Impostor Syndrome

At one point or another I am sure Impostor Syndrome strikes just about every single person in graduate school. For me, it really hit this week during a class discussion about the lead-up to the Vietnam War. First, the book wasn’t really even in my particular century of specialization. Secondly, I know very little about Vietnam (aside from what I learned in the cursor American History survey I took in college). I could follow the book pretty well, but it was a rather in-depth study of cultural attitudes of Americans toward Vietnam and vice versa from 1919-1950 and assumed quite a bit of knowledge on the part of the reader. That’s fairly standard with scholarly monographs, especially research studies like this, but it can still be intimidating for someone who is not very well versed in the period or geographic area of the work.

Add to this the fact that at least two, if not three of my five classmates were currently enrolled in a class on Vietnam and had been discussing things quite similar to this book for the past ten weeks of the semester. They obviously knew more than me about the actual conflict, about its causes, and about the general scholarly interpretations generally ascribed to the war. I realized this before the class began, thankfully, and so was determined to keep my mouth shut as much as possible and let them uncover the mysteries that I had missed in the book. 

By now I’m sure you know that is, in fact, the opposite of what happened. I started off okay – I had a few good points about the author’s particular aims in the book – but then I started musing on a question posed by another student about whether the influence of communism in the region was more important than the author portrayed it. About ten words in I realized I was out of my depth, but, lacking the urge to just give up, I plowed ahead. My somewhat nonsensical ravings (about differences between the various communist movements in Russia, China, and Vietnam), probably reflected my undergrad-level understanding of the topic. My classmates showed significant restraint by not shoving the interpretation right back in my face, preferring instead to pretend like I hadn’t spoken and continuing on with their higher-level discourse.

I contined to feel like a dope through the rest of the class. I would think about opening my mouth when I had some pithy statement, but did not for fear that I would come across as hopelessly stupid and would actually get called out on this occasion. It was stressful, and uncomfortable, to sit there and feel like I didn’t belong there – like I was an impostor. My only consolation is that everyone I know in grad school has felt like this at one time or another. So, just like everyone else, I’ll keep going and hope that the instances get fewer and further between.

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