So, I may have mentioned that this blog is likely to be a pile of contradictions – and that I might end up changing my mind, or refining ideas about things as I go along.
Well, this is one of those times …
I wrote a blog recently about how I feel that my autism diagnosis makes having confidence in my ability to do my PhD really hard (it’s here if you’d like to take a look). In the post, I mentioned how frequently the term “Imposter Syndrome” was used to describe how often people don’t feel like they ‘fit in’ in academia – that they don’t feel good enough. I tried to explain how having an autism diagnosis, with all that this involves, makes this even more tricky.
Well, my blog was picked up and retweeted by Susan Oman, who is researching wellbeing, including in relation to PhD experiences (you can check out her work here). What was particularly interesting was that in retweeting the blog link, the phrase that Susan picked up on was “I feel like an imposter, but not just that, I feel like an autistic imposter.”
And this is really how it felt to me when I wrote it – like all PhD students experience ‘imposter syndrome’ but being autistic makes this even more of a problem.
So why am I questioning this now?
Well, since I wrote the blog, I’ve been thinking about, and speaking to others about how the notion of ‘imposter syndrome’ actually works, and it occurs to me that the phrase, and what it implies, might not be helping.
What I mean by this is that I had been thinking of ‘imposter syndrome’ as something that affects individual PhD students – and that my individual experience of autism meant that my version of ‘imposter syndrome’ was different/worse/whatever than that of others. Well, the thing is that I do still think this might be the case to an extent – and I don’t think that those who aren’t autistic can understand what it’s like, or can know about it. I do still feel that, but in the past that’s made me quite protective of it, and quite “parochial” (I guess) about the specialness of autism and of autistic experiences.
I didn’t want it to be lumped together with other types of individual experience because how could others possibly know about autism? (Which was my individual experience, and the overriding cause of my ‘imposter syndrome’). So it shut off my thinking about other types of individual experience – people who experience ‘imposter syndrome’ because they are trying to do PhDs and balance childcare commitments, because they have come to academia via a ‘non traditional route’, because they are older than the ‘typical postgraduate’ – or all the other hundreds of thousands of ways that people can feel that they don’t fit in with the model of what a ‘proper PhD student’ should be.
It set me apart from them because the term locates ‘imposter syndrome’ in the individual. It sets it up as an individual ‘problem’ for the individual to overcome.
But I’m not happy with that. Because locating the issue within the individual makes it into a ‘personal’ struggle and creates some kind of hierarchy (“my experience is worse than yours because I have autism” or “your experience is worse than mine because you’re from a Working Class background”). It also has the potential to locate the cause of the trouble in individuals – individual supervisors, individual departments. And this in itself is something that makes raising these issues very problematic for those of us who actually have good relationships with supervisors or with our departments. Indeed, this concern makes it feel troubling for me writing this now, because it feels like it would be so easy to infer from my attempts to absolve myself of any individual ‘blame’ for feeling like an ‘imposter’, that I am attempting to lay the’ blame’ on other individuals. But it’s absolutely not that. I have a really great supervisor and I like the department I’m in. The issue is a far deeper cultural one than that, and I think it goes beyond individuals and is historically and culturally rooted.
So I think that this individualisation of ‘imposter syndrome’ lets the wider systems and structures that lead people to feel that they don’t have a place within academia ‘off the hook’. And really, seriously, if this phenomenon is so widespread, across so many different types of student, different institutions, different academic disciplines – then maybe, just maybe the problem is not an individual ‘syndrome’ but a structural issue. Maybe the focus for change needs to be on the concepts and practices, the systems that are creating the conditions for people to feel like outsiders in a place where they have earned the right to be.
And I don’t feel that talking about ‘imposter syndrome’ really gets us to a place where that is our focus for change.
I don’t pretend to have definitive answers for change, but I do want to be part of something that makes change happen – that makes academia a more inclusive place to be, so that those of us who are ‘non mainstream’ can make meaningful, recognised contributions in a way that does not push us to the brink of breaking, or beyond.
My reasons for this are clear and unashamedly partisan – as an autistic woman, I feel that I need academia. I need to be able to go beyond my own personal experiences and understand how the world works around me. I need to learn, and I love to teach. I also feel that I have something to contribute. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and so many people have helped me along the way. But being part of a community means you have a responsibility to it, and to help to shape it, and that’s what I’m trying to do from my autistic perspective.
So the one thing that I feel like I can offer at this point is the suggestion that maybe we should reconsider the language of ‘imposter syndrome’ and begin to talk about something that locates the problem outside of individuals so that we can begin to work within and change a system that actually makes the majority of us feel like ‘imposters’ at some point. Maybe we need to shift our focus much more firmly to ‘hostile spaces’ or ‘hostile cultures’ in the PhD experience and in academia more widely (of which the PhD is a formative part). Because that’s where I think change needs to happen.