Misadventures in Grad School Reboot II: Impostor Syndrome

Read Part I of this delightful series here! Or don’t! Your choice!


THE FIRST TRUTH I learned about grad seminar was that the more confident a student sounded, the more full of shit he probably was (a key indicator is the use of the word “performative” where it doesn’t belong, which happens a lot more often than you think). Shortly thereafter, I also learned that the professor, brilliant as she may be, is but a human being who has either written, or is in the process of writing, an article or book on the text you’re discussing, and is testing out her thesis on you. But nobody tells you this when you’re just starting out, so the first day of seminar leaves even the brightest young intellectuals feeling painfully out of place, not unlike Jakob von Gunten does at one of his earliest conferences with Herr Benjamenta, which consists of the headmaster reading newspapers in silence, and Jakob just sitting there.

I remember walking into a class about a story called Mozart on the Journey to Prague, and being pretty sure that the whole thing had to do with Austrian cultural expansion into the Slavic countries during the height of the Hapsburg Empire, and being quite surprised to find out that what really happened on that journey was that as Mozart went into the forest to eat an orange, the insides of his soul were shaken up to create a substantive Nothing that provided Time-Play-Space for his Being to push aside his lowercase-b being and manifest itself in a heretofore unheard-of Event (Heidegger makes up a lot of words, even for a German). In fact, both of those theories are just theories, but only one of them came at the time from someone who actually knew how to speak Academe. It takes several years of graduate school to realize that anyone can have a good idea, but actually knowing how to make an articulate and substantiated case for that idea requires fluency in a particular kind of communication—a language that beginning graduate students cannot distinguish from the content of opinions themselves.

If for some ungodly reason you are still considering going to graduate school, or have against your better judgment already begun, here is a bit of “wisdom” I wish I’d known ten years ago: there is a marked difference between knowing how to research and having an idea worth talking about, and even 22-year-old dipshits sometimes happen upon the latter. The only thing that makes them lesser is that they don’t know how to make those ideas into scholarship yet, and so because what they believe they have is unsophisticated or dilettantish, they confuse their whirling vortex of brain soup for total worthlessness.  But what they really have are raw materials that just need to learn to shape themselves—but there is no way for them to know this, and so they believe, to their very cores, that they do not know what they are talking about, and the more experienced students and professors do.

But what is really happening is that the older folks know how to talk—but the noobs don’t understand this yet, because how can you understand what you need to know if you don’t know what you need to know yet? Wittgenstein wrote about exactly this in the Philosophical Investigations, when he pointed out that you can’t actually learn your native language by way of pointing to things and naming them (“Chair!” “Elmo!” “Nipple!”), because in order to learn language through pointing and naming, you already have to know what pointing-and-naming is, which means you already sort of know how language works.

But anyway, because early-career grad students don’t know the language of seminar yet, instead they often just assume they must be the only dum-dums in a room full of geniuses. This is called Impostor Syndrome, and it befalls literally every single academic on Earth, from the first day of graduate school until their tenured corpses, clad in elbow-patched blazers, are lowered into a scholarly hole in the ground, and even in death they fret that the surrounding corpses will know they’re actually full of shit.

Impostor Syndrome is like one of those antibiotic resistant super-bugs (or, for you lady-women, a really awful yeast infection), in that the second its sufferer imparts a remedy, it mutates and flares up anew. That is, as soon as you figure out one difficult concept, be it Heideggerian “Un-Knowing” or the reason the robot in Hoffmann’s The Sandman is so sexy, you immediately proclaim that that concept must thusly be something fifth-graders could parse.

This goes for the entire graduate-school cycle: your seminar papers, your M.A., your comprehensive exams, and eventually even your dissertation. Soon, it all just seems like a soup of easy stuff any idiot could do. And this, friends, is why so many academics are pompous dickheads, because they are all scared out of their damn minds that someone who actually knows what they’re talking about will come along and recognize that the impostors have been running the show.

But nobody knows about this when they start coursework, and so they counter Impostor Syndrome with a homeopathic remedy that actually just makes it worse: posturing. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re talking about as long as you show up to class with your materials bound together using a 19th-century bookstrap (the favorite affectation of a philosophy student nicknamed Indiana Jones because of his stupid hat). I once had a twenty-minute discussion with the guy who would eventually become my husband—who is, by the way, the smartest person I have ever met—about what to bring to seminar. He insisted the only respectable way to take notes was onto loose-leaf paper attached to a clipboard, and the really real way to do seminar was to come in with neither writing implement nor paper product, just the book and your big smart brain.

At the time, I was privy to my own obnoxious affectation: a set of identical black Moleskine notebooks, in which I would scribble madly, in different colors of ink, depending on the class, until my papers looked like the “scriptures” of the revered Old Commandant in Kafka’s “Penal Colony,” which were actually upon closer inspection a “labyrinth-like crisscross of lines.” “It’s no calligraphy for schoolchildren,” Kafka’s Officer sniffs, when the continually perplexed explorer admits he can’t read it—and that’s how I hoped my classmates would view my notes, which often contained doodles, including this one, in which I summarize Adalbert Stifter’s Brigitta, in which the titular character is an unattractive woman:


And this one, in which your guess is as good as mine:


Or this, in which I neatly summarize how I’m coming along with all that Heidegger:


The most important element of posturing in graduate school, however, is one I learned quickly and the hard way: do not ever let anyone know anything is difficult for you. Do not betray weakness to anyone, even if that person is allegedly your friend. Do not let on for a second that you feel like you are a water-treading Impostor who is ten seconds from drowning at all times. Just pretend-swim like a motherfucker and pray the water gets shallower eventually.

