May we dance in the face of our fears. — Gloria Anzaldúa
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. — Søren Kierkegaard
In 1978, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in their article on high-achieving women:
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.
Imposter syndrome is a popular term now, used in a variety of contexts and across gender identities.
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen identifies three types and sources of imposter syndrome. The types include
(1) fear of being discovered as a fraud or fake;
(2) a belief that achievement comes from hard work or luck rather than skill/intelligence;
(3) the inability to acknowledge recognition for an achievement.
The sources of imposter syndrome are insidious. They often arise in childhood if you were praised for “being smart.” You develop a fear if you score low on a test, for example, you’re no longer smart. If you make what you perceive as a mistake, you revoke your “smart” status and become an imposter.
The second source is obvious: institutional and individual oppression. If dominant groups not only make you feel like an outsider but define the very qualities of an insider/expert as those which can be only held by white, straight, cis, able-bodied men, the problem is compounded.
The third source is the paradox of meritocracy. You may not believe meritocracy exists (I don’t), but the problem is it bases all of your achievement markers on so-called meritocratic measures. When tests don’t go your way, the proverbial rug is pulled out and you’re left feeling like a fraud.
4 Characteristics of Interdisciplinary Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can strike any writer or academic. It knows no limits. There are structural factors in the academy, however, that can make you feel like even more of an imposter than you already do (beyond the ones already mentioned which have to do with oppression and so-called meritocracies).
If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar — which means you straddle two or more disciplines — you’re at an increased risk for imposter syndrome. As a former interdisciplinary professor and current editor who works with interdisciplinary scholars, I am upset by the double layer of doubts I see shoveled on us because of our subject choices.
1. You Have Frozen Deer Syndrome
Starting a new writing project can be daunting, no matter the discipline. But if you’re an interdisciplinary scholar, it’s especially hard to know where to begin. This is because your graduate school training either only addressed methods relevant to one discipline or you received a hodgepodge methods training.
Let’s say you want to study why white women voted for Trump. As an anthropologist, you weren’t trained in political science. Should you use anthropological methods to pursue this question? Or should you use political science methods? Or, should you use women and gender studies methods? These choices affect research design, but you go round in circles, not only wondering if you selected the right method, but worrying whether disciplinary scholars will scold you for not using it correctly.
What happens? You freeze. You do not flee, and you do not fight. The emotion becomes trapped in your subconscious, playing out repeatedly.
2. You Cannot Choose a Publication
Which journal should you select for publication? This task is difficult enough if you confine yourself to one discipline, but if you have two or more, you not only have those journals in each discipline but also those that are explicitly interdisciplinary! But interdisciplinary journals are often ranked lower than disciplinary journals (this matters for tenure and promotion), so even if they’re a good fit, you wonder whether it’s the right choice.
3. You Feel Like a Double or Triple Fraud
Congratulations! You get to have all the insecurities of not one but two disciplines. You go to one conference, worried that scholars will criticize your innovative use of their method, and then you go to the next one in a different discipline and have similar fears.
To make matters worse, these worries following when writing. This adds up to a double or triple the inner critic voices you normally deal with when writing. As soon as you commit to a method, doubts creep in about the peer reviews you’ll receive after journal submission.
The trouble is these fears are often proved correct when you receive negative and unhelpful feedback from disciplinary-bound scholars wedded to particular sets of methods. This makes the revise and resubmit process fraught with additional difficulties. Unfortunately, scholars may abandon their manuscript as a result.
4. You Don’t Know Who Has Your Back
Even if you’re lucky enough to “find your people” in an interdisciplinary space, it’s often rare there will be comparable scholars at your home institution. Who can you turn to for help?
Who will advocate for you at your home institution if no one understands your work? Who will evaluate your work when you come up for review? These are legitimate fears that can halt your writing progress in its tracks.
11 Ways to Overcome Interdisciplinary Imposter Syndrome
Sometimes we caught in a thought-loop of imposter syndrome that prevents us from moving forward not only in producing scholarship but actually enjoying the process.
