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So many of us feel it – but can we beat imposter syndrome? - Rachel Whitton

By Rachel Whitton, Curriculum Manager: Professional Studies & Education at Warrington & Vale Royal College and Research Further Scholar

Becoming a Research Further Scholar has been just an amazing experience from the start. From the moment I attended the first webinar, back in September 2021, I knew I wanted to be part of an emerging group of FE practitioners, being supported to explore and share their research within the FE sector and fellow scholars. What an absolute honour to be chosen alongside like-minded professionals bringing educational theories to life within their college working lives! But alongside the excitement came that overwhelming feeling of imposter syndrome. Will I be good enough to do this alongside my peers?

Imposter syndrome is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2023) as the “persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills”. However, while there is no standard definition of the phrase, “imposter phenomenon” (Craddock et al., 2011) the term was first coined by Clance and Imes (1978) whose research focused on successful women who were respected professionals within their own fields. On reading this article, I instantly identified with their observations, as personal experience of inadequacy and feeling unworthy resonated. They discovered that most imposters fell into two categories: the first one is being part of a family where the imposter has been led to believe that a sibling is more intelligent than them, so they set about proving them wrong through academic endeavours and seeking validation. However, with the family still unimpressed, the imposter self-doubts and imposter syndrome creeps in. The second is where the imposter has been brought up to believe that she is superior and can achieve anything she wants. When the imposter realises that actually, they cannot consistently achieve these high standards, whilst obligated to fulfil family expectations, self-doubt slips in, and they jump to the conclusion that they are not bright, and therefore an intellectual imposter. Falling into the first category, my own academic journey began several years ago with the desire to prove to myself and others that I was not an imposter and was worthy of a seat at the table. I look back and question who I was trying to impress. Family, friends, colleagues, the FE organisation I worked for or just simply myself?

Back in 2007, my lengthy university journey was extremely challenging to start with, juggling a young family and a full-time role, and the pressure took its toll at times, but I battled on relentlessly. I was determined to succeed, and yet while not satisfied at the graduation ceremonies, I was always hungry to do more and continue to prove myself. I questioned at what point I might lose the imposter syndrome feeling, as the certificates and achievements were unable to keep it at bay. Years later, I now recognise that those negative imposter syndrome feelings drove my “accidental academic” journey (Wilkinson, 2020, p 363). I had deludedly believed that by proving myself academically I would gain credibility as an educational practitioner. I know now that the certificates do not make us the people we are, it is the experiences we gain alongside the journey that demonstrate our legitimacy. I particularly like the idea of being a “pracademic” which is a marriage of practice and academic reading (Clegg, 2008, p.355).

So how does this imposter syndrome manifest itself for those working in the FE sector and how can we overcome the panic, dread and fear of being caught out it makes being feel? Surely, I am not on my own? Just having those conversations in the office has opened up another thesis topic in its own right! Self-doubt really can be crippling at times, hindering and holding us back. Post-Covid, “imposter syndrome” is more widely talked about in the media, as many of us have re-evaluated our working lives and made significant changes to our career paths, myself included. I often wonder how many of my fellow colleagues also experience those gut wrenching feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence that I do.

But in reality that is all they are - just feelings of not being good enough. It is just an experience where we feel inadequate, as until we can see the evidence, these feelings cannot be rationalised. Provided the evidence, it can then become a self-development activity, where we can develop an action plan with goals to help ourselves develop towards competency, thus overcoming the fear.

We must reassure ourselves that we are all good enough and it is that ability to rationalise those feelings, reflect on them and learn from why we felt them, that enables us to move onto further success. Reflexivity is such a positive tool in exploring one’s own identity and recognising how this impacts on your daily being. Being surrounded by professional colleagues who offer truthful opinions and feedback significantly can help to relieve the phenomenon of imposter syndrome.

We must accept positive and constructive feedback and allow ourselves to believe that we are able to achieve our goals within a growth mindset environment. So in 2024, I shall continue to enjoy being part of a fabulous scholarly group, continue with my academic research with the support of Research Further and crack on with my thesis. I am not in competition with others or more importantly, with myself. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by so many qualified, professional peers at Warrington and Vale Royal College and doctoral supervisors that if I simply ditch the imposter syndrome phenomenon, I know I can succeed. I challenge my peers in FE to recognise those feelings of doubt and insecurity as exactly what they are, banish those notions of inadequacy as just a feeling that will pass in the grand scheme of a doctoral journey – or whatever other challenge they find themselves confronted with in their college life.

References

Clance, P. R. & Ames, S.A. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women:

Clegg, S. (2008). Academic identities under threat? British Educational Research Journal. 34(3) 329–45.

Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.

Craddock, S., Birnbaum, M., Rodriguez, K. L., Cobb, C., & Zeeh, S. (2011). Doctoral students and the imposter phenomenon: Am I smart enough to be here? Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. 48(4), 429–442.

Feather, D. (2013). Has Cinderella Become so Fragmented That She Can No Longer Identify her Area of Expertise? European Journal of Education, 48(4), 586-596.

Oxford English Dictionary. (2023). Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from; https://www.oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=impostor%20syndrome

Wilkinson, C. (2020). Imposter syndrome and the accidental academic: an autoethnographic account. International Journal For Academic Development. 25(4), 363–374.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.