I have spent a lot of my career for the last 30 years or giving advice to young academics, and hearing their advice for me. Early on in that period I was young myself and was fortunate to have fantastic mentors and advisors throughout my early career. Thank you to all of you both for the advice you have given me and for allowing me to think through and reflect on my own ideas about so many of the issues that young academics – and not-so-young academics – face in their careers. In the last few years I’ve put random bits of advice onto social media here and there, and onto my own web page, and looking back at those I realise that my “advice to young academics” posts have have generated the most interest and stimulated the most conversation. Therefore I have decided to try and be a bit more organised about posting up that kind of material. From now on I will try to include tips for young academics more often into my Twitter feed @petergknight http://www.twitter.com/petergknight and I will try to develop that theme here too, with an “advice for a young academic” tag, or theme, or category here on my wordpress blog. A tag? A category? A book? Who knows… give me a break – I’m not that well organised: I’m an academic. My first bit of advice for a young academic is always to be aware that you are going to get a lot of advice from a lot of people, and most of it will be useless to you. Taking advice wisely is an important skill to cultivate as many senior academics have not cultivated the skill of giving it wisely.
A great deal has been written in the last few years about so-called “imposter syndrome” – the feeling experienced by many young academics that somehow they don’t really belong in their new role as a lecturer and that somehow they should never have been allowed to make the step up from being a student. The fear is that you are not good enough, that you don’t deserve this, that you won’t cope and that you will in due course be found out and exposed. There are books about it. There’s a TED Talk about it. Seeing what has already been written makes me feel like an imposter even thinking about writing this post.
If you are in that situation I have two pieces of advice to get you started:
- Get used to it. We all feel that way. Welcome to academia.
- Don’t worry. You are not an imposter. You are as good as it gets.
If you have got the job and you are now a young lecturer, well, you’re it. There is no imaginary, model super-lecturer to whom you are not matching up. Don’t imagine that you are God’s gift to academia, but equally don’t beat yourself up about being an imposter. Be realistic. Be honest. Just get on with doing what you can do and with steadily trying to develop your academic craft.
To some extent newcomers in any profession feel a little bit the same way that you do, but most professions don’t make such a big deal of it as we do. Partly this is because the very nature of academia is such that you have just been thrown into a big pool of competitive and arrogant individuals who are trying to convince the world that they are brilliant and who are trying to climb their greasy pole by seeming more brilliant than their “colleagues”. Sometimes even senior academics ease their own self-doubt by making sure they look better than their junior colleagues. Partly imposter syndrome is worse for us because in academia the new recruits don’t just come in off the street, they convert directly from the ranks: from “the other side of the lectern”. Suddenly you go almost overnight from being a student to being a teacher. Of course you won’t feel confident right away. Of course there will be lots of things for you to learn. Of course lots of things will go wrong and make you feel inadequate. Don’t worry, this is what academic life is like. And it will always be like this, for your whole career, because you will always be able to find colleagues who are, indeed, genuinely brilliant. We can all have our heroes and heroines, but we don’t have to feel inadequate because we are not them.
You are not an imposter; you are just discovering the self doubt that is part of the territory of academic life. If you stare it in the face and turn it to your advantage it will not feel like a problem. If you are an imposter then we all are, which means that you are no less worthy than anyone else to get on with it and do your best.
So here is a longer list of tips for young academics suffering from imposter syndrome:
- Get used to it: it comes with the territory. Most good academics get this feeling.
- Turn it into a positive: use it to encourage reflection and development.
- Realise that you are actually not an imposter: you have strength and merit.
- Make a list of all your qualifications and strengths: recognise your virtues.
- Talk to senior academics and discover that they feel the same way.
- Talk to other young academics and discover you are all in the same boat.
- Helping others with their worry about this will help you with yours. Hold a workshop.
- You do not have to know everything, and it’s OK to say so when you don’t.
- It’s OK to learn on the job and to be on a learning curve.
- Keep asking for help and advice, keep learning, keep developing your craft.
- Never use “being an imposter” as an excuse for not being your best.
- Throughout your career a lot of people have looked at your CV and your achievements and have moved you up the ladder. Even if you have an unconventional background, or even if you are still learning the ropes, and even though – like all of us – you have a lot to learn, that does not make you an imposter. It just makes you one of us. Welcome to academia.
Partly because imposter syndrome has been openly identified and so widely discussed, more and more young academics are saying that they feel this way. In reality, there seem to be two completely separate levels of imposter syndrome. At one level, and by far the most common, I see young academics coming to terms with a challenging new career and attaching this label to their own poorly-defined portfolio of unease. At another level, and much less common, are those people for whom academic imposter syndrome is part of a broader problem of panic and anxiety issues. For this latter group, of course, I really would be an imposter if I tried to offer advice other than “seek professional advice”.
