Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

I wrote the following post the day before I defended my dissertation in mid-May.  Though some of the self-doubt has declined since finishing the PhD and starting my new job, I will probably have to continue working at undoing the damage of the “beating” that we call graduate training.


Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

In her latest blog post, “On Racism, Inferiority, and the Self,” sociologist Crystal Fleming reflected on the sense of inferiority that too many members of oppressed groups feel.  She notes:

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.  When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

Unfortunately, even with a sense of pride in our identity and community, and the related rejection of the prejudices toward our group(s), we still experience the “sting” of such hostility:

But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

To get past this, she argues for further rejection of the dominant society’s stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and hostility:

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

The Case Of Graduate School

I have made a life-long promise to myself to focus my energy as a scholar on advocating for social justice, liberating oppressed communities, and making academic knowledge and research accessible beyond the ivory tower.  In other words, I do not want to waste my energy on navel-gazing, doing research on academia, engaging in initiatives that promote academia for its own benefit.  Lately, I let myself get caught up in debates with some of my colleagues about research, but primarily from a concern of the impact research has beyond academe.  I will give myself a pass, but I do wish to return to scholarship (including blogging) that serves those outside of the academy.

In another way, I find myself reneging on this promise: reflecting on my time in graduate school.  This chapter of my life is coming to a close, and I will soon embark on the next as a professor at the University of Richmond.  So, in that regard, it makes sense that I would reflect on these past six years.  But, I also find myself reflecting, not just to myself but publicly as well, in a way that feels as though pent up thoughts are now gushing out.  Yep, it is as though I remained silent for six years, and now am releasing my tell-all book, albeit in snippets as blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts.  Again, I do not wish to write a book on graduate school — it’s been done, and can be useful, but I prefer to devote my energy as a scholar on work that serves others more directly.

BA Graduation ('07)

Where does this silence come from?  I recently reread a letter I wrote to myself, “A Letter to an Activist,” in which I reflected on my life and upbringing, my values, and my social justice-informed agenda as a scholar.  In it, I noted that I have been outspoken, challenging stereotypes, exclusion, and silences since the age of 5.  My first attempt at activism was demanding that my kindergarten teacher explain why I could only select one racial identity on a form for school.  That multiracial activism flourished, including challenging fellow students who insisted on using the term “mulatto” (possibly a derivative of mule, implying that interracial marriage is equivalent to cross-species breeding), and participating on forums for multiracial and multiethnic people.  Not even three months after coming out of the closet, I was organizing my high school’s National Day of Silence, which also flourished into bigger activism during my time in college.

With the support and encouragement of my parents to be proud of who I am, and to speak up, particularly to challenge injustice, I rarely knew silence and doubt (aside from the doubt many queer people must reject through coming out and rebuilding one’s sense of self).  I came to graduate school just as outspoken.

MA Graduation, IU ('09)

On one of the first days, a faculty member asked what we would do if the US reinstated the draft for military service.  (Six years later, the question still seems odd, its purpose and his agenda unclear.)  My cohort-mates, one by one, gave uncertain answers.  (Really, as a PhD student who would probably be excused, who has thought about what they would do?)  When my turn came, I offered, “even if they don’t ask, I would tell!”  My cohort-mates released a collective, unexpected laugh — as did I, feeling quite proud of myself for responding to a silly question with a silly answer (while simultaneously pointing out that I could not serve [pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal] as a queer person).  These days, that bravery looks much different, less humorous, and comes after a great deal more introspection and weighing the risks of speaking up.

Yep, just days from having a doctorate in hand, I actually feel less brave, more hesitant to speak up, than when I merely had a Bachelor’s degree.  I already knew that self-doubt set in, that my voice wavers when I speak, even in casual conversations with faculty.  It became painfully obvious when, during a visit to U Richmond, my partner pointed out that I seemed strangely unsure of myself when speaking with my future colleagues.  Almost daily, he is the sole audience member to my fiery rants about various current events and controversies in academia; he sees me singing at the top of my lungs and dancing around our apartment when I’m feeling good or sassy.  So, why the heck was I talking to my future colleagues as though I was a nervous, awkward undergraduate student?  (I wasn’t even like that when I actually was an undergrad!)

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

Unfortunately, the very training that is designed to empower me intellectually has also disempowered me in other ways.  The academy’s emphasis on status, expertise, and evidence (i.e. data) has humbled me — no, it has made be carry an overwhelming sense of doubt.  Besides these emphasized values, the professional socialization of graduate training has included a repeated wearing of my sense of self as a person of color, as a queer person, as an activist.  My introduction to “the classics” of sociology included token coverage of “people like me” — one week on feminist theory (including black feminist theory and standpoint theory) in my social theory course.  New projects were often criticized for lacking a “big question” because, as I was told, merely studying the lives of queer people, or Black people, or women is not interesting to the mainstream of the discipline; there must be some broader question in order for it to be broadly relevant.  There is a deradicalization that seems inherent to this professional socialization, as well, which, at times, were made explicit — the promise to “beat the activist” out of me.

So, I hear where Crystal is coming from.  I appreciate her insight and advice.  But, I must say, we face a nearly-impossible challenge of remaining whole as scholars from marginalized backgrounds when we are systematically bombarded with messages that say we are not good enough, that we are not smart enough, that are communities are not interesting, and so on.  Arguably, all educational training is like this, though I suspect things were a bit better for me because I consistently attended diverse (particularly in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality) schools that intentionally celebrated such diversity.  Graduate school has proved to be a different beast for me — at a Historically White College or University (HWCU), in a predominantly-white town, in a conservative state in the Midwest.

This self-doubt, a poison of which I am now painfully aware, is slowly draining out.  At the cusp of “Doctorhood,” I feel myself regaining some of the lost sense of empowerment.  I feel smarter.  I feel a bit braver.  But, it is not merely having the PhD that is returning me to my pre-graduate school sense of self.  Despite the promise to break you down to rebuild you, there is some extra beating-down that seems to occur for scholars from marginalized backgrounds, particularly if they come with activist-leanings.  So, some of this revival has been my own rejection of some of this professional socialization.  For my own survival, I have had to contextualize, distance myself from, or completely reject some of the values of (dominant, i.e., R1) academia.  It seems even Crystal has had to do some similar self-reflection to get to a better, healthier place in her career.

Concluding Thoughts

My take-away point is not to counter Crystal’s message, but rather to give a bit more context.  The dominant socialization processes, which contain values that are not completely relevant to or inclusive of members of marginalized groups, and that even devalue those groups, are enforced and reinforced systematically and through institutions.  We are bombarded with our simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility as caricatures and stereotypes in media, in schools, in politics.  Even in academia — where “average” students of marginalized backgrounds are not being let in — our competence is questioned.  We must do the work to constantly reject these indignities, stereotypes, and hostilities; but, we (all of us) must change institutions that transmit these values and ideas, as well.  It may be time that we stop “beating” students, switching instead to a model of empowerment.  Just a thought.

10 thoughts on “Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

  1. I share and appreciate these thoughts about this transitional moment–being out of graduate school and feeling more impostor-ish than ever. And I’m really happy you’ve featured this essay–share it widely because these narratives have an impact on others.


  2. I love this post, and I’ve struggled with similar issues (though coming from a somewhat different place). I’m beginning to wonder if imposter’s syndrome ever goes away! Anyway, thank you for articulating these thoughts.


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