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Archive for August, 2015

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.

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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:

  1. Get used to it. We all feel that way. Welcome to academia.
  2. 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:

  1. Get used to it: it comes with the territory. Most good academics get this feeling.
  2. Turn it into a positive: use it to encourage reflection and development.
  3. Realise that you are actually not an imposter: you have strength and merit.
  4. Make a list of all your qualifications and strengths: recognise your virtues.
  5. Talk to senior academics and discover that they feel the same way.
  6. Talk to other young academics and discover you are all in the same boat.
  7. Helping others with their worry about this will help you with yours. Hold a workshop.
  8. You do not have to know everything, and it’s OK to say so when you don’t.
  9. It’s OK to learn on the job and to be on a learning curve.
  10. Keep asking for help and advice, keep learning, keep developing your craft.
  11. Never use “being an imposter” as an excuse for not being your best.
  12. 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.

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Bucket Lists

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”?

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