For the former group, those young academics who have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome as a neat way of defining their early-career status, I worry that in dignifying the notion with a fancy name they will allow it define them. For you I have one final piece of advice. If you have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome when in reality you are just a young academic getting started in a challenging career, just put it down again, and let it go. You are not an imposter. Don’t get a syndrome.
I’ve encountered all sorts of people lately who have made themselves a bucket list. Some of them think their time is running short and so they have made a list of things to do in the time that is left. Others are just organising their goals and plans and trying to make sure that life doesn’t pass them by while they are waiting for it to arrive.
But whatever the motivation, most of the lists I see are all very much the same. They are filled with big adventures and extravagant journeys. See sunrise at Machu Picchu. Sky dive from a balloon. Eat this extraordinary food. Swim with that extraordinary fish. Some are philanthropic, raising money for good causes. Some are the culmination of a lifelong personal dream. Some are made up on the spur of the moment when faced with the challenge of making a list. But the list is nearly always a list of things the person wants to do before they go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bucket list of things that a person wants to become before they go. I’ve seen lists of things that people want to achieve, or acquire, but never a list of things that we want to let go. I’ve seen lists of grand, magnificent, daunting things, but never a list of small things.
Is that how we see the measure of ourselves – in the big things that we have done? In the places we have been? In our adventures? Yes. Perhaps we do. But in the end, will we say “look – here is what I have done”? Or will we say: “look – here is what I have become”?
1. There are no rules of writing.
2. If you want there to be rules for writing, that’s ok. You can make some up.
3. If you follow rule 2, you must delete rule 1.
4. If you delete rule 1, you’re on your own.
I suppose this will be a sort of travel book. Not the sort that is packed with tales of adventure on the high seas, or encounters with native tribesmen, I’m afraid. And not the sort that furnishes Sunday timetables to Sidcup. But it is a travel book, nevertheless. Of course, it cannot pretend to be one of those magnificent travel books in the classic tradition, bristling with names like Ulaan Bator and Kasakhstan, and accompanied by a short glossary of geographical terms such as steppe, altiplano and serac. When you shake a real travel book, faded steamer tickets and diamond-shaped baggage labels should slip out from between cinnamon scented pages. The book should carry the souvenirs of its travels as jewels of prose, and as incense in the aroma of the binding. The spine should have been restitched by an eskimo girl, using lengths of her own hair as thread, and you should still be able to smell the seal oil from that final night together in the igloo.
Now, this book might not smell of seal oil, but here is an interesting thing. Any child who has had to learn capital cities for a school geography test will have heard of Ulaan Bator. Anyone with a map of the world on their bedroom wall will have looked, and chuckled, and wondered at the name. But hardly anyone, at least in my part of the world, has ever been there. And none of my friends, or family, or even complete and puzzled strangers that I stop on the street outside my house know of anyone at all who actually comes from there. However, the great thing, the wonderful thing, the thing that reaffirms my faith in Geography and imagination, is that I have never met anybody who doesn’t actually believe in the place. Ulaan Bator is an act of faith. It may or may not really exist, and for most of us it really doesn’t matter. For most people, the same is true of Stoke-on-Trent, which is where this travel book begins.
Unless you come from Ulaan Bator, Stoke-on-Trent might not seem like the most exotic location to start off a travel book. Now, I have travelled all over the world. I have trekked across the Arctic tundra with only reindeer for company, and I have seen the mighty ice bergs drifting out of Jakobshavn Fjord. I have climbed the ash strewn slopes of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi to see icicles on the equator and looked down on seas of tropical cloud. I’ve been across the wide Missouri, and along the Great Divide, and okay, so I haven’t ever actually been to Sidcup on a Sunday, but I have been around. I know a wilderness when I see one. I know what “remote” looks like. I know the sulfurous smell of hot springs that bubble out from beneath glaciers a mile thick, and I know the smell of the desert when leaking fuel soaks into the sand and someone siphons oily water from the radiator into a dented billy can. But in all my travels, of all the places I have lived, Stoke takes the absolute biscuit (or pemmican) for remote. It is a lost civilisation. An undiscovered tribe. There are people here who will reglue the spine of your tattered travel book with clay from their own boots, and bake a fine glazed tile of Eskimo Nell to decorate the front, using dust that they licked from the back of your faded steamer ticket. Stoke, believe me, is as strange and magical a place as any.
One of the wonderful things that I have discovered in travelling the globe is that these lost tribes, these closed and idiosyncratic civilisations, these strange and magical places, are to be found in the most surprising locations. Often they are alarmingly close to home. In the days when explorers penetrated dark continents by paddling upstream along rivers that came from who knows where, the mountains and forests in between the waterways stood as bastions of maplessness against the extending fingers of discovery and civilisation. Nowadays the same is true of the communities that lie in the dark and inaccessible parishes inbetween the motorways. The towns that through-traffic forgot. They survive as cultural refugia. Capsules of time and attitude where outsiders seldom visit, and where the sons of potters raise potters of their own.
