I wish I could be the type of brilliant academic that feels motivated by the muse, the type that drinks red wine during the day, writing down all of her inspired thoughts in a leather bound journal. Basically Olivia Pope getting her doctorate. I am sure this brilliant academic superhero exists somewhere; she probably did not have cake for breakfast or write a note in eyeliner on an old receipt. I’m not her.
In fact, sometimes I feel like a fraud. I go through times where I have no idea what I am doing. It can be a horrible feeling. Second guessing yourself is never fun. Unlike a lot of other comics scholars I know, I did not major in English as an undergrad. I do not have a massive personal collection of comic books. I really like Archie. I have never gone to Comic-Con, and the idea of going to any big con makes me feel a bit queasy. All of this can make me question my legitimacy in class, at conferences, and even writing this column.
It wasn’t until I started my classes at VCU that I learned about imposter syndrome. Basically, imposter syndrome is when you feel like a big phony all the time for no good reason. It’s actually a pretty common feeling among grad students. It can creep up on you and really start to cause problems. When I feel like a phony, I feel frozen. I feel like submitting abstracts to conferences is pointless because all of my ideas are dumb. It feels awful.
Imposter syndrome is tough but it’s not impossible to conquer. I have developed a few strategies that work for me. The first is to recognize this feeling when it first starts to come along. It is important to see it for what it is. Sometimes I write down a few sentences about how I am feeling and what is going on. Next I will talk to someone who I trust to be objective such as a fellow grad student or a professor. This person will usually tell me I need to calm down and possibly cut back on the coffee. This is often enough to put me back on track.
If I’m still filled with doubt I ask for help. Asking for help is particularly hard when you already doubt yourself! One of my biggest challenges has been writing for academic publication; I would like to have an article about graphic memoir published in a peer-reviewed journal this semester. Preparing my research for such a publication felt quite daunting. While I am used to writing papers for class I did not know how to take something like a final research paper and revise it into something that a journal might accept. I was worried. Rather than letting that worry paralyze me I voiced my concerns to a professor. She recommended a book called Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. This book breaks down all the steps you need to do to complete your writing project. It’s really simple in its structure and very reassuring.
Finally, it is important to find a way to step back. Sometimes you just need a break. Do a ridiculous quiz on Buzzfeed. Read a comic. Maybe eat a doughnut. Collect you thoughts a little, even if it is only for five minutes. Being focused on your project is important but hyperfocus can really put things out of perspective. I find that when I am writing about something else or working on another project my thoughts become more organized.
I am not one of those effortlessly brilliant academics and I will not put on a façade of perfection. I refuse to pretend to have it all figured out. I’m okay. Perfection is boring anyway. Being imperfect has led me to ask for help–and find all of these great resources. It’s made me ask questions and find mentors. It has made me more empathetic to those just starting with their own research. So, scholars and writers: please contact me if you ever feel like you need someone to talk to. Let’s meet up and fight the fraud feelings! Let me know what snacks you like.