The Imposter Syndrome as a structural problem

dcubsqivmaahvoj-jpg-large.jpegImage Credit: RedPen/BlackPen[1]

‘The 25th Annual Imposter Syndrome Convention’ cartoon pictured above has proven very popular on Twitter, where it got over 700 likes. I certainly chuckled at its humorous take on the Imposter Syndrome, or feelings of fraudulence, a sense that one has gotten to where one is in the academy by mistake and it’s only a matter of time before one is found out. This idea resonates with the academic followership of the artist as such feelings are common; some of us have been there, some of us are still there, permanently doubting our abilities and merit.

But why is it that so many of us suffer from the Imposter Syndrome? Is it simply that insecurity is inherent to an industry that occupies itself with knowledge production – a task that is by definition infinitely incomplete – and where the sense of fulfilment is hard to grasp as critique of our own and other’s work simply is our bread and butter? Is it perhaps the changing role of the university in a ‘supercomplex’ world ‘that deprives the university of its anchoring in the pursuit of knowledge and truth’? Or is the widespread, yet individualised sense of insecurity a symptom of something else? These questions have occupied me for a while and whilst not attempting to be exhaustive by any means, the answer that I came up with as I’ve read and thought about the problem is threefold.

Firstly, the Imposter Syndrome has historically had a role to fulfil in the academy and the society at large, it is what, applying Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class, functions as a marker of one’s habitus as one encounters a field that one is not familiar with. Higher education has long been the domain of the upper and middle classes, and a one where working class students, and academics alike, struggle to fit in. Moreover, women and ethnic minority academics are more likely to suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. Can this have something to do with the fact that women also continue to hold fewer senior positions in the academy, that they are much less likely to be in leadership and they are still paid less than their male colleagues? If we look into the ethnic background of academic staff, we can see how women of color are particularly disadvantaged: ‘the majority of professors are white men, with white women representing just 20.9% and black and minority ethnic men and women only 7.1% and 1.8% respectively’. I would be inclined to think that the prevalence of the Imposter Syndrome amongst these groups reflects the structural inequalities they experience in the field.

As such the Imposter Syndrome functions as a marker of one’s gendered, classed and raced position in the society. For me, a working class Polish migrant in the UK, that was certainly often the case. I still remember attending a social event organised for all the recipients of LSE’s PhD scholarship in the first year of my doctorate, the feeling was comparable to what I imagine Charlie felt on his visit to the Chocolate Factory: whilst all the other kids there were either super smart, super rich, or both, I was just a kid who found a golden ticket by pure chance. Not for a moment did I feel that I got there on merit.

Yet, the Imposter Syndrome is not limited to working class people, women and ethnic minorities, even if it is more common amongst these groups. This suggests that other factors might also be at play, which brings me to the two other layers of potential explanation: a) the changing nature of the academic work, with increasing competitiveness and complexity and b) its increasing precariousness.

The Times Higher Education global survey of university staff views on work-life balance shows that majority of academics feel they are overworked and underpaid. With the REF and TEF and the growing student numbers there is plenty to make academics anxious. This is part and parcel of what Stephen J. Ball refers to as competitive performativity of contemporary education, by which he means

a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions… The performances… serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection (Ball, 2003: 216).

Such culture of performativity fosters market-like competition amongst colleagues and institutions, and brings about increasing individualization and erosion of collective relations amongst workers in the academy. It is easy to see how such environment would fuel insecurities of those already doubting their value. Especially, that many of them (women in particular) also lack the stability that was once associated with an academic job, making them more vulnerable to the negative outcomes of mechanisms that competitive performativity relies on.

UK universities are now said to rely on casual, hourly paid staff for up to half of their teaching. The promise of a future permanent position pushes early career academics in particular to put up with the uncertainty and low pay of casual employment, whilst they juggle their teaching, research, professional networking and other commitments, trying to keep their head above the water. Yet, with the ever-increasing demands the permanent university job becomes a moving target, further fuelling anxieties and insecurities. The changing role and character of the academy and academics’ place in it that keeps a large proportion of the workforce in precarious and undervalued position is certainly a reason why so many people might feel they do not belong, or that they are not good enough, and the Imposter Syndrome must be understood in relation to the way in which the neoliberal academy works.

I would go a step further and say that the prevalence of the Imposter Syndrome might in fact be central to the way the industry operates, which on a most basic (albeit myopic) level benefits from the insecurity of its workforce, keeping it cheap, flexible, and disposable. If you doubt your own worth and if you think that your place at the table, however small and temporary, is due to pure luck, rather than merit, it’s much easier to accept more exploitative forms of employment. If you do not feel like you belong anyway, having no permanent contract might feel like just another way in which your inadequacy is manifested. As such, the Imposter Syndrome has a self-regulatory function in making the experience of the precarity, the pressure, and any potential failure to perform an individualised one – thus removed from the structure that generates it, even though precarity is a structural problem that has become institutionally embedded.

In effect, I think that we need to take the Imposter Syndrome in HE seriously and see it not as an expression of individual feeling of maladjustment, but rather as a logical result of social inequalities and pressurised environment characterised by competitive performativity that for many are compounded by the precariousness of their professional situation. Until then we can laugh at the 25th Annual Imposter Syndrome Convention, but our laughter will always sound more nervous than we would like to collectively admit.

Ball SJ. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy 18: 215-228.

[1] Published here with the permission from the artist.


One thought on “The Imposter Syndrome as a structural problem

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  1. Thank you, Magdalena, for such a great blog post. I enjoyed reading it very much. You have chosen such an interesting topic, addressing, in great detail and with clarity, different related aspects of the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon in the context of higher education. You raise a number of points which are both strong and enlightening, reflecting on the structural, self-regulatory character of the Imposter Syndrome within academia as opposed to individualistic interpretations which end up reinforcing neoliberal values and the logic of performativity. Your threefold approach to the Imposter Syndrome is interesting, tying organically issues of elitism and social inequalities with the pressure resulting from the performative nature of higher education and its resulting status of precariousness. Relatedly, I particularly welcome your reflexive paragraph on how you felt during a social event at LSE, and agree with you that many of us tend to question, or have questioned at some point, the extent to which we belong to such a prestigious institution. Indeed, with prestige comes a lot of pressure.

    While you have addressed the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon as a structural problem specifically in relation to higher education, I have the impression that your arguments transcend the world of academia, applying to society and the job market more broadly as driven by neoliberal values. At the beginning of your blog post, you wonder whether this feeling of insecurity that many of us experience “is inherent to an industry that occupies itself with knowledge production”. Perhaps, it would have proven interesting to follow up on this a little more (as this is a feature which has to do more closely with higher education as opposed to other sectors). Relatedly, it might have been interesting to reflect not only on the ways in which knowledge production is embedded within wider social structures, but on the ontological nature of knowledge itself as being “by definition infinitely incomplete”, as you rightly point out.

    While your piece looks at the Imposter Syndrome as a structural problem, from a phenomenological point of view, if you will, we could look at it as something which we might experience in different ways. Perhaps, we might conceive of it as something which may not necessarily be detrimental, but potentially constructive. There is a thin line between feeling inadequate, as if we do not belong somewhere, and feeling that we have more to achieve. Such an interpretation lends itself to interrogating our agentic involvement in academia. The extent to which our agency, then, may be positioned in relation to wider structural forces brings to the fore a spectrum of possible related outcomes. The latter may have to do, potentially, not only with animating, or perhaps succumbing to, these forces, but also resisting them in ways that may be more or less impactful and structurally subversive.

    Thank you once again for such a great blog post and for allowing us to engage with such an interesting topic.


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