September 16th, 2014

Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome: Advice for New Faculty


Last week, an imposter took over my classroom. Come to find out, that imposter was me.

I started teaching three years ago. I was fresh out of graduate school, equally thrilled and terrified at the prospect of teaching my own classes. On paper it sounded straightforward: teach others the same material I just finished learning myself. I could do that, I told myself confidently. Then on the first day of class I met The Imposter.

The first thing The Imposter pointed out to me was the age difference. I was only a few years older than the students sitting in front of me. The voice was in my head, but it was loud. “What makes you think you are qualified to teach these people anything?” Then I heard The Imposter laughing at my attempts to teach.

The Imposter Syndrome is something that I presume plagues many junior faculty members, but it is not unheard of in academics and educators of any age. The main symptoms of this psychological phenomenon are feelings of inferiority and fraud, as if someday (maybe even today) your inadequacies will be discovered. At any moment, your students, a senior colleague, or your department chair will realize that you don’t really know what you’re talking about and certainly shouldn’t be trying to teach. The Imposter Syndrome can be especially serious when you’re a Type A perfectionist—someone for whom mediocrity is pretty much unacceptable.

The Imposter Syndrome is exactly that—a syndrome. It may feel real, but it’s not. It’s completely irrational. I often remind myself that I was hired to teach because I was deemed qualified to do so. And no institution expects first-year faculty members—any faculty members, for that matter—to be perfect. I wouldn’t have this job if I didn’t have the education and knowledge it requires. Most days, on most subjects, I do know what I’m talking about. When I don’t, I tell my students I’ll find out, and they are happy to accept that. But The Imposter is expert at planting seeds of self-doubt: The question that student just asked—was she just trying to see if she could stump me?

Being a junior faculty member can be an intimidating experience, particularly in the first few years. The Imposter doesn’t just come to visit in the classroom. I’ll be interacting with senior faculty, and there’s The Imposter. When I think about it rationally I understand that those senior faculty members whom I admire have had years to build their teaching style and scholarship portfolio. Just because I do not have the extended curriculum vitae they do, it does not make me any less worthy of my position or less valuable to the institution. The Imposter doesn’t recognize that it takes time. The Imposter tells me I should be more impressive now.

I teach in one classroom with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the walls. Most days, I don’t even realize the mirrors are there. Other days, I’ll catch a glimpse of myself as I’m walking around the room and think, “Who is that?” It’s as if I don’t even recognize myself. Instead, I see The Imposter, which makes my heart race and throws me off balance in my lecture. Most of the time these feelings are fleeting. The competent and confident me returns quickly, but it’s still disconcerting.

The Imposter follows further behind me every year I teach. Nonetheless, The Imposter is still there and eager to move in closer. My advice to other junior faculty who might be encountering imposters of their own is to ignore The Imposter, who isn’t real and isn’t visible to others. The Imposter can make you shut down socially; who wants to look inept in front of important others? Avoiding colleagues is exactly what new teachers should not do. I have found that interacting with other faculty members, both junior and senior, has eased my symptoms. I’ve learned to ask them questions and to share those parts of teaching about which I’m passionate. The Imposter fades in the face of confidence. And the next time The Imposter comes to your classroom, stand tall, carry on with conviction, and watch The Imposter slip out the door.

Jennifer G. Craven is an instructor of fashion merchandizing at Mercyhurst University, Erie, Pa.

Reprinted from Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome. The Teaching Professor, 27.6 (2013): 1. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Old Doc

    We all have them, Don't be afraid to get in their faces. One tried that my first year. After taking too much time to teach and reteach her, I looked her in the eye and said "When you get your PhD, come back and we'll talk." It cost me one bad rating from that person and got me the instant respect of the rest of the program.