Young and Stupid Academics
posted February 24, 2016
One might think that being accepted into Graduate or Medical School or any other Advanced Education Program would give a strong sense of accomplishment and pride. But, if this were the case, why would Universities like Cambridge host well-attended workshops for academics that feel like frauds? And why would highly successful scholars nevertheless feel a fear of being exposed as frauds? And why would Albert Einstein, soon before his death, confess “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
If you find these sorts of fears relatable, don’t be concerned that you may well be suffering from a diagnosable psychological condition described in the DSM. The Impostor Syndrome (IS) is probably more common in academia than one would expect; 70% of people feel like an impostor at least once. Indeed I first heard of IS at a Graduate school orientation (at which time I think I felt the room breathe a massive sigh of relief).
Basically, IS refers to high-achieving individuals and their inability to internalize their success and experience fear of being exposed as a fraud. They’re afraid that people will eventually realize that they do not belong in their current position. A sufferer of IS think that all of their success is due to fluke, chance, or timing while their failure can rightly be attributed to their inadequacy.
Entrance requirements and funding opportunities are becoming more and more competitive. But any academic will tell you that one must possess thick skin since we will experience way more failure than success. These truths seem to be at odds and can probably, at least partially, explain the prevalence of IS in academia. But academia also forces its practitioners to embrace “ignorance”. In other words, we all need to embrace that what we know is a speck of dust compared to the mountain that we do NOT know.
In fact, I was recently given a paper entitled “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” (1). The author talks about how science makes him feel stupid everyday, he just never noticed because he got used to it. He realizes that what he doesn’t know isn’t vast but, for all intents and purposes, infinite! However, rather than this infinity crashing down upon him, he finds liberation in that “the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.” He uses the term productively-stupid. To be productively-stupid we need to be ignorant by choice because if we don’t feel stupid then we aren’t trying.
So maybe it isn’t surprising that young academics feel like frauds if our job description includes feeling stupid every day. In the end, there may well be some of us who are frauds… but there’s so many of us that “we couldn’t have all gotten here for crap reasons” (2).
1: Schwartz, M. A. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci. 2008; 121(11), 1771-1771.
2: Gravois, J. You’re Not Fooling Anyone. Chron Higher Educ. 2007; 54(11).