Imposter Syndrome. Endemic among PhD students and no doubt much further up the academic food chain. I had all the symptoms. Fear of being found out for my lack of knowledge. The itch to constantly compare my achievements with fellow PhD-ers. The Fear before a meeting with my supervisor. So when Dr Google diagnosed my illness, it was a relief to discover that I wasn’t on my own. Far from it – it seems that Imposter Syndrome is infectious. Insecurity spreads.
So why hadn’t I realised that before? Well, because insecurity has a funny way of manifesting itself. In academic circles, everyone knows more than everyone else. And no-one ever admits it if they don’t. Sometimes the post-presentation questions at conferences are more like a full-on attack than interested enquiry.
I think that all this is because we academics are paid for our knowledge. We are funded to know and to give knowledge. The extent of our knowledge constitutes the extent of our value. Given the bemusement of relatives and friends who can’t understand why you are ‘still studying’, it is easy to feel the need to justify your decision not to just get a proper job.
And yet, my Lord – my real Lord – tells me that it isn’t true of me that my worth is in my knowledge. It isn’t true of anyone, and those who know the Lord should realise it and be different in more than one way. Why?
- Because we know that the Lord sees everything. We can’t hide from him and nor should we try to hide from anyone else. We should strive for a transparency that only comes from really understanding that the one who sees all of us, including everything we don’t yet know, accepts and loves us as we are.
- Because feigning more knowledge than everyone else amounts to trampling over people. The God of the universe who not only knows, but made everything, encourages us to learn, to grow, and to create. The very source of all knowledge doesn’t use it against us, but gently teaches us, training us up to learn more and create more with him.
Academic integrity is, I believe, about rigorous attention to the sources you work with. Brushing over what you don’t know about them only obscures your results. All this applies not only to academics, but to anyone tempted to put on a front in order to appear better than colleagues or even other Christians! I’m only at the beginning of this learning journey and have so much to gain from other people’s experiences and insights. So Lord, may I never be afraid to say a simple ‘I don’t know.’
Laura Hassan is studying for her PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She leads a Muslim & Christian dialogue group, and has been happily married to Simon for several years.