Probably the most famous footballer of all time, and certainly the most famous English footballer, was Stanley Matthews. When I was a boy, nearly fifty years ago, his legendary footballing exploits were already the stuff of dim and distant history.He lived on in cigarette cards and old black and white newsreels, with knee-length shorts and rolled up sleeves, running with flickering, jerky, newsreel steps. I grew up in Birmingham, only 40 miles from Stoke, and never once in my entire youth did I hear of Stanley Matthews referred to in the present tense. He was a hero of the golden past, and I assumed him long since dead. Half a lifetime later, I moved to live in Stoke-on-Trent and I encountered Sir Stanley, in the present tense, almost daily. He was a pillar of the community. He opened civic parks and supermarkets built on redeveloped clay pits, he featured in the local press, he unveiled a brand new statue of himself in front of the brand new Potteries Shopping Centre. Stanley Matthews was alive and well and living in Stoke on Trent. And guess what. My own childhood hero, the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, the greatest goalkeeper of all time: he was here too! I have heard it said that once you come here you can never leave. Perhaps it is for that same reason that we don’t know anyone from Ulaan Bator. May be, like Potters, they just don’t get out much.
I would guess that no one in Ulaan Bator knows anyone from Stoke, either. However, one thing I have learned is that the world is designed to surprise us. Or, rather, we are designed to be surprised by the world. For me, finding that I lived in Stoke was a huge surprise. I didn’t know I was coming here until after I arrived. Because of its peculiar local geometry, the natural laws of Geography seem not to apply. It is a strange but true fact that if you really want to visit Stoke-on-Trent, you can only succeed by following signs to somewhere else. If you follow the motorway signs or take the train directly to Stoke, you will, as God intended, be surprised at where you end up. And if, when you get over your surprise, you start to follow signs for the city centre, they will take you several miles to a different town altogether, a busy little town called Hanley that really is the heart of the city, despite the fact that it bears a different name and has never been heard of outside North Staffordshire. It is almost as if Stoke itself is a cunning disguise, a front, a theatrical prop set up for outsiders. All the real action, the real Stoke, has been moved next door to another, secret, town. Like all the best hidden civilisations and lost tribes, elaborate concealments hide it from the explorer.
When I applied for a job at the University of Keele, the booklet told me that it was a quiet campus near some little town that I had never heard of in rural Staffordshire, easily accessible from the M6 motorway, and about midway between Birmingham and Manchester. I don’t recall them mentioning that, oh yes, by the way, we are more or less in Stoke-on-Trent. I suppose they must have done, but warnings are useless: Stoke cannot be seen when looked at directly. Whether light and sound cannot escape from it, like a geographical black hole, or whether the mind conceals what it does not expect to see, I don’t know. But Stoke can have been there all the time and you just didn’t know it. Just like Ulaan Bator.
If this is a travel book, it is about time that we embarked. I have warned you that we will not be going to Ulaan Bator with an eskimo seamstress, but you will want your money’s worth, and we should have at least an itinerary before we depart this chapter. We should at least have done some packing. First of all, we must have a motive. May be we need to open up a new trans-polar trade route. May be we want to find the untold treasures of the east. May be we have a lunch appointment in Sidcup, or may be we just want to get out of here.
In fact, Eskimos aren’t eskimos any more. They are called Inuit. And the people i grew up calling “red Indians” turn out to be Native Americans, with a hundred individual names that I don’t know. All the old imperial and colonial terminologies that defined Geography for English school children for generations hundreds of years have been replaced with labels and titles that are both new but at the same time much older than the terms that I grew up with, Geography is a wonderfully flexible thing. Most of it was made up on the spot as new things turned up needing names, and it can be altered, it seems, more or less on a whim. I had Canada all shaded in as a country I had visited, and then they established Nunavut, and I had to rub out half of my shading. In case I forget to mention it when we visit Greenland later in the book, Greenland isn’t called Greenland, either. It’s called Kalaallit Nunaat. That means “the land where the people live”, because the name was made up by nomadic hunters roaming the arctic who didn’t know that there were places, or people, anywhere else. I think Nunavut means pretty much the same thing, which could become confusing. And while we are at it, just for the record, the Fins call Finland Suomi, and Ulaan Bator isn’t called Ulaan Bator any more, so we couldn’t go there anyway.
