Women in Academia: Specter of Doubt

I’ve spent the last few days in a funk. Maybe it’s the resurgence of winter following  a brief taste of spring, or maybe it’s the idea that I am heading into the big time research stretch that will determine my Ph.D and career, or maybe it’s that I haven’t been getting enough chocolate cake lately. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s left me feeling slow and sluggish and a bit overwhelmed by this whole graduate school thing.

From my perspective, everyone else seems to be going about this so easily. There’s one person who spends hours creating experimental setups to bring out into the field. Another who is careening through the obstacle course that is publication. Another who is finishing up their doctorate and contemplating post-doc and job opportunities. And here I am, flailing like so much animated spaghetti, uncertain about where I am or what I’m even doing here.

For the sake of being professional, I tend not to let anyone except for a few close peers, see my self-doubt, though for the sake of being honest, I don’t know how often I fool people. This makes it harder to get advice; however, in talking to my peers I realize that the shiny exteriors I described above hold their own worries and problems. It’s hard to get into grad school if you’re not the slightest bit competitive, but it’s hard to stay in grad school if you’re constantly competing. If you gauge your progress by what others have done and how cool and collected and cucumber-like they appear to be, you’ll end up miserable and crying while clutching a well-worn copy of whatever tome your discipline holds sacred (what’s up, Darwin?).

For me, the biggest issue is always, always, always, having confidence in my ideas. I don’t know what I am expecting from myself ““ I will not revolutionize the field as a grad student unless dumb luck hits me the same way that buckeye did the other day (unexpectedly and straight on the noggin, for those of you who weren’t there “¦ meaning, all of you). Every other issue I experience in academia immediately pales when I compare it to my feeling of, “I am so dumb what am I doing here?” It’s kind of like the imposter syndrome except without the pretension of feeling like I’ve impostered anyone ““ I’ve merely snuck into the ivory tower unnoticed.

I don’t know. Women get a lot of advice about how to love their bodies. Love your body! Say affirmations! Focus on how ridiculously cute your toes are! Think about your winning smile! We’re not given a lot of advice on how to be confident in our ideas and our intellect. But we have to. No one can survive in academia without a hell of a lot of belief that what they’re studying and thinking about is interesting.

Borrowing heavily from the Love Your Body Brigade, I’ve been trying to coach this confidence in myself. Fake it “˜til you make it doesn’t just work for bellies. Telling myself that my ideas have value works. I don’t worry so much about erring on the side of being too pompous and certain of myself. Maybe that’ll be a concern down the line, but right now, I just need to be sure that I feel confident in talking about my ideas. And I should be, dammit. I think about them. I write about them. I do literature searches. I have earned that confidence. And I tell myself this when I write, when I present, when I talk with people, and so far it’s been helping.

But as anyone who’s ever tried to wash a large jumpy dog knows, things that can be handled alone go more smoothly with some extra hands. Talking to other people, especially talking to other women in academia, has done me a world of good. Creating a support network, a sort of trapeze-net of reality checks and high-fives, has given me an, I don’t know, a sort of security. I can’t embarrass myself too badly when I have people who know me and are watching out for me. The same, I hope, holds true for all of them.

I was listening to some new-ish professors talk about their experiences in grad school, in their post-docs, and now in their tenure-track jobs; and all of them, and I mean all of them, a complete consensus, 100%, said that they felt the imposter-worry for years. Some still feel it linger in their minds like a rotten seed head buried in tall grass. It gives me both fear and hope for the future: fear because this worry may never be shaken, but hope because through this admission, these monoliths of brains and success become more like me.

29 thoughts on “Women in Academia: Specter of Doubt”

  1. I know this is super late–I was, ironically, at a conference–but in case replies to posts are tracked in any way I just wanted to say how great this was. Please keep writing the women in academia series!

    I suspect that all of us go through the gauntlet of academic self-doubt. I went from a super-confident, even cocky, undergrad to a constantly self-deprecating PhD drone with grey hair and a slanket. I’ve long felt as if others are sailing past while I drown, even though I know intellectually that we all feel that way. I think both male and female grad students feel this kind of pressure, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a male colleague who is regularly as self-deprecating and self-doubting as all my female colleagues.

    I think that’s why mentoring is so important. At my recent conference (at which an older male discussant totally trashed my entire theoretical premise, but that’s another issue!), I made a conscious effort to seek out women researchers at my stage or a little ahead of me in their careers. I don’t care about networking and I’m rubbish at it, but it has been so inspiring and reassuring to meet other women in my (male-dominated) field who’ve been through what I’m going through now. They were all really kind and helpful, offering support even as I’m seriously contemplating leaving the academy when I finish my PhD this year. I really hope that when I get a little further on, I can be similarly helpful to younger women in the field as well.

