We’ve all been there.

Staring at the socks and Birkenstocks of the 30-something professor, wondering how they can contain that much genius every day. He’s saying something about how the test “went better than I’d expected,” but even his geniality does little to calm my inner gymnastics. He moves around the room, shuffling papers. It’s easy to hand back the tests when there are only twelve students in the class. And with the talking in the grad hallway after class, it’s just as easy to figure out who got which grades…

He moves my way, hands me a paper, my stomach does another somersault… The red ink with the huge circle at the top says 58/60. My stomach starts somersaulting for an entirely different reason. Until I see the name next to the number. Not mine. I hand the paper to my classmate with a sinking sensation, listening to him exclaim his surprise at how well he did.

Finally the right paper lands in my hands, with the lowest grade in the class circled in red at the top. I quickly and quietly tuck the first page behind the rest, and pretend to study the bleeding pages as my mind races in despair. Now the smartest prof in the department knows how stupid I am. And I just asked him to write a reference for me, I’ve totally lost that fellowship now…

We’ve all been there. But I’m the only one who has failed.

I don’t know about you, but my department is full of exceptionally bright people, students and faculty alike, who do the best planetary science research in the country. (At least, that’s what the department head says at the yearly awards ceremony.) They must not have read my application too closely, because they admitted me last semester, even though both of the professors I might work with are on sabbatical. I met briefly with one of them, and totally messed up what the Hamiltonian was, and there’s no chance that professor would want to work with someone who can’t figure out basic celestial mechanics. So my research isn’t going anywhere, unless you count the bi-weekly meetings I have with an emeritus professor teaching him how to use keyboard shortcuts to cut and paste.

It’s only a matter of time before they figure out that I’m really a net loss to the department. The clock is counting down to this little test called “orals” coming up in a year. Five professors (each glowing in the light of their awesome intelligence) spend three hours asking me questions covering topics that I’m supposed to learn from taking two years’ worth of their classes. I stumble through the questions while they wince inwardly at my ignorance (without marring the glow of personal awesome). And when the test is done, the whole department knows that I’m an imposter.

Sure, they handed me a fellowship when I walked in the door, but there were only three people in my incoming class, and they had to put the fellowship somewhere. They’ll probably take it back, now that they know I’m not nearly as good as they thought. And okay, I did get my paper published in that journal with a nine percent selection rate, but they probably get a lot of junk submitted, and I just barely made it.

There’s a lot of power behind my throne. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants whose genius I can’t live without. I’m the fancy fondant—looks good, but don’t try tasting it, and if you take out the cake underneath it falls flat. I’m just waiting for the one failure that will take the cake…

***

Epilogue: Three years later

I got a “B” in the class. The professor got my reference letter in on time, and I was awarded the fellowship. I am working with one of the professors who was on sabbatical, publishing papers as fast as I can write them. I passed orals. I’ll probably graduate with a Ph. D. in a year.

Unless they figure out what a lousy student I am.

 

Author’s note:  This story is based on true events from my life. I’ve learned about the “imposter syndrome,” and I am beginning to realize that my worth is not measured by my achievements (thank Heaven!).

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    About 20 years ago, I sat at a table at a conference with Nicholas Wolterstorff, who in the course of conversation confessed that he occasionally has those imposter syndrome dreams that we all have (not prepared for class, etc.). Ever since, when I’m feeling like a fraud, I think that if Wolterstorff has imposter syndrome sometimes, then no one can possibly escape it. This makes me feel a little better!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      You sat at a conference table with Nicholas Wolterstorff?? Then you must really be somebody! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Bart

    Well said. I’m so familiar with the quick-turn move when you get the paper back. My roommate was talking about the imposter syndrome, and I said, “doesn’t everyone have that?”.

    PS Who are the people saying “impostor”? With an “o”? What’s the deal? One of these spellings is pretending to be like the other, which, in this case, is hilarious.

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    Melissa, I really enjoyed your report about having to give an account of what you know, and what you don’t know, but were supposed to know. I have been there, done that. I know first hand what you went through. I had to take an oral exam in order to get my masters degree. I was petrified. A professor from each dept.,music theory, composition, music Ed., music history which included knowing composers, development of instruments, especially the Bach Trumpet since my instrument was trumpet. I was asked to teach a lesson about music notation, clefs, clef signs, staff, blah,blah using a chalkboard. Anyway after I finished my masterful presentation one of my professors asked me which clef I was referring to. To my horror, in my state of mind I had forgotten to include the clef sign. In spite of that I passed w/ the highest grade of anybody in my class.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      That’s a great story! It very clearly demonstrates the phenomenon of imposter syndrome: we think we’re doing a horrible job, even while everyone around us sees our great work! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Too bad impostor syndrome is only one that can be diagnosed in retrospect. I’m going to wait to air my relief on here until I finish my thesis and find out if I passed or not…because I might have impostor syndrome… but right now, I really think it’s for real, awful writing. (Really hoping this comment will make me laugh a few months from now).

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thanks for your transparency, Nard! I know the feeling of waiting and not knowing. But even the fact that you are submitting a thesis is a significant achievement, no matter how they grade the performance!

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    Ah, I feel this way all the time. So glad I’m not the only one.

    It’s always interesting to meet authors or endorsers that I email regularly for work (who are all seriously high-powered scholars). Some of them look fairly shocked to realize that I’m only 26 and possibly concerned that they gave me so much license to edit their endorsement to fit the cover.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I’m always shocked when I meet people like that, because I usually elevate them to superhuman status in my mind, then I find out they’re actually just normal humans like myself. “Aren’t you a little short for a rocket scientist?”

      Reply

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