Impostor Syndrome

On the train last night I overheard two high school girls talking about SAT scores and whether or not the schools they were looking at required the SAT subject test. Just hearing about standardized tests creates a giant pit in my stomach. According to the girls, they both have good SAT scores. And good for them. I didn’t. And that was hard for me to swallow. One of the girls was talking about going into computer programming. The other said, ‘I’d be so happy right now if I just got into college.’ I remember that feeling. I know that during high school, that’s the big goal. For some reason, I saw it as the endgame. Then what? I hadn’t considered. I didn’t have an answer. That’s part of why I went to grad school, why I didn’t think I was good at much except being a student. My consistently poor standardized test scores made me question that, though. What do you do when the thing you thought you were good at, maybe you’re not so good at?

I saw a Facebook post this week from Slate, via Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls about ‘impostor syndrome.’ I don’t like calling it a ‘syndrome’ because that makes it sound like you need to take a daily pill for it or immunotherapy. Although, a cure may require daily affirmations and active positivity. But ‘impostor syndrome’ is much more succinct than That-Feeling-You-Get-When-You’re-In-Over-Your-Head-And-Everyone-Knows-You’re-Not-Smart-Enough-To-Be-Here-Because-You-Believe-You’re-Not-Smart-Enough-To-Be-Here-And-Everyone-Can-Read-It-On-Your-Face.

I felt like an impostor for most of my time in graduate school. I didn’t feel like an impostor in college because I didn’t get into any of the schools I really wanted to. I went to a state school. A very good state school, but I felt like it was beneath me, like I should have gone to, what I had deemed, a better school. That took me down a notch, but I felt I did really well at that school. And I loved school and was good at being a student. So I decided to go to graduate school.

My undergraduate advisor told me, ‘Graduate school is for people who want to publish or teach, and you just seem like a person who enjoys reading books.’ That was a big blow. I let that one get to me. I waited a year before deciding that I really did want to, and was capable of going to graduate school. Then I bombed the GRE. I mean bombed. By typical grading standards, I failed. I cried the whole drive home thinking about it. I couldn’t bear to tell my father how poorly I did. Another blow. Then I similarly bombed the GRE subject test. BOOM. And I only applied to four schools, which, apparently, is not how you’re supposed to do it. But even after all those blows, I got into Boston College. I thought I had no shot at getting into BC. But I did. And I spent my two years there feeling like everyone knew I bombed my standardized tests and that they must have made a mistake admitting me. I had some great professors who did their best in supporting and encouraging me and making me realize that I was accepted based on my skills and merits, and I am exceptionally grateful for them. There were always times when I felt like a phony, though.

I don’t think it’s fair to say this happens to women more often than men (although I have a suspicion that’s true). Maybe women are more likely to be vocal about it, because we don’t necessarily believe that admitting weakness is, in itself, weakness. Women, like Maria Klawe, are more likely to reach out and realize that we’re not alone and that sharing our experience can not only be cathartic but helpful to others. I’m also grateful for that. it’s not just women in science and technology who feel like impostors. I think most women in most fields feel it at one point or another, or are made to feel it. Mansplaining has plenty to do with it. Being spoken down to has a lot to do with it. A lack of self-confidence and trust in ourselves has even more to do with it.

I have an interview tomorrow for a job I know I’m under-qualified for. I want to believe that I’m qualified. I want to walk in, knowing I can do this job, and do it well. At least, that’s the person I want to project. If I feel phony and like an impostor, at least I can mask it for the sake of the interview. Fake it ’til ya make it, right?


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