Imposter Syndrome

Recently, I’ve been talking with some fellow professionals about imposter syndrome. This is where you never feel like you’re quite good enough, but work on faking it till you’re making it. It’s when you assume a certain role yet never quite feel qualified, and wonder when other people will figure it out.

The more I talk about it with others, the more I realize that we all experience this phenomenon.

Other people look at me, and think that because I can put “PhD” after my name, I must really know a lot of stuff.

Well, I am pretty smart, but I was smart before I earned the degree, and plenty of people who don’t have those letters after their names are pretty smart as well.

The degree alone is not an indication of intelligence, or success, or the ability to own a room, or, let’s be real, an indication of ability to obtain gainful employment. The job market is tough out there, especially for people with “PhD” after their name.

So, what is it, then?

I really think the degree is a “to each, her own,” kind of situation.

For me, I have learned that those letters after my name are an indication of my stubbornness, my personal drive, and my simple yet profound inability to tolerate bullshit.

There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells about having a conversation with a polite, older gentleman at a party. The gentleman gestures to the others in the room – people who are accomplished at Doing Great Things – and says that he doesn’t belong there. After all, he explains, he just went where he was told.

Well, says Neil Gaiman in response, you were the first man to walk on the moon. That has to count for something.

That’s right; even Neil Armstrong has moments of experiencing imposter syndrome, despite his incredible achievements in aviation.

Much like Neil Armstrong, I feel the need to reduce my accomplishments to simply following a checklist. To earn a doctorate in Literature, do these things. Enroll in classes, check. Earn high grades in these classes, check. Take and pass qualifying oral and written exams, check. And so forth.

Because I simply followed the checklist, I often feel I need to apologize for the degree sometimes, or to hide it, as if to say,  “I know this doesn’t make me better than anyone else. And I’m just as self-confident without it. Please don’t think I’m a jerk.”

Much like Neil Armstrong, I simply followed the path I was pointed down and checked things off my list. And yet, I realize now that one of the singular benefits I earned from working on this degree is that I was willing to raise hell when I was prevented from accomplishing some of the things on said list.

One of those things involved earning X credits of coursework in order to qualify for graduation. I moved through my program, earning said credits (check). I asked for, and received, approval to take several classes at the college where I earned my master’s degree (check). After successful completion of these classes, I had official transcripts sent to my doctoral program advisor (check), who confirmed receipt.

Then, he retired and left the university. Years passed. I had completed all other items on the checklist and was ready to graduate.

Then, with mere hours to go before close of business on the last possible day that I could have all materials submitted to the graduate school to qualify for graduation, I received an email saying they had never received my transcript for the classes I took years before. I had an email from the previous graduate coordinator confirming receipt of them, but no one cared. The mistake was on the part of the university, yet I was going to suffer the consequences.

I…did not handle it well. This came after many other obstacles that were so unacceptable I still cannot believe this was my experience.

I ended up on the phone with my sister, clock ticking, trying to figure out what to do.

My panic lasted about twelve seconds before my resolve kicked in. There was no way I was letting this happen. I was not going down without a fight.

My sister called a courier while I called the registrar of my former school. I explained the situation, and the registrar graciously agreed to expedite an official copy of my transcript, bless her beating, beautiful heart.

The courier picked up the transcript, and I met him at my university. We walked into the graduate office together, with less than an hour to spare before close of business.

Everyone froze. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but in hindsight I see that they must have all thought I was serving the dean with legal papers.

Instead, I simply wanted the dean’s signature to acknowledge receipt of the transcript in time for me to graduate that term. There had already been several other delays for reasons outside my control, and another six-month delay to graduation based on an error on the part of the university was not something I was willing to accept.

An office staffer tried to get the courier to let him sign for it. I refused to allow it. I insisted that the dean step out of his office to sign for it himself.

More silence. They tried again to get me to acquiesce; I stood my ground.

Finally, the dean came out. He signed the paper on the clipboard, and the currier went away. He reviewed the transcript and said that it was sufficient, though expressed surprise that I had gone to such lengths to get it to him.

And, in the end, it turned out that I had one class too many and didn’t need to go through all of this, but the people reviewing my file were inept and incompetent. There were a lot of instances of incompetence and poor process management along my way toward completing that checklist. But after all of the work I had put in dealing with this nonsense, I was determined to finish what I started.

Maybe I’m not such an imposter after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borrowing Money for School: An Exercise in Confusion and Mild Panic

I am lucky. I grew up knowing that my parents would pay for my college education. This was not easy for them. I have two sisters, and my parents were committed to sending each of us to college. They worked, and saved, and budgeted, and at times fought over saving and budgeting.

When I wanted to transfer from my affordable and respectable state institution to a fancy and expensive private school, my dad sat me down and explained the reality of that choice. I didn’t fully understand the impact of taking on a lot of student loan debt at that time, but I did understand that student loan debt, or any kind of debt, was Serious Business.

I paid attention. I made it through my bachelor’s degree with zero debt. I worked part time during the school year, and full time during the summers. Just as much as the fact of my going to college was always a given, so was the fact that if I wanted to attend graduate school, I would have to find a way to pay for it myself.

So, I did. I worked full time for a number of years, and when I found a program that I liked, at a school that was close enough to get to in the evenings after work, I applied.

I paid for it in part by taking advantage of my employer’s 50% tuition reimbursement deal, which they honored for a few terms until they realized that someone was actually using that benefit and cut off the funds. I also had some savings, and a small inheritance, and so paid cash for the rest. By spreading the classes out, one per term (except for the summers, when I inexplicably doubled up in a concentrated amount of time; I do not recommend this), I earned my master’s degree without a penny of debt.

