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WriteCast Episode 53: Imposter Syndrome and the Student Writer

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WriteCast Episode 53: Imposter Syndrome and the Student Writer

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© Walden University Writing Center 2018


[Introduction music]


MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,


CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski. 


MAX: In today's episode we're talking about something a lot of students, professionals, and very successful individuals struggle with daily. 


CLAIRE: If you’ve ever question your own abilities, or whether you belong in your program or job, you might know or have experienced what we're talking about on the podcast today: imposter syndrome. 


MAX: In today's episode we’ll learn more about imposter syndrome and talk with someone who's done some research on the subject: our very own Writing Center instructor Kacy Walz.

Also, listener, stay tuned to the end of the episode for a very special announcement. Welcome, Kacy. 


KACY: Hi Max! Hi Claire! Thanks for having me today. As someone who has experienced imposter syndrome myself, I've been very interested in this topic for a while. So, when I was asked to participate in this episode, I was really excited about the opportunity to dig into some research and learn about something that I'd originally thought I'd made up.


CLAIRE: Kacy, to start off can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up learning about imposter syndrome, and what it is exactly?


KACY: So, the term foster syndrome has actually been around for a long time. It was originally coined in 1978 by Dr. [Pauline R.] Clance and Dr. [Suzanne A.] Imes, and they were interested in why people who have imposter syndrome struggle with it. They defined this syndrome as when people who are generally successful, or at least are viewed to be successful from outside viewers, they themselves feel like they are faking it, that they are tricking people, that they somehow don’t belong in the situation they are in. And I had my own first experience with impostor syndrome as a master’s student, but strangely enough, I had a friend of mine who went to a master's program two years ahead of me, who told me there was going to come a time when I was convinced I was the dumbest person in the room. And when he told me that I was kind of mad at him, I thought that was kind of a mean thing to say. But when it happened, I had that in the back of my mind, that he had told me this is going to happen. It didn't exactly make me feel completely better, but it was nice to know that at least someone else had had that similar experience, at least someone else knew what it was like to feel like they were tricking everybody else and just weren’t as smart. 


MAX: So despite achieving huge things in your life and being admitted into a master's program, Kacy, you were still feeling like you didn't belong or you were psyching everyone out like you were an imposter? 


KACY: Yeah, exactly. So one of the things about imposter syndrome is that people who have it tend to be really good at attributing success to things that are not their own, that they can't claim internally. So for me, lots of times that was, well you know “I got to go to a good school, I went to a good high school and that helped me get into a good college and so I got to make good connections, it was my professors who wrote me recommendation letters -- they are the ones who really were impressive not me” and just kind of that idea that... or maybe that somehow even the admissions committee had messed up and somehow my application slipped through without them looking at it and that's how I must have gotten in. 


MAX: I can relate to that feeling too, Kacy. Of “Oh my gosh someone must've messed up because I shouldn't be here right now.” I remember feeling it was the first semester of my master’s program and I remember being in my first seminar. We were reading theory for the first time and I remember it… just, the night before, just struggling and reading this dense theoretical work, and I barely understood…I barely could, you know, make heads or tails of a single page. And then I got to class the next day and five other people in the seminar room we're just citing the theory, and it was just part of their vocabulary, and they knew exactly what the theory meant and how to contextualize it amidst other theories and how to apply it to the texts we were reading. They even did the thing where they turn to the theorist into an adjective, you know, like “Cresswellian” or “Foucaultian” and I and I was like “what? what does that even mean?” And right then and there I was convinced that the registrar, the admissions team, had made a serious mistake or that I wasn't meant to be there. And those feelings, I mean, they dissipated the more I realized, the more I learned, the more I tried, the more I struggled to get up to speed on theory… but they never totally went away. So that that's really interesting how that same feeling kind of manifests itself in a lot of different ways. 


CLAIRE: Yeah, it is a really interesting kind of, you know, you've done all this great work, and yet you still can't enjoy your accomplishment. So Kacy, why do you think this impostor syndrome and talking about it today is particularly relevant to our Walden students?


KACY: I think it’s relevant to Walden students because, as a Walden student, you're often being asked to present yourself as an expert, as an authority in certain subjects. Even if it's just a discussion board, you might be asked to respond to one of your colleagues or to pose certain questions and I…in my own experiences and education, remember feeling just paralyzed by the thought that my peers were going to be reading these things that I posted. What if I ask a stupid question that everybody was thinking how can she possibly not know that already? What is she doing here? And I think being able to realize that this is not the end of the world that I'm not, you know, going to out myself as this impostor, was a big help in actually getting me to participate in class discussions and participate in those discussion boards. 


MAX: So would you say the more you participated in those activities in those discussion boards, the less feeling of imposter syndrome you had? Did it help to be engaged and to keep working?


