Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why It's Okay to Feel Like a Fraud

Okay, enough with the word games; let's talk about something serious, and more directly related to the vita academica.

Several months ago, I refered obliquely to my fraud complex. Today, a poster on another site asked, "Is it just me?" I sent in a reply, but I thought I'd post it here, in the likely case that it doesn't appear at the original site:

No, you are not the only one to feel like a fraud. Nor am I -- I've talked to friends in academia, and most say the same thing -- although one male colleague opined that the tendency to feel like a fraud may fall predominantly along gendered lines. I've felt like a fraud ever since I was first accepted into a graduate program. I kept thinking that "When I get the M.A.," "When I get published..." "...get the Ph.D...." "...get a job..." (In case you're wondering: yes, I am now thinking "When I get tenure...") At every level, though, the stakes get higher, the peers more accomplished, and the expectations higher, so the fraud complex gets more acute, not less. Teaching makes us feel better, because we know that, once again, like in college, we're the smartest person in the room. But did we really get into this line of work to feel good about ourselves because we know more than a bunch of nineteen year-olds?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that feeling a bit ignorant is part and parcel of the non-teaching part of the job, which I got into to push back the boundaries of my own ignorance (that's ignorance -- not to be confused with stupidity). That doesn't ever stop; nor should it, because there's always more to learn. But I hope we all have those moments when we take stock of how far we've come. I hang on to those times when, every once in a while, I pull off that great presentation, publish in that respected journal, or get that big grant, and you realize that I do indeed know something. Not everything, but something.

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Although I think I'm reasonably competent, I know well that there are moments in my academic life where I'm faking it. I'm writing something and thinking "Jeez, did I really understand that argument?" I'm presenting a paper and thinking it piles up evidence only to come to a shatteringly obvious conclusion. ("People in the past weren't very tolerant!")Or I'm lecturing and answer a question with something that sounds plausible, but which I suspect is an absolutely fluent line of nonsense.

That said, I figure everyone else is in the same boat. So I don't think "I'm a fraud!" I think "Everyone's a fraud!" The only time this assumption of widespread fraudulence keeps me up at night is when I think about Congress . . . or surgeons.

Anonymous said...
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hilary said...

I'm not sure your feelings are necessarily exclusive to academia. In my business (wine), we like to say, "The more you learn, the less you know." And there are times when I feel the way you do. But I know there is no possible way to know everything there is to know. I can only continue on in my education and hope I'm not eventually found out as a fraud.

Belle said...

There was a story on NPR last week about this, and they said that research indicated that first observors did consider it a gendered thing, but now they know it is not. Personally, I think women just are more open to verbalizing their insecurities.

Feeling like a fraud is so normal that when I was at R1 MA institution, they had a workshop called "How to survive and thrive in grad school" for new grad students. It was attended by mostly women, but what drew the most gasps was the acknowledgement by the senior scholars/faculty was that feeling like a fraud was common. The nearly universal response, in a room with more than 70 new grad students - male and female - was 'OMG, I thought it was only me!'

There is apparently now a whole field of research on it. Who knew?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Isn't feeling like a fraud natural to anyone in academia -- at least anyone who cares about what they do? :-)

Seriously though, my wife has recently been thinking about going to grad school, so she's been sitting in on some. I read one of the papers she wrote that the professor agreed to take a look at and told her how good I thought it was. She said, "But what if I don't know what I'm talking about?" I smiled and said, "NOW, you're ready for grad school..."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is all interesting stuff, and I'm glad you guys piped up. Hil, while I never want you to feel like a fraud, I like hearing that it's not confined to academia. Anon, the "everyone is a fraud" insight is interesting... and potentially terrifying.

There's an interesting post this morning on the website (I have a love/hate relationship with this site) that got the ball rolling. To sum up, it talks about this as a gendered issue. I do believe that men feel like frauds, but I have a sneaking, unsupported suspicion that they are less likely than women to really believe this, and let it drive them, either out of their fields, or (as this post and the book it references suggests) on to greater heights of excellence, as a cushion against the fear of being "found out."

I may pick up the book and leaf through it, just to see what I think.