I learned this by making the idiotic mistake of, in an early-quarter, meeting with the Chair to talk about my seminar paper for his course, which was apparently about “the work of two German philosophers generally believed to be at odds with each other: Kant—who solved the universe’s mysteries by placing them safely outside the circle of knowledge—and Nietzsche, who clawed that circle to pieces” (I got an A-minus on it, which is a “Grad-school D,” and by the time I graduated four years later, any trace of personality and cleverness in my scholarly writing had been duly obliterated).

During this meeting, sitting across from the Chair, for reasons I now do not understand, I mentioned that I was having a bit of a hard time maintaining confidence in my abilities in this new milieu. I think I was looking for some encouragement, some indication that I was, indeed, doing just fine—but if you want to succeed in a PhD program, you have to take that kind of doughy neediness and shove it deep into your bowels and then sew those bowels shut with fishing line.

The Chair was having none of it: he looked into space, then around his desk, and explained: “You need to toughen up, because it’s only going to get harder. You’ve got exams, and then your dissertation, and then getting a job, and then tenure, and then even after tenure, it just gets harder still. Coursework is nothing. This is nothing.”

Maybe he meant the Heideggerian substantial “Nothing,” das Nichts, the Nothing pregnant with the possibility to change one’s worldview. After all, that meeting was certainly the Event of my first year of graduate school, the moment when I indeed did change my view of what it meant to be on a first-name basis with professors and have them deeply invested in my progress. It didn’t matter what I got to call them, or how much I liked them as people: they were not to know what really went on with me, ever, or they would realize that I couldn’t really hack it. All subsequent moments of anything less than DiCaprio-on-the-bow-of-the-boat-level bravado would be internalized and morphed into the appropriate posturing. No faculty member in my department would ever know again that I was anything less than motherfucking German-Studies Napoleon, stumpy legs and all.


18 thoughts on “Misadventures in Grad School Reboot II: Impostor Syndrome

  1. These are great; also, my notes are very similar, i recall a stick figure drawing about “my self is not my self,” or something…. i’ll have to dig them out for a good laugh 🙂 Thanks for sharing!


  2. lolllll bookstrap dudez, I’ve known a few… barf…

    Thanks for these posts! Such clarity and insight!

    Having been the noob in several graduate seminars, I appreciate your ability to articulate my exact discomfort. :-/


  3. That is, as soon as you figure out one difficult concept, be it Heideggerian “Un-Knowing” or the reason the robot in Hoffmann’s The Sandman is so sexy, you immediately proclaim that that concept must thusly be something fifth-graders could parse.

    Ha, I resemble that remark!

    It’s just the same in the sciences. I went through whole series of different bits of physics, convinced that this or that piece of theory must be what the really smart people understand, and then once I was able to do it deciding “No this must be the simple stuff, that thing over there must be what the really smart people do”.

    Heidegger, on the other hand, makes my head explode. Am I allowed to just say “Eh…he was a Nazi. F*ck him.”?


  4. Rebecca, it sounds like you had the bad misfortune of being in a humanities program during the twilight years of the Heidegger bubble, when the gatekeepers, sensing trouble ahead, were starting to get somewhat nasty and defensive.

    Not that things are so rosy now. Imagine those same seminars, but rather than falling over each other to make the cleverest-sounding pun about “Being and Thinking” or whatever, all the grad students are competing to sound the best versed in the jargon of digital humanities boosterism.


    1. The Digital Humanities grinds my gears like nothing else. All the hype of Silicon Valley with none of the understanding of the actual underlying technology. Maybe being a work-a-day software engineer has something to do with it….


    2. That sounds really horrible. At least there’s something kind of romantic about Heidegger and his buddies, digital humanities sounds like the worst combination of faddishness and careerism. Thank god I went to grad school before wifi.


      1. For the past decade, some postmodern theorists have made a career of giving the digital turn that veneer of intellectual romance. Bruno Latour for instance.


  5. “performative” – ha! I do remember that in every other sentence, just after we noted how “reified” a thing was. Everything was reified, or reifying – or perhaps we were all reifiers! In all the posturing, perhaps we were “reiformative.”


  6. I decided a while ago to go for the radical option of admitting that I don’t know what someone is talking about and forcing them to make it comprehensible to the average human being and their cat. The words “I’m not sure what you mean, could you rephrase/define/[whatever] that please?” are actually very liberating.

    Works wonders! Well, sometimes …


  7. “I got an A – on it, which is a “Grad-School D” ‘ YES, omg. I got an A- on a paper in a theory seminar my second semester of coursework and I basically assumed I’d have to drop out. Then I found out someone else got a B+. Then I felt better and also realized graduate school had already turned me into a monster.


  8. Ah yes, Impostor Syndrome. Something that is particularly likely to afflict you if you happen to be a person with a vagina.


  9. Kean has it right. And not just for the academy. The way everybody today cuts away the consonants to leave nothing but a trail of letters allows people to baffle with Bullshit so as not to have to actually impart useful information.
    We all need to ask: What do you mean?How does that work? What are the implications of what you are saying?
    There are no stupid questions, only stupid non-answers.


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