KACY: I think it did help in a way, but honestly the only time I really feel like I made a big change in my imposter syndrome, or felt like I really had an impact on it all was around…right before Thanksgiving break a bunch of people from my master’s program decided to go out to dinner. And we all started talking about how stressed we were with our final papers, how nervous we were… At the school I went to we were all competing for teaching fellowships, which of course added to my imposter syndrome. So we discussed nervousness about that…and hearing other people voice some of the same concerns that I had was extremely helpful. I think that's when our walls kind of came down and we all became friends instead of feeling like we were in competition. And so, one of the reasons that I was really interested in this podcast episode is because that was so freeing for me, to hear that other people were having these same kind of concerns, and I thought it would be helpful for others to join that conversation as well.


CLAIRE: Definitely. I can see, too, how it would be it uniquely challenging as a Walden student because you don't have that kind of venue to go out to dinner with your classmates and colleagues. And so I would really encourage students to, you know, try and connect outside of class and share those feelings. I know there are communities and Facebook groups and all sorts of ways for students to kind of get together for student-to-student support… the Writing Center would probably be helpful to you with our paper reviews and other services to kind of give you that support, tell you that you're on the right track and help focus on whatever your goal might be that day.


MAX: That's a really really great point, Claire. And I think it does, it adds a certain extra burden on the Walden student, because it's not built in the same way that it was in, say, Kacy’s experience. But I totally agree, I think it's such an important thing to not feel like you’re a loner, not to feel like you are the only person in the world going through the same thing because even though, Walden student, you are doing something that not many people can do, you're not alone out there. And you just have to go through and utilize those resources to find where you can build that community.


KACY: Yeah, and Claire, you mentioned about paper reviews… one of my favorite comments that I receive when I look through the results of my confidential surveys, is when students say something about being nervous about returning to writing after a while perhaps, or about even being nervous to just submit their paper to the Writing Center, but then feeling like they got positive feedback, but also gained some confidence in themselves and their own writing.


MAX: Absolutely. I have a question that pulls in a different direction. So one thing you mentioned, Kacy, is that people who are suffering with imposter syndrome experience success they often ascribe that success to external factors. Like you were saying the admissions committee made a mistake with your application or your faculty members stood out when they wrote your recommendations and it didn't have anything to do with you. So sometimes it feels like that success can come from without, however it's so easy to put those failures square on ourselves. It means that you're always thinking that your successes are not of your own and that your failures are always your own. And that can be a really difficult and damaging experience, don't you think?


KACY: Definitely. And so I was really glad when I came across this source, it's called “Intellectual self-doubt and how to get out of it” by a PhD holder named Adam M. Persky. And he gives these ten steps that I think are super helpful. So if it's okay with you guys, I’d like to go through them with you:

1. The first step is to break the silence. And so, when we were talking about finding those connections, maybe outside of Walden or outside of your school experience, and since we are working remotely, we are working online, finding somebody to confide in to explain that you are having these feelings. 

2. The second is to separate feelings from fact. And I love this quote from Persky who says “I need to separate fact from feeling. Feeling stupid does not mean I am stupid” and taking that step back to recognize that you are putting this perception on yourself. 

3. And the third step is to recognize the feeling fraudulent is warranted. Sometimes it's actually really helpful to have self-doubt. For instance, the first time I ever presented a paper at a conference, I was super nervous about it and I, you know, my impostor syndrome was kicking in. But instead of just panicking and feeling like I was not going to be able to do this, I reached out to a friend of mine who had participated in conferences in the past and got some advice and was able to talk through kind of some things to expect and how to, if I did get a question I didn't know the answer to, how to respond in a way that was fitting for that situation. So in those kinds of situations your self-doubt might actually be useful.


MAX: And Kacy was kind enough to share the Persky source with us, so I'd like to share a couple of the tips that Persky gave that really resonated with me as well: 

4. Another piece of advice Persky had was to look for the good in your work rather than striving for perfection. And I think the axiom goes ‘the perfect is the enemy of the complete.’ And it can be a really challenging thing to do, but to recognize when the thing you're working on is finished enough that you can set it aside and move on to the next thing. One thing I've learned in my time in grad school and working with students here at Walden is that nothing is ever completely perfect, and it just gets in the way of being done.

5. Another tip that Persky gives is that people who are dealing with imposter syndrome can seek to develop a different response for when things don't go the way they want them to. And Persky advises to look at mistakes as something you can learn from rather than evidence of your own inadequacy. And this one really spoke to me because I deal with this on a daily basis working with Walden students in paper reviews. Giving feedback on a student's writing, often critical feedback or feedback where I'm describing what a student can improve on in her writing… that's something that I take very seriously because I know how that feedback can come across sometimes. And so one thing that I really strive to do is to show students, okay, I'm…nothing personal here, and I'm just giving you input on how you can improve your writing. And I think that goes nicely with Persky who’s saying, when you realize something went wrong or when something went badly, instead of saying “Oh, I guess I'm bad” or, like Kacy was saying before, “Oh, I'm stupid,” or “I sound stupid”… it's not that you're stupid or that your bad. It's just that you have room to work. And that if you take the feedback seriously, if you think about those mistakes as an opportunity to improve and to get better for the next time, it could be a really productive experience instead of one that makes us really question our self-worth. And, listener, I know how hard that can be. It's not an easy thing to do. But your faculty members here at Walden, especially all of your Writing Instructors and Dissertation Editors in the Writing Center… we're here to help you achieve your goals. Everything we say, all the instructional content we provide to you, is to help you get better.

