Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome (n): a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”


Impostor syndrome has always been something I’ve struggled with since starting my study of philosophy. Some points of my academic career have been worse than others, and usually it’s in relation to my circumstances/situation. (For example, next to no feelings of doubting myself around the time I was awarded both departmental awards as a graduating college senior, but terrible impostor syndrome after I got rejected from three grad schools in a row.)

My grad school experience thus far has been one hell of a rollercoaster so I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to keeping my impostor syndrome under control. To that end, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Being honest about it helps. I was always open about my feelings of inadequacy with several (well-chosen) people in my department, and oftentimes, more than just comfort or sympathy, I was met with understanding. It turns out that so many of my colleagues can relate to how I’m feeling and are either going through or have gone through it as well. It’s been so affirming and encouraging to know that these feelings aren’t unique to me. And in general, I think being open about how you’re feeling can, over time, contribute to a culture in which such topics are dealt with better instead of being treated as taboo or something to keep bottled up.
  • The more comfortable I become in an environment, the better sense of belonging I have, and the less I feel like I don’t deserve to be there. So in general, coping with impostor syndrome may just take some time.
  • It’s good to remind myself that I’m my own biggest critic and that my assessment of my own performance is necessarily biased, and that people with way more experience than me have judged my work adequate (or better than adequate).
  • On a similar note, it’s also good to remind myself that it’s okay to suck sometimes. If I write a shitty term paper or say something stupid during a seminar, that’s fine. We all have our moments. It doesn’t mean that – on the whole – I am not deserving of my place in academia/in my department.

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

Application Advice: Letters of Rec

This advice is specifically for philosophy undergrad seniors or BA/MA-holders who are applying to Philosophy PhD programs. Maybe it’ll also apply to other people in other situations in other fields. [Insert the usual disclaimer to take what I say with a grain of salt, every situation is different, etc.]

How to ask:

  • Ask early! At least a month in advance, but probably more. Professors can get pretty busy around application season, so you want to make sure you get your request in early, giving them plenty of time to work on it.
  • I recommend asking via email first, and then offering to meet in person later on if necessary. In the email, explain what you’re applying for and say when you will need the letter by. Include a brief statement about why you think this professor in particular would be a good letter writer for you. Finish the email by saying that you’ll give them all the necessary information (including application materials) if they agree to write you a letter.
  • A sample email:

Hi Professor!

I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy this upcoming cycle, and if you’re willing, I would love for you to be one of my letter writers. I took classes ____, ____, and ____ with you and enjoyed them immensely. From this I hope that you have a pretty good understanding of my academic abilities. (For reference, attached is a paper I have written for one of your classes that I am particularly proud of.)

If you feel you are able to write me a strong letter, I can email my application materials to you to aid in your writing: a draft of my writing sample, personal statement, statement of purpose, and CV. Additionally, if you would like to meet in person to discuss this further, I am available at ____.

(Also, please feel free to say no. Given how competitive admissions are, I would only want you to write me a letter if you feel you can write me a good one. Otherwise I am happy to find someone else.)

Thanks for your consideration! Sincerely, …

Who to ask:

  • Ask a professor you can depend on! From experience, I can say that nothing sucks more than your letter writing falling through on their agreement and dealing with the stress of missing letters from your application.
  • As much as possible, you probably want to ask people in the philosophy department and you probably want to ask people who are professors (as opposed to adjuncts or grad students). Also if possible, try to have at least one letter writer whose area of research is similar to or the same as your stated area of interest. Admissions committees take into account who is writing your letter – not just what it says!
  • Only ask professors who you have a good, strong relationship with, and who can speak positively to your philosophical abilities. This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind when considering how many letters you should submit. Most places require three but accept up to five. Three strong letters is better than three strong and one mediocre one.

What to do after you’ve secured your letter writers:

  • Send along those application materials you promised. You want to give them some leads for what to write about, and also make sure that what they say about you is in line with what you say about yourself in the other parts of your application.
  • Send them gentle reminders one month, two weeks, one week, and each day up to three days before the letter is due. Sometimes professors get busy, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure all parts of your application are submitted on time.
  • In the case that your letter writers fail to submit their letter on time (God forbid, but it happens), email the DGS of the school you’re applying to letting them know of your situation. Most places (at least in my experience) grant a short grace period/extension for professors to get their letters in. (You’ll still have to submit the rest of your application materials on time, though.)
  • After all letters have been submitted, write a sincere thank you note to each of your professors. Letters of rec are one of the most important aspects of your application, and hopefully they put a lot of thought and effort into writing them for you. (I recommend a handwritten note instead of an email – it’s way more meaningful!) Bonus: This keeps you on good terms with them if you ever need to ask them for a letter again in the future.
  • Several months later once admissions decisions have rolled in, make sure to let your professors know what happened! They played a central role in your application process and they should know the outcome.

Hope this was helpful! Best of luck to everyone 🙂