To determine how my first post to our blog could have the most impact, I had to figure out what I could add of value to this discussion, while simultaneously thinking about all the plans I currently have in motion – conferences, papers, publications, if the job market will hold after graduation. Like many people in this program, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a teacher, a student, and a scholar. I have a lot of choices when it comes to describing myself. However, lately, the way I have been describing myself to others is exhausted and worried. When I say those two things though, I mean them interchangeably as emblems for the way that I feel on most days: afraid. I’m afraid that I do not have anything original to say, that I won’t be as clever as my peers, that I’ll never know as much as my professors. At the core of all this, I am afraid that I’m not going to make it through my PhD.
A friend once told me that fear is just weakness leaving the body (a misquote of a Marine Corp adage about pain). Still, that image stuck with me. I imagined bringing in a young priest and an old priest to cast out my fear while pea soup got just everywhere. I imagined running away to a cottage in the forest where nothing bad ever happens except for wild animal attacks and showdowns with those Second Amendment Militia folk (both felt easier than academia at the time).
In spite of this, I have managed not to run off yet. I don’t think it is because I am special or because I unlocked an achievement that grants me fear immunity. The thing that has kept me from collapsing into a heap of abject terror is knowing I am not alone. I have been fortunate in my friends and peers in the Texts and Technology program. On the occasions when I have shared with them my fear, I was not shut down for my weakness. This is especially comforting because the academic system in which we operate has no room or patience for our fear. We have been subtly conditioned to think that to be afraid of all this is to be in the minority.
Think about the culture of academia. For some reason the big brass in this country have a hard time understanding why knowledge making is a net good for advancing our species, so those in the business of making knowledge make sure people know what we’ve accomplished. Our Curriculum Vitae describe all of the things we have done right. They are monuments to our success. Looking at other people’s CVs is a great way to feed the fear monster that lives on our shoulders. I know this is certainly true for me. Every time I take a class with a professor, I try to hunt down their Vita. I pour over it and am impressed with all they have done and, for a moment, am convinced I will not be able to accomplish what that person has.
Research has been done on this very subject. Graduate students and new professionals feel it: imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here. Imposter syndrome is the fear that everyone will discover you are a fraud, expose you, and cast you out of the kingdom and into the badlands. Every move I make is one to somehow protect me against this. Not because I have overcome this feeling that I don’t belong, but because I am afraid that I really do not.
We have to make our CVs shiny and impressive while we take courses, work, and try to keep our lives outside of school from falling apart, and it is terrifying. We have to find ways to always be selling ourselves as people who add value because there is only so much treasure to give out. I understand all of this. I know that succeeding in academia requires us occasionally to appear fearless even when it is all we can do not to flee for our lives. On the other hand, to deny this fear, to pretend like you don’t have it at all, feels like a disservice to yourself and to those around you. I for one want everyone who is reading this to know that I am afraid pretty often, and it is exhausting. But I get out of bed every day, and I keep going because I genuinely believe in the work that I’m doing. If anyone reading this is feeling that same fear, you are not alone. You probably aren’t even in the minority. I know the expectation for a post like this is that it will wrap up with something hopeful, but I don’t think that the hope for surviving this fear lies in my words. Instead, it lies in our friends and families and peers, especially in our peers (they’re in a very similar boat). So take a few minutes every now and again to trade war stories about how crazy everything is. There is a lot of comfort in the simple recognition that there is a community of people who know exactly what you’re going through.
***A note from the editor:
UCF provides great resources for students facing similar fears and stressors. Be sure to explore the great campus resources below for tactics to maintain mental and physical health as a student. For additional support, speak with an advisor, trusted colleague, or program director.