6. And another tip from Persky is to acknowledge your limitations. It's okay to admit when you don't know something. It's okay to ask for help if you don't know the answer to something. That's not, that doesn't have to be the end of the story. That could be the beginning of the story where you reach out to a faculty member or to a fellow classmate and it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship where you are supported and you're supporting others around you.


CLAIRE: Thanks, Max. I want to add to that the last one too, that one thing that I know that students sometimes feel is that they should know all of APA. And that's not something anyone expects of you. You know, so it’s okay to not know and come to the Writing Center. Like, check out our resources, ask one of us if you don't know, and we don't always know everything either, so it's really an important part of the learning process and especially in being a student. Alright I'm going to go through the last few pieces of advice: 

7. Rewrite the script: That means understanding exactly what it is that makes you feel like an impostor and then consider whether or not it's reasonable to have self-doubt in that particular instance. So for example, if you're feeling like an impostor think about “Is this really an expectation of my program or from my colleagues?” If the answer is “no,” then that's probably something you need to mentally re-write and reassure yourself “this isn’t an expectation that others have of me; it's just something I'm putting on myself for no reason.”

8. Some other tips are: Picture yourself succeeding. So really imagine yourself in a successful, glowing light where you feel really confident. And that's kind of a mental intent exercise, kind of just a little bit of mental work to really make sure that you're building that inner confidence through your thought process as well. 

9. Also, reward yourself and accept accolades. This can be really hard to do especially if you feel like you haven't really earned whatever people are congratulating you about, but work on accepting it. Because someone is complimenting you or giving you accolades because you did something that was meaningful or that they appreciate. And that's their experience, so it's not really something for you to decide whether you deserve or not. That was their experience and they’re complimenting you. So really work on accepting it to help boost that confidence as well. 

10. And lastly, you can always fake it till you make it. So really think of yourself as a confident person, act like a confident person, go through your tasks and really just be that confident, successful, intelligent you. And there is some research that that really works over time. 


MAX: Kacy, do you have any final points or any wrap up you'd like to share with the listeners today? 


KACY: Sure. Well, I won't be as confident as my friend was, I'll say, there maycome a time when you feel like you're the dumbest person in the room, but if that comes about, take a step back and think about all these different pieces of advice we've given. Consider whether or not maybe you're just suffering from imposter syndrome.


CLAIRE: Thanks so much for listening today, everyone, and stay tuned because we still have that special announcement coming up. But first we’ll go through some resources that we think might be beneficial to you after listening to today's episode. So we have two Academic Skills Center resources that we’ll recommend today. One is a webinar called “Feeling like you don't belong as a doctoral student? Tips to overcome in the imposter syndrome” and we’ll link to that as usual in our blog that houses this episode. There's also an episode from the Savvy Student podcast, a two part episode, about “Being a doctoral peer mentor and imposter syndrome” and “The doctoral peer mentors and imposter syndrome,” and you can find the Savvy Student podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud or via the link in our show notes. 


MAX: Here in the Writing Center we've also developed quite a few resources about how do you take feedback constructively and well and apply it towards moving forward and progressing in your writing skills. So instead of taking feedback and automatically feeling like an imposter or like you are the worst writer in the world, instead we've got some resources that can help students understand what to do with that feedback to make it a productive, forward moving experience. And we will link those blog posts in the show notes as well.

And I suppose then it comes time for our super special announcement, which is that this is my last show co-hosting WriteCast with Claire. And this is a bittersweet moment because, Claire, it's been such a pleasure co-hosting with you and sharing my experiences with our listeners and you know trying to do just a little bit of good to help support Walden student writers on their journeys to achieve their goals. But it's also sweet because I am staying on with WriteCast. I'm going to focus my energy on promoting the WriteCast episodes and expanding our web presence. It's also super super sweet because ::drumroll: our next cohost, who will be coming on to cohost with Claire, is Kacy! And so, Kacy, thank you so much for agreeing to share your experience and your expertise and your hilarious wit with our listeners out there. And I would be remiss if I didn't say thank you one last time to our producer extraordinaire, Anne. I am always amazed at the great work that you do and it's been such a pleasure and I'm so excited to continue working with you in a different avenue. So thank you, Anne, thank you, Claire, thank you, Kacy, and most of all, thank you, listener. Without you WriteCast wouldn't be a thing. it would just be some friends talking to each other. 


CLAIRE: Well thanks so much, Max. It has been wonderful co-hosting with you. And welcome, Kacy!


KACY: Thanks, I know I've got some big shoes to fill. 


MAX: Claire, if it's alright with you, can we do the sign off one last time together?


CLAIRE: Yeah! 


MAX: Awesome. 


CLAIRE: Thanks for coming today, listeners, and remember: keep writing…


MAX: and keep inspiring. 




MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog: Thanks for listening!