  2. Every woman scientist (or science grad student) I know has struggled with feelings like this. It’s epidemic. Personally, I’ve found the process of getting my PhD to be very isolating and demoralizing. Research so often goes wrong, and it begins to feel like failed experiments = personal failure. Despite having more lab experience now than ever before, my confidence in my own abilities is currently at its lowest. Given how all of my peers are feeling, I think it’s just the nature of the beast.

    1. I see where you’re coming from and I have felt that way, too. All the work I did last summer was educational and helpful but none of it can be directly included in a thesis chapter – that chafes, for sure.

      But given this recent column in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heidi-grant-halvorson-phd/girls-confidence_b_828418.html) I wonder if there isn’t some way that people respond to bright girls that creates fertile ground for this doubt to spring up. Like, yeah, the doubt is the nature of the beast, but does this beast have to be quite so big and toothy?

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  3. Wow, thank you so much for writing this. I’ve felt like this since I got to my master’s program and it’s STILL HAPPENING. I know I’m intelligent but I can’t get myself to a place where I’m happy with my work; I feel like it has to be perfect in order to prove myself, and since I never get it perfect I have pathological problems turning work in. I’ve even contemplated leaving the program because I feel like I can’t keep up…

    Thank you so much. I feel much less alone in these feelings now!

  4. I feel this way too, and I have to say, it’s starting to make me feel really down on grad school. My undergrad was an environment where I was just excited to learn and I didn’t care if I messed up once or twice because, you know, it would be a learning experience and I knew nobody was going to freak out. Now if I mess up once or twice I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to fail the class and then not be able to get the degree. When environments get to the point where I care more about passing than actually knowing the material, that’s when I begin to feel like maybe the learning environment hasn’t learned how to teach.

    1. Sometimes the environment just sucks. I know several point who have dropped out of grad school, changed graduate programs (within a school, just shifted labs or in one case, changed departments all together), or transfered to a new school.

      I wish I had some helpful advice about knowing when it’s something you can change and when it’s better to just cut your losses and jet. I think you’re right that when you’re forced to care more about passing than the material, then the environment just isn’t right for you.

      I wish you the best.

  5. Sorry to post twice, but another thing that might be useful for us all to think about is how we react to our peers. I know I tend to enjoy hearing perspectives from classmates who might have a different approach or background, and even if someone is inarticulate about a point or has trouble participating in class I don’t think they’re dumb or out-of-place. I recognize that other students have different specialties that might lie outside a particular course we take together. It’s helpful for me to remember that I don’t think anyone else doesn’t belong in the program, and I have to believe others are extending the same assumption to me.

      1. Hi – sorry I should have checked back to this thread sooner.

        I’ve been thinking about 3 things at least.

        One, it might be fun for someone to do a Feminist Theory 101 write up as an on-going series. We have a lot of educated women who might like to write (or read) a quick review of Betty Friedman or whatnot.

        Two, I’d just like to connect gendered, self-sabotaging behavior in a world like academia. We’ve seen lots of articles about women who don’t ask for raises, who don’t stand up for themselves, who aren’t taught to be pro-active. We’ve ALSO seen the imbalance between male and female enrollment in undergrad and how it peters out rather quickly in graduate school. I think many female grad students and young profs really emotionally suffer…even just gauging from the article responses!

        Three, I wonder if we can discuss the gendering of fields and the ramifications of that in an age of corporatization and budget cuts. We often read about the dearth of women in the sciences. What about the “excess” of women in key humanities fields? I’m interested in how the more feminized the field, the more it is devalued in the eyes of administrators.

  6. I’ve often wondered if I somehow tricked the admissions committee, because I feel so out of place most of the time. Like, silly little art school me, hasn’t had a writing class since AP English a decade ago, and I’m discussing submitting papers to national journals? Did I drink crazy sauce or something? What on earth do I know?

    But those thoughts really don’t get me anywhere, so here’s how I try to cope: by remembering, and realigning my perspective.
    Obviously, I didn’t trick the admissions committee; they saw worth and potential in me, and I might as well take their word for it when I’m feeling down on myself and unsure of my place. I try to remember that.
    And no, I don’t quite fit in, I’m not like everyone else, but that doesn’t have to mean I don’t belong, don’t deserve to be there. What makes me not fit in is what gives me unique perspectives, unique insights that others might not consider. Those perspectives and insights, and my unique knowledge base, these things make me valuable. Instead of reducing my value, they increase it. Perspective realigned.

