Imposter syndrome is real. In a competitive field like academia, everybody feels like a fraud sometimes, whether it’s a scathing peer review, a nasty comment from a student, or being shooed away by campus security when you get caught eating apple cores and chicken bones out of the dining hall dumpster at 3 a.m. The following tips will help you feel like you belong in the Ivory Tower, even when that little voice in your head says, “I’m not good enough,” or “Nobody likes me,” or “I’m actually half a dozen raccoons nestled inside an abandoned upscale Swedish jacket.”
Tell yourself, “My research matters.”
So what if your research hasn’t been cited by any major scholars? If your research matters to you, it matters, period. And who cares if it’s a little unconventional? Or if it isn’t really research at all, but a collection of shiny trinkets that you’ve meticulously washed in a puddle of rainwater behind the library? It’s your work, and you need to own it, whether that means standing up to a critical peer reviewer, or fending off a flock of hissing Canada geese who want to steal the cache of apple cores and soggy hot dog buns you’ve tucked into the pocket of your Arctic Green Nuuk parka / faculty office.
Take student evaluations with a grain of salt.
Student evaluations of your teaching can be helpful, but they can also be quite cruel. Comments about your appearance are especially rough. It’s hard to tune out critical remarks about your hair, clothing, or dexterous prehensile forepaws. Let’s check out a few sample comments to see if we can read between the lines:
“I can’t understand what they’re saying.”
Sometimes students only hear what they want to hear, and it can be hard for you to push back against those expectations. For example, a student who wants to hear a lecture about biochemistry might find herself challenged by a lecture that is actually just forty-five minutes of chittering, growling, and hissing. (Although studies show that 90 percent of students won’t be able to tell the difference anyway.)
“They never take their parka off. Also, I don’t think they have a face or hands.”
Judgmental comments about your clothing can cut to the quick. Students may not realize that you need that parka to feel safe and warm, and also to create the illusion that you are a single human being with a PhD and a job instead of a family of nocturnal quadrupeds who are being pursued by local animal-control authorities for urinating in the university president’s office (although this could be a gray area if you work as an adjunct professor).
“The professor bit me.”
Sounds like you should have kept your goddamn hands off the professor’s collection of apple cores then.
Find your voice in faculty meetings.
Speaking up in department meetings can be daunting, especially as a junior faculty member. Sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t say anything if you’re the youngest person in the room, and this problem is compounded if you only have a life span of two to four years (and that’s if you can avoid getting hit by a bus or eating hot dog buns laced with rat poison). If a tenured colleague shoots down one of your ideas, stay calm and clearly explain where you are coming from. And if that doesn’t work, crawl up their pant leg and start nibbling and scratching until they run out of the room screaming and/or agree to your proposed changes to the first-year survey course.
Remember: Everybody has bad days.
There isn’t a professor alive who hasn’t discovered that they just taught a class with chalk dust on their back, an open fly, or a peanut butter jar stuck on their head. Learn to brush it off, to zip it up, and to use your hind legs to dislodge your skull from the jar’s narrow opening before campus security can tase you and dump you, the rest of your family, and the tattered remains of your Fjällräven parka in a Salvation Army donation bin.
Embrace having a Plan B.
Sometimes a job in academia just isn’t for you, so it’s always good to think about an “alt-ac” career. Evaluate your skill set. If you’re good at writing and critical thinking, maybe you should consider law school. And if you’re good at sifting through garbage cans for free food, sleeping during the day, and hissing at your rivals, you’re already 99 percent of the way toward a career as a freelance writer.