Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome hit me hard as soon as I entered the job market. As I perused job announcements and skimmed the required and preferred qualification sections, a sinking feeling crept into my chest: How will anyone ever hire me without experience? How will I gain this necessary experience when all of these job announcements want candidates with experience? Do my MLIS and various internships fall short of this requirement? Will I ever get a job? Those fears may have subsided when I received my first job offer, but the sentiment definitely followed me into the first year of professional employment. And I am certainly not alone. From the discussions around emotional labor (which inherently includes imposter syndrome) during LIS Mental Health Week, to scholarly articles and blog posts, it is difficult to argue that imposter syndrome does not exist among academic librarians, especially new ones like me.

But I find less discussion about imposter syndrome among college students. As a subject liaison to a school experiencing unprecedented growth in its online program, much of my daily tasks revolve around curating and assessing library interventions for a large number of first-generation, distance, and non-traditional students. Many of these students are second-career students who haven’t stepped foot (virtually or otherwise) in a classroom in at least a few years, or, sometimes, as long as a decade or more. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program, these students also work at least part-time to support themselves and their families, and complete internships that are a required component of the curriculum. Additionally, the school recently revamped its curriculum to include more rigorous courses in research methodology and data analysis. So how is all of this affecting students?

Recently, I presented library instruction to a group of students in a foundation-year course about research and data analysis. During the Q & A portion, a student hesitantly asked whether practitioners had to understand statistics to be successful. The student was visibly frustrated, so I thought about it, and said that she didn’t need to be a statistician to be a good practitioner, but she did need baseline knowledge of statistics in order to understand this type of research. I relayed my own shortcomings in this area – I took statistics twice during my undergraduate degree and did poorly both times – but explained that it didn’t affect my ability to be a “successful” librarian. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but this experience reminded me that imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon among students. Of course this student was upset, because everything in the curriculum leads students to believe they need to walk through the door as experts in this field. The student felt like an imposter. College may be the first time in students’ lives that they fully experience imposter syndrome, especially in an educational setting, and this student reminded me that helping students navigate these tacit areas of the college experience is just as important as helping them craft a good research question.

So what are the action items? What does “reaching out” look like? How can I help students who are wrestling with imposter syndrome while acknowledging the uniqueness of their experiences and the privilege of my own perspective as a gainfully employed librarian?

It starts with positive reinforcement. As an educator, acknowledge that students bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Then tell them that they do – even if their unique qualities do not include statistical prowess. I encourage students to reflect deeply on their goals and harness their abilities in those areas. A less grammatically correct way of saying this is, be the best at whatever you are good at.

Imposter syndrome is caused by the idea the we need to conform, that we need to be conventionally exceptional (oxymoronic much?). It is a direct result of the neoliberal model of higher education. Tell students that there is another way. I remind them that we need more people in the world who will foster collaboration instead of trying to the best individually. We exist in a time when we have too much competition, and not enough collaboration in academia and beyond.

When I sense imposter syndrome in a student, I use it as a teaching moment. But I don’t tell students that “everyone has it” because it is not incredibly helpful. Instead, I explain that imposter syndrome is false because you are not an imposter. Your experiences, opinions, and ideas are valuable. Look at your peers and examine why they are valuable. How can you help them? Maybe you can work together, and learn from each other.

The Caltech Counseling Center offers detailed explanations of imposter syndrome as it relates to students, suggestions for understanding imposter syndrome, and outlines the connection of imposter syndrome with gender. The University of Michigan has similar information for graduate students. Inside Higher Ed published a fantastic piece about imposter syndrome written by a graduate student. These sources may be immensely helpful for students who are beginning to understand the effects of imposter syndrome. But I also believe that there are grassroots, campus-wide efforts that we, as librarians, can implement to help undergraduate students who face imposter syndrome. We aren’t their professors (at least, most of us aren’t), but we aren’t their classmates either. For better or worse, we occupy neutral spaces on campus and can reach out to students in distinctive ways. Recently, I founded a first-generation college student initiative in my library. Among my many goals, I hope to help students navigate the tacit barriers that underlie the undergraduate college experience. Partnerships with student services groups, student caucuses, or other stakeholders across campus are among my other goals to help students mediate imposter syndrome.

As librarians, we are uniquely poised to help students with imposter syndrome. I take my role as an educator seriously and want to help students steer the range of problems they face during their academic careers. Instead of competition, I encourage collaboration. Rather than focus on perceived shortcomings, I encourage mindfulness in the areas in which they excel. And I remind students that imposter syndrome is false.

Everyone is an imposter, and nobody is an imposter.

One thought on “Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

  1. Hi Callie,
    I really enjoyed your post. I think that you’ve hit on something that may not be terribly well recognised or acknowledged in academic librarianship – the deeply personal nature of learning & teaching – how that affects our work with our clients & how we practise our profession in an academic setting. THANK-YOU 🙂 Sandra

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