    Ok, it’s not always easy to remember and realign. But it’s usually worth a try.

    Plus! Talking really can help. It doesn’t always- sometimes when I’m doubting myself I bump into those who are on a big confidence streak (or at least acting like it) and that doesn’t help. But more often than not, admitting a bit of doubt just opens the gates for others to release their own doubts, and then it is easier to realize that I am not alone in these feelings.
    Having friends in academia outside of my program also helps me keep perspective, I think.

    1. That’s a great perspective, Miss Shirley. Thank you for sharing. I do agree that admitting doubt often leads to others admitting doubt, too. You can bond over your worries! It actually works. Sometimes beers get introduced. It can be pretty good.

      And definitely agreed on the last point. One thing I like about this community here is being able to talk to people outside of my field. It’s a fresh perspective in a lot of cases, and a reinforcement of how much things stay the same in other cases.

  7. We can’t all be sneaking in, right?

    I got my ph.d. in a very male-dominated humanities department, and my advisor scolded me for being too quiet in Q&As, for not setting an example for the department’s other women. I was frustrated by her demand that I be more aggressive for others’ benefit when it didn’t really feel like me, but in retrospect I think that her confidence that I would always have something worthwhile to contribute is what matters. You are doing this, every day. I think, over time, you might start forgetting, at least for a little while at a time, that you lack confidence. I still feel anxious about knowing what I’m doing pretty often but sticking with it and acknowledging ideas when they come seems to help.

    1. Thank you for sharing.

      There is a lot to be said for having peer mentors and peer models. I try my best to serve as a mentor for the younger-cohorts of graduate students in my department. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten and some of the best perspective I’ve ever gotten came from the words and actions of other students in my program.

  8. I think you’re 100% right that the hardest thing is having confidence in your own ideas. The thing to remember is, someone in whatever department you’re in thought you had potential. They accepted you to the program not just because you asked them to, but because they thought you could handle it and wanted to give you that chance. I have trouble remembering that, but it’s what gets me through the funks that come from counting just how many things are on my reading list (a LOT), or from the times when departmental squabbles and changing rules leave me uncertain as to where I stand or what I should do next. It won’t erase self-doubt forever, but it might help restore some of your resolve to continue.

  9. I don’t think the importance of talking about doubt – especially among women – in academia can be overstated. I could write my own long, boring treatise on the subject, since it is something I have thought a lot about, but I will just thank you for sharing this instead, AA.

    1. I second the notion that if the feeling strikes you, it’d be great to hear more on your thoughts on the subject. Clearly I completely agree that this is a hugely valuable topic to discuss – I can say with certainty that my approach my PhD research has changed for the better due to these conversations.

  10. Yes, I feel the same way about grad school. I watch other people racking up publications and writing amazing books, and I feel like I’m barely getting by.

    I’m taking a break from the academy once I’m done my MA. Personally, I’m not sure the constant pressure to perform, and the continual need for people within my field to justify its existence (to the department, to the administration…), is really helping any kind of intellectual pursuit.

    Anyways, I wish you lots of luck in building that self-confidence. You sound like you’ve got things firmly in hand – I’m sure you’ll rock the hell out of your Ph.d!

    1. “Personally, I’m not sure the constant pressure to perform, and the continual need for people within my field to justify its existence (to the department, to the administration…), is really helping any kind of intellectual pursuit.”

      This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I don’t have any great awesome thoughts for you right now, but I just wanted to acknowledge that YES. This is something that’s been kicking around.

  11. I just got rejected from my top choice (location) school today, and I am supposed to find out this week if my MA program is willing to let me back in for the PhD. Needless to say, my confidence in my abilities and ideas right now is roughly zero. While I’m sad that you, too, AA, are having self-doubt, I am glad that I’m not alone. But I’m mostly just sad that I can’t both study what I care about and live in the city I want to.

    I will stop being Debbie Downer, now. I appreciate your thoughtful post, AA!

    1. It is OK to be sad about and talk about this.

      So prospective students for my program get invited out to visit the university and talk with the lab. They haven’t been accepted yet, but they did make one of the big cuts. This year, we hosted 50% more students than before AND unlike in the past, we will not be accepting all or nearly all. The budget crisis in the state have forced us to accept fewer students even while we’re getting better and better applicants.

      This isn’t going to make you feel better, but I just want you to know that your not getting accepted isn’t a statement on your smarts – at this point, there are so many budget cuts and so many applicants (choosing school because there are no jobs) that it’s really the luck of the draw who gets accepted.

      I hope the rest of your school stuff goes well.

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