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I suffered badly from imposter syndrome while in grad school and as a postdoc. Although I managed, I think, to cover it up with bravado and gregariousness, I regularly doubted my ability to pass my comprehensive exams, research, write, and defend a dissertation, and secure a job as a professor. It took the publication of my book and my appointment to a tenure-track position for me to overcome it, but it took this past weekend’s conference at the University of Oxford to realize I had done so.
When I started at the University of Virginia I quickly became miserable, personally and professionally. My girlfriend was still in New York, and every other weekend either I would head north or she would come south. Having been an award-winning history major at Baruch College, where I was a big fish in a small pond, I soon found myself a small fish in a big pond. My work habits were difficult to maintain, my studies suffered, and I earned more Bs than As. Although my advisor Michael Holt, Grace Hale, and possibly Brian Balogh had faith in my prospects, it would appear that I failed to suitably impress Ed Ayers and Gary Gallagher, in retrospect with good reason. I left after completing the MA.
With the recession still on and CUNY offering me a stipend, I decided to give history another shot, but immediately suffered another setback. Noting that I had an MA, my new advisor, Jim Oakes, recommended I take the written comprehensive before I even started classes, and I failed.
With this background it should be easy to understand why I suffered from imposter syndrome. And although I passed the writtens on my second try a year later, I earned a B on my second major paper.
I took refuge in student government, a pursuit which brought early success. Elected to represent my department at the Doctoral Students’ Council, I was immediately elected to represent the DSC at the University Student Senate, where I quickly became Vice Chair for Graduate Affairs, was appointed to represent the students on a committee of the Board of Trustees, and found myself regularly rubbing elbows with senior administrators. Although I denied it to myself at the time, it was a way to avoid not only my studies. There remained, that constant, small voice inside that told me that I wasn’t up to the task of doctoral work.
But even then there were signs of the success to come. I published reviews in my minor and major and I earned a rare A from notoriously difficult grader Laird Bergad in his class on the history of Brazil. And I earned an A on my “outside” paper on a topic unrelated to my planned dissertation on industrialization and slavery. Sadly, I spent more time focusing on my doubts than on these successes.
Still, I plugged on. I passed my orals and switched my thesis topic and advisor, moving into the twentieth century and the history of civil rights (which had been the topic of that “outside” paper). Firmly back on track, I researched, wrote, and defended my dissertation.
But now it was 2008, and the job market had tanked. I thought that what remaining academic jobs there were would go to the “elite” scholars—those who had stayed at UVa or worked with pedigree advisors at Ivy League schools. I couldn’t compete with people like Wayne Hsieh, who finished at UVa after four years and immediately landed a tenure-track job at Yale, his undergraduate alma mater. Wanting to stay in New York for the sake of my wife and daughter—where the chances of landing a position seemed particularly abysmal—I focused on applying for administrative jobs, trading on the connections I had made through my student government work.
My advisor, Clarence Taylor, as well as Brian Purnell, one of my readers, urged me to submit my dissertation to presses. It doesn’t cost anything, I thought; nothing ventured, nothing gained. A year after my defense I was under contract with the University Press of Kentucky. I decided to go on the academic job market in earnest.
After two years on the market, however, I once again began to doubt myself. Most of the rejections didn’t faze me, but the ones where I came very close—especially those in New York—were hard to handle. After not getting a job offer at BMCC, where I was the inside candidate, I didn’t even get an interview at BCC, where I was an adjunct and former sub. Then I was rejected for an adjunct job. Perhaps my book contract was just luck, I thought. I doubted my skills with history, I doubted my abilities as a teacher, I doubted I had the personality to win over a search committee.
And then, suddenly, it was over. My book was published and I had a job.
I didn’t think about my imposter syndrome again—by then I had long known the term—until this past weekend when I attended a conference at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. There, toe-to-toe with serious scholars (about a third of whom were from Oxford or Cambridge, either as grad students or faculty), I held my own, engaging in incisive discussions inside and outside of panels with the likes of Gareth Davies, Kevin Yuill, Catherine Clinton, and even a team from UVa—two ABDs and a recent PhD. (Particularly noteworthy were my interactions with Clinton, a seemingly imposing imposing figure during my senior year at Baruch when she was a visiting full professor, who now, as holder of a chair at Queens University Belfast, is “Catherine.”)
But what I found most remarkable was the imposter syndrome on evidence among Oxford and Cambridge grad students. It was then, while commiserating with them, that I finally realized that I was “cured.” I had arrived. I no longer have any doubts about where I stand in our field. I can hold my own with some of the finest scholars in the world.
I didn’t write this to brag. (Much of my career, as you can see, has been nothing to brag about.) Rather, I wrote it to encourage those grad students who may be experiencing similar setbacks to those I faced. My last post contained an unduly harsh admonition to those who have been procrastinating, but I want you all to know just how successful you can be in our field despite seemingly debilitating failures. Focus on the positive, stay flexible, keep working at a good pace, and remember that you are capable of doing great work. If I can do it, you can too—if you really want to.