Good news! There are definite reasons to rejoice as an interdisciplinary scholar. The next time imposter syndrome rears its head, return to this list for inspiration about why you really are the best kind of scholar (not that I’m biased).
1. No One Can Touch You
Guess what? You’re the expert in your new field! And I’m not talking about minor differences in method scholars may quibble over in one discipline. You’ve created an entirely new approach to an old question or used an old approach to address an entirely new question. Take everyone’s feedback with a grain of salt — which is what you should be doing anyway, regardless of discipline. That’s because feedback only tells you about the person giving it.
2. Use Chaos to Your Advantage
I’ve seen this happen often in cases of rank and tenure. An interdisciplinary scholar fits nowhere, which creates confusion for your home department, the rank and tenure committee and other decision-makers. Instead of worrying about it, use it to your advantage!
Let’s say you have a few curmudgeons in your home department who are not fond of interdisciplinary scholars like you. Well, then request you have someone from your other discipline on your committee. Make it clear you are a scholarly unicorn: do your best to explain yourself to everyone, but do not make excuses for your existence. It’s not your fault the academy is siloed.
3. Embrace Your Journal Options
Instead of viewing your journal options as a limiting factor due to overwhelm, look at it as double or triple the options you had before. Besides, you can tell your review committee you chose these interdisciplinary journals because nothing else fit your work and it’s too bad they don’t have an impact factor. The other good news is you have a better chance of acceptance at one of these journals because it fits your research so well.
4. Triple the Options for Funding
Congratulations. You have tripled your options for applying to fellowships, grants, and funding: your two home disciplines plus your interdisciplinary niche. If you’re in the social sciences and/or humanities, H-Net has some amazing opportunities.
5. You’ve Been Freed as a Teacher
As an interdisciplinary scholar, you can look for opportunities to cross-list courses, teach in other fields and take a looser, more creative approach to teaching. Experimentation becomes a necessity, which almost always improves your teaching (if not in the short run, over the long run).
6. More Relationship-Building Opportunities on Campus and in/with Communities
This is one of the most taken-for-granted aspects of an interdisciplinary scholar’s life. You have opportunities to meet and work with a variety of people on and off-campus, and you’ll probably be in demand because you’ve had to become nimble as a scholar between, around, and in different fields.
7. Dodge Departmental Politics & Methods Struggles
If your department suffers from this malady, I’m sorry. The good news is that because you’re not attached to particular approaches within one of your home disciplines, you can avoid this often ugly political battles successfully.
8. Produce More Innovative Research
I’m not knocking disciplinary-bound scholars here, just pointing out how interdisciplinary scholarship forces you to become innovative, whether you want to or not. Though it may be dismissed at the time it’s produced, it probably will have its day, so keep going.
9. Respond to Journal Feedback in a More Holistic Way
Rather than getting caught up in the details of methodological or theoretical challenges embroiling a particular discipline, you’re freed up to look at the big picture of your work when you receive peer feedback. If you disagree, take it to another journal!
10. If Things Turn Ugly in One Department, Flee to Another
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen. One department becomes so unbearable for a scholar they seek refuge elsewhere (or a dean does this for them). I hope you’ll never face this problem, but it is infinitely easier to do so if you’re an interdisciplinary scholar.
11. If You Have an Insatiable, Restless Mind, Interdisciplinary Research Can Be More Sustainable
Though interdisciplinary research can encourage shiny-object-syndrome, the upside is you’ll never be wanting for research topics. There are always new avenues and directions. As someone who can become bored quickly by one topic, I relish the opportunity to follow a tangential inquiry.
Bottom Line: Embrace Your Weird
You’re the odd-person out in the academy. So what? Embrace your weird. Use it to your advantage. And ignore the haters. They’re just jealous.
This post was previously published on The Writing Cooperative and is republished here with permission from the author.
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