job market with wildly inappropriate egos and presentation habits intact. This is not to say that all men do. […] But the chances are higher, far higher, that a man may slip through the cracks of the graduate school socializing apparatus, meant to beat graduate students into a state of deference and submission and hyper-self-criticism, and emerge entirely unaware of the impression that he is making on his audience.”

After I read this I began to really pay attention to the way this manifested in my academic life – from male students who repeatedly ignored my advice, to male colleagues who took credit for my organizational labor, and so on. It creates more labor for me – yet one more thing to keep an eye on – but I think I sleep better.

If you want to think about imposter syndrome in this context – as an irrational response to your own unrecognized competence despite all evidence to the contrary, one solution is to begin to build that evidence for yourself. What have you accomplished? Keep a separate document for things that may not make it onto your CV, a running log of all the ways in which you are contributing to the profession – like informally mentoring a new doctoral student, having coffee with someone at a conference, or even attending a talk. All of this is evidence of your presence and participation in the field. At the end of the semester or academic year, review your list and highlight what you’ve accomplished – where you’ve grown, what you struggled through, what you did too much or too little of, and what you’re looking forward to. You can also embrace the negative to lessen the blow: One colleague keeps a list of every academic rejection she receives. Every fifth time, she treats herself.  


A second response to imposter syndrome rejects the suggestion to “lean in” or lifehack our way out of it. Another school of thought suggests that imposter syndrome is a perfectly rational response to a plethora of clues, both structural and those that manifest as microaggressions, that tell you that your work is not valued – whether because you are a measly graduate student, or because you work in a minoritized field, or because your scholarship needs more work, or all three. Cate Huston notes that, “The focus on imposter syndrome as a personal problem, as a series of ‘irrational’ beliefs, pathologizes its victims and diverts attention from the problematic environment to the individual: this is classic victim blaming.”

On an individual level, graduate students or anyone experiencing imposter syndrome should try to become more attuned to the ways in which legitimacy is performed in the academy in ways that index race, class, gender, ability, appearance, and many more.

On an institutional level, departments, faculty, and students can create more spaces for student-led low-stakes scholarly activity. In 2012, my graduate school colleagues and I, together with our faculty mentor Kandice Chuh, started the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color Project for graduate students in the New York City area. Its goal was to create an interdisciplinary intellectual community as well as a support system of intergenerational colleagues. Our principal activity was a lunch and lecture series with scholars of color from area institutions. Over lunch, scholars spoke to us, often quite candidly, of their experiences of struggle and survival in the academy. This was followed by a public lecture on their recent work in order to emphasize the importance of understanding “diversity” not only in terms of bodies, but more importantly as an epistemological project. Alongside this model of vertical mentoring, we benefited greatly through horizontal peer mentoring. We discovered that we could create space for critical discourse in the academy not only through an academic field, but also through the feminist formation of social communities and the knowledges produced therein. By making this space for minoritized students, we created a community that hadn’t formally existed before. Through this experiment, we learned how scholarly work does not happen in a vacuum, despite the way in which we’re taught to go about our work.


This last reframing is more fun. Rather than trying to convince yourself that you are not an imposter, Beth McMillan suggests that it is far less work to embrace your position as an imposter. She asks, “If you were a spy who had somehow managed to get right into the heart of the enemy’s regime, would you waste time feeling guilty about tricking your way in there, or would you get on with the business of leaking nuclear secrets, taking photos with tiny cameras and poisoning the soup of important diplomats?” So, if you indeed are an imposter, own it. Steal away with what you can, and enjoy your life.

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These remarks are adapted from those I gave at a roundtable, “Experiences Navigating Impostor Syndrome and Inequity in the Academy,” organized by the Minority Scholars’ Committee of the American Studies Association for the ASA annual meeting in Chicago, IL, on November 10, 2017.

Melissa Phruksachart is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU, where she teaches television history, Asian American media, and minority discourse. She received her PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016. You can find her on Twitter at @mphruksachart.

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