The pages of my travel diaries are not for the most part cinnamon-scented. There were sticky cinnamon buns from the Auld Toon Café that we used to fetch in for breakfast when we were students in Aberdeen, but they are memorable more for sticky pink icing than for cinnamon. I used to travel a lot, and have a box full of little note books recounting where I went and what I did. Mostly the entries are cryptic to the point of uselessness as documentary evidence. “September 3rd. Helicopter late because pilot’s head chopped off. Arrive Kangerlussuaq 3pm. Cake. Snow.” Sometimes I seem to have been too busy to write much. I have one diary that just says: “Summer: USA, Greenland, Europe, South America.” May be I forgot to pack a pen. Since I moved to Stoke, I have gradually travelled less and less, until one day I found myself having woken up in the same bed in the same room every morning for two years. They’ve got me. I’m stuck. I’ve hit the Stoke gravity well. I’m never going to leave. I was talking to my next door neighbour yesterday. It’s mid-June, high summer, and he’s telling me that he just took the car in to have the winter tyres changed for summer tyres because he might want to drive somewhere. His car has only clocked up a couple of hundred miles in the last 12 months. He went to Halifax for the day once, and drove around Stoke, and that’s it. Well not me. They don’t get me that way. I left a trail of bread crumbs, or string, or something, and I can find my way out. A motive? Hell, it’s an inspiration! Let’s get going.
What you see up ahead depends on your point of view. To some extent it depends on how you feel about the things that you see falling into the distance in the rear view mirror. People seem to think the mirror is for checking out what is coming up on you from behind, but that’s not so. It is for watching the things you have passed slip further and further back. Watching the train of breadcrumbs fade into the distance. Watching the string roll out from the reel behind you and trail backwards in your wake. Showing you the way back. What would happen if you started to reel some of it back in? Like hauling a long submerged fishing line out of the water, covered in slime and tangled with old boots and bits of wire. And there in the line, fixed like beads, are the places and people and moments of your life. The milestones of the journey, large and small. Some well remembered, others, little colourless lumps encrusted with barnacles, long forgotten. This was your life. But most of it is hard to see. Shadows of the past. You can’t go back. You peer at some unfamiliar shape, some rusted scrap caught in the line, but the closer you look the harder it is to discern its original shape. If you look at it directly it vanishes from sight. It can only be seen when you look slightly to one side; only at the periphery of vision, when you are not sure whether you are really seeing it at all: not sure whether it is memory or imagination.
And what if we turn forwards, looking out across the bow of the ship? The line stretches out ahead of us, dipping under the water like a ferry chain. As you pull it towards you out of the water you pull yourself forward along your path, and as the line comes out, there are the little beads. The jewels and the plastic baubles, people and places and events of your life. Some are new. Some are surprising, but some you recognise. Some you are revisiting. Here is Stoke again. There’s Sir Stanley, older than you remember him. That eskimo girl isn’t showing up again, but look, there’s Aberdeen. There’s Oxford. Look, they knocked down the pastry shop where Marty used to work. Who’d have believed it. I wonder whatever became of Marty: hey, let’s go and visit. And no sooner have you decided than here comes Marty, hanging onto the line and waving hello. “Long time no see. What brings you?” And then you realize: what comes up from the unseen deep and rises along the line to meet you is partly your choice. It is you that hauls in the line, and you that chooses which of its jewels to seek out and recognise. To revisit. Where you go next is up to you. You can’t go back, but you can go again.
[This entry is an edited version of something I previously wrote on my web page, years ago, but I’ve added here because it fits so well as part of the new “Places We Have Known” category]
There are many books that recount the astonishing adventures of brave individuals in fabulous locations. I could not write one of those books. My adventures are not so astonishing. I am not so brave. But some of the places I have been are fabulous, and I have one thing in common with those brave authors: the urge to write something about where I have been and something about the adventures – however small they were – that I have had. No, I am not even Prufrock, let alone Prince Hamlet, but although I never saw those attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I did at least look into the night sky, and sometimes I remembered what I saw.
At least, I think I remembered what I saw. As time moves on, it is increasingly hard to be sure, and it is uncertainty that gives me confidence. Unlike the brave authors of those astonishing adventures I am only going to write about things that happened so long ago that they may as well have been forgotten by now, and if I remember them at all I will be forgiven for remembering them imprecisely. And because these things happened so long ago, it is inevitable that they happened in places that no longer exist. Yes, Greenland is still there; Iceland, Ecuador, San Francisco, Oxford, Birmingham – they are all still on the map, of course. But what defines a place is not necessarily what you can see on a map. Marcel Proust wrote: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience”. Revisiting a road that he had known well many years before, and finding that the people he associated with it were no longer there Proust wrote: “The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered,”
Enough time has passed, and the cast of characters is sufficiently changed, that, even if you were to visit the site of one of my adventures, it would be gone, in every way but on the map.
I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.