Reflections on my academic insecurity

What imposter syndrome feels like [six angry faces flanking a nervous face in the center]

I had a solid undergraduate education at Oregon State University. I learned what I wanted to learn, I occasionally had inspiring teachers, and when I wanted it, I found a community of intellectually curious peers in the Honors College and the lab of my excellent research mentor, Margaret Burnett. Like many students from lesser means likely feel, I felt lucky and privileged to even go to college, and even luckier to have found opportunities there.

Applying to doctoral programs was a very different experience. I visited excellent institutions and met impressive faculty, but rather than feeling impressed or inspired, I felt savagely insecure. Everyone around me was from world-class institutions, had more famous mentors, had more research experience than me, and seemed to know far more about research than I did. I was the kid from the rural third tier college, ignorant, eager, and naive about the world. I was an imposter, I was a fraud.

My six years at Carnegie Mellon didn’t change my feelings of inferiority. I was sure the entire time that if I didn’t work twice as hard as everyone around me that I couldn’t possibly keep up. I felt like I had to hide my origins, otherwise someone might realize I didn’t belong there. I got good at feigning confidence, mostly as a cover for my deep feelings of inadequacy. While my peers seemed to be carefree and and at home, I felt like I’d moved to another country, afraid that I couldn’t survive without knowledge everyone else seemed to have effortlessly.

When it came time to prepare for my academic job search, my sense of inferiority held me back. I didn’t network enough, I didn’t advocate for myself, and I certainly didn’t assert my strengths. People on the market the same year as me seemed to be playing some sort of game and seemed to know the rules about what to say, who to say it to, and how to present themselves to be wanted. All I knew was to write a solid application and hope someone saw some promise in me.

Joining the University of Washington felt like coming back to college. I was once again at a large public university. I was surrounded by undergrads who were like me: first or second generation college students, most without means, eager to make the most of their precious time at school. But suddenly, rather than being in a position of working hard to hide my fraud, I was free to do what had always driven me: follow my curiosity and lift those around me by teaching and mentoring. Rather than feeling the crushing weight of tenure, or the judging eyes of my colleagues, I felt like I was in a place where everyone was an imposter in some way, and working hard to overcome it.

Of course, all this time, I’m sure that few people actually viewed me as a fraud. In college, I had near perfect grades, was president of our ACM student chapter, and was thriving in research. In grad school, I published over twenty works, famously never had a paper rejected, won a lot of fellowships and paper awards, had ten job interviews at many top institutions, and as a student at the top place for HCI research in the world. And as faculty, I continued this visible success, but without the burden of inferiority, and with a strong sense of collegiality and support from everyone around me.

The worst part of all of this is not that I felt inferior. (That feeling of inferiority was part of what made me work so hard.) The worst part is that through all of my success, I’ve probably made countless others also feel inferior by keeping my feelings of inferiority private. I should have spent the past twenty years making my fears visible to everyone around me. I should have called my peers out every time they said something elitist or exclusionary. I should have directed some of that hard work at creating spaces for my peers in my academic community to feel included, supported, and welcome. But instead, awash in imposter syndrome, I hid, and it hurt people.

I don’t hide anymore. Because of outstanding efforts in my community to openly discuss imposter syndrome, to develop mentorship, and to support marginalized groups in academia, I’ve learned a lot about how to prevent all the harm I likely did earlier in my career. I celebrate my successes, but I share my failures too. I try to be radically transparent in my research, teaching, and service, reminding everyone that we are all human, we all fail, and we all struggle. And most importantly, I try to tell people my story, so they see that while I may be successful by many measures, it because of a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, a lot of wonderful mentors who encouraged me and helped me navigate the world. And that if they ever need someone to do the same, I’m available.