Wednesday, November 7, 2007

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Stay away -- I have a syndrome!!

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Gravois writes about a syndrome that's so pervasive I'm not sure it can be called a syndrome so much as an occupational hazard:

On a recent evening, Columbia University held a well-attended workshop for young academics who feel like frauds.

These were duly vetted, highly successful scholars who nonetheless live in creeping fear of being found out. Exposed. Sent packing.

If that sounds familiar, you may have the impostor syndrome. In psychological terms, that's a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment.

"It's like we have this trick scale," says Valerie Young, a traveling expert on the syndrome who gave the workshop at Columbia. Here's how that scale works: Self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive.

By many accounts, academics graduate students, junior professors, and even some full professors relate to this only a little less than they relate to eye strain.

Of course, there's the question of whether it's such a bad thing:
According to [professor of psychology Gail] Matthews, a person with impostor syndrome typically experiences a cycle of distress when faced with a new task: self-doubt, followed by perfectionism, then sometimes but not always procrastination.

"The next step is often overwork," Ms. Matthews says. "It has a driven quality a lot of anxiety, a lot of suffering.

"Then comes success," she says. "So you do well!"

(Pause for a brief sigh of relief.)

"Then you discount your success," she says. "Success reinforces the whole cycle."

So the academy's occupational hazard is society's welfare benefit.

The story links to this site about imposter syndrome -- which has some imposter-y like qualities to it. Take the quiz to see if you have the syndrome. If you have one of eight symptoms -- including perfectionism -- you have the syndrome!!

[And how many symptoms do you have?--ed. All of them. But on the other hand, I also have a blog, which is likely a symptom of the polar opposite of imposter syndrome -- the belief that you are an expert on anything and everything. Indeed, we'll know when the blogosphere has really become professionalized when paid bloggers start fessing up to imposter syndrome.]

UPDATE: Of course, as David Leonhardt points out in today's New York Times, sometimes there really are imposters or frauds amidst us.

posted by Dan on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM


To me Dan, the true determinant of your having the syndrome described is how you felt about your standardized test scores in high school, college and grad school. Did you feel like your achievement on thise (and I'll hold off on reporting those scores to the general public) were "a fluke"? Did you think just happened to have a good testing day? That's a pretty good clue as to your "imposterness" at the time you took that test. What's interesting is that over time, as your continued successes are internalized, your suffering has likely abated. After all, an intelligent person can only believe in luck and chance, etc for so long.

posted by: Ben on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

"I keep waiting to be dragged off by the Competence Police, but they're apparently no better at their job than I am at mine."

(Greg Knauss)

posted by: Paul Sand on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

"She isn't a phony because she's a *real* phony."

- Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's

posted by: C. Zorn on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

Oh, Jeez!

Another "syndrome" to make money for some author and then set up a whole slew of seminars to take advantage of people with Type A personalities (even that designation is hoaky.)

Successful people in professions, academia, and other high demand jobs have to be detail oriented, workaholic, and driven. The baggage with this is that you are unsure of what you have done and always looking for a better way to do it. Unless you have a narcissitic personality (a legitimate moniker) in which case you probably are not as critical and may really be a fraud.

On the other hand, who do you want handling your money, taking care of your health or even building your airplanes? Some one who is complacent and lazy or those people described above?

posted by: mikeyes on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

Its not a syndrome, it is simply mastering the Jedi Mind Trick!

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

You mean there are some 'academics' that realize most of what passes for 'higher education' these days is simple credential mongering?

Good for them!

Imagine how much a business would value a degree in say, 'gender studies' or 'cinema history' versus a degree in Mathematics, Physics or Chemistry.


mikeyes wrote:

"academia, and other high demand jobs"

No doubt you are an 'educational professional'. What a load of horse manure you are peddling. Lecturing for 8 to 12 hours a week and havingTA/Graduate Assistants grade papers for $75,000-$125,000 a year is a 'high demand job'?

Try doing some real work: fire fighter, construction worker, chef, truck driver instead of flinging around crap like that.

Especially with what a 4 year degree costs these days. Increasing at twice the rate of inflation for decades. What a glorious scam! I think I'll become an 'academic professional' in my golden years. You, too, can be paid thousands of dollars a month for producing absolutely nothing at all.

posted by: anon on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]


Thanks for the compliments and the ad hominem evaluation.

For the record, I am not in academia, but my son is and he seems to work as hard as I do, which is at least 55 hours a week not counting on call over the weekends.

Besides, the demands I am talking about are of the Publish or Perish type that afflicts young non-tenured faculty in most research universities. Because of the glut of tenured professors these days, getting a decent job in academia requires a lot of work and a lot of stress. It takes a type A person to deal effectively with this kind of stress.

As for producing nothing at all, it seems that anon has managed to do so since he doesn't have his facts straight, or have any facts at all.

posted by: mikeyes on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]


I feel bitterness in you...perhaps because you couldn't get into this "scam"?

posted by: scammer on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

1. I have all eight symptoms and a couple of others, and it's killing me in grad school! (And I have a blog, too.)

2. Leonhardt's article about Schneider's study is extremely relevant to Bryan Caplan's new book _The Myth of the Rational Voter_.

posted by: VentrueCapital on 11.07.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

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