Then, I went back to school for my doctorate. I did not need to borrow money to cover living expenses, but I did borrow to cover tuition. Having never borrowed money for school before, I took it upon myself to go to the financial aid office in person to make sure that everything was squared away.

I had already filled out the FAFSA forms. I had taken the FAFSA quiz that has questions along the lines of, “you know you have to pay this back, right?” The government offered me the full amount of unsubsidized loans: $12,500/year.

The catch was that I didn’t need $12,500 a year. Tuition was in the neighborhood of $4-6,000 per year, because 1) it was an affordable state school, and 2) I was only attending part-time.

I couldn’t figure out how to decline any part of the excess money, so I walked into the financial aid office of my school and introduced myself. I said I was new to that school, and to the student loan process. I asked if someone could please tell me how to borrow the money that I do need, and decline the money that I don’t.

Seems straightforward, right?

The lady behind the desk handed me a form and said to fill it out. There was a box at the bottom for me to handwrite my explanation as to what money I wanted to decline. This seemed rather unofficial to me, but after all, these are the people who should know, right?

I filled out the form. I again explained my intention. I was told that I had done what I needed to do, and to have a nice day.

Huh, I thought. That was easy enough.

About a month later, I received a statement from the U.S. Department of Education. The statement showed that I had borrowed the full amount offered, and that interest was accruing.

I went back to the financial aid office. I again explained my situation. I was again told that I had followed the procedure to only borrow X dollars and decline the rest.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I explained. The financial aid staff was confused. I had followed the procedure and they had logged my visit in the computer. If it said in the computer that I had done what I was supposed to do, then we were all set.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I said again.

I refused to leave the office until we got this figured out. It was an uncomfortable situation. The financial aid staff kept insisting my account was set up properly. I kept showing them the loan statement showing that it wasn’t.

Eventually, defeated, I left the office, confused, but unable to get anywhere.

Then, I received an email saying that if I did not settle my account within three business days, I would be dropped from my schedule.

Excuse me? What’s this now? Had I not followed the procedure? Did I not go, in person, twice, to speak to financial aid professionals to ensure that my account was set up properly?

Did I not fill out the form that I was told twice was all I needed to do? Did the financial aid staff not check the computer and see that my account was set up properly? And as the Federal Government was charging me interest, clearly something was paid to someone. If I didn’t have the money, and the University didn’t have the money, who had the money?  What on earth was going on?

I went back to the financial aid office. Again, I had to insist that my account was not, in fact, set up properly, only now I had the added component of the threat of being dropped from my classes, and I had no idea why.

I insisted on sitting down with a supervisor in the financial aid office. She checked the computer. She said what everyone else kept saying: my account showed that I had set everything up and so clearly had not borrowed the extra money. I showed her the loan statement from the federal government showing that the government had loaned me the full amount.

I showed her the email saying I was about to be dropped from my classes and now had only had two business days to work out what I had thought I had worked out weeks ago by going, in person, twice, to the financial aid office, explaining my situation, and asking for help.

Here’s where I fast forward to the conclusion: It turns out that when the Federal Government issues student loan checks, it sends the checks to the school. Then, students apparently, as if by magic or telepathy, have to know to show up at the Bursar’s office at a particular time of year to claim the check.

To this day, I have no idea how students learn they have to do this. I never got a letter or an email or a phone call. I went to the financial aid office in person more than once, each time explaining that I had no idea how the process works and asking for help.

Yet, somehow I was magically supposed to know I had to stand in a line at a particular office at a particular time, accept a live check and either sign for it and keep the money or sign it back over to the university, at which time they credit my account with enough of the funds to settle my bill, and return the rest to Uncle Sam.

This process left me speechless. No wonder so many so students rack up debt like someone is handing them free money. Because, someone is handing them free money.

It’s a good thing I was a woman of a certain age, who was raised to be extremely conservative with debt. There was no way I was going to borrow one penny more than I absolutely needed to cover my tuition. But would the situation have been different were I an 18-year-old freshman who didn’t grow up with my dad teaching me the importance of saving early and often?

I was acutely aware of the impact of debt and compounding interest, but I know that not everyone is. I can see the dollar signs adding up as one uninformed college student after another is handed a five-figure check with their name on it, knowing they don’t have to figure out how to pay it back for years.

To this day, I do not understand how students are supposed to figure out this process. Apparently, they do. That line at the bursar’s office was long. Does every student figure this out the same way that I did, through confusion and mild panic?

There were a lot of people involved in the financial aid office (and, not incidentally, the Dean’s office, when I called to ask why I was about to be dropped from my classes) who treated me as though I was doing something wrong. The woman in the Dean’s office was flat-out rude, acting as though my situation was entirely of my own delinquency for not paying my bills. Even when I explained the situation, still she was condescending and rude, as if I was lying about my circumstances.

If walking into the financial aid office and asking point blank for help understanding the process is not enough for a student to become educated, what exactly are students supposed to do? Circumstances like these make me angry at the growing student debt crisis in our country, because it’s clear that there is information that needs to be shared, yet the people in the best positions to share it are not doing so.

 

 

 

 

How I Got Through College Without Crippling Student Loan Debt, aka Thanks, Mom and Dad

This morning, I read yet another “how I wound up with a bajillion dollars worth of student loan debt” article. And I experienced my usual reaction: it’s not as if the cost of tuition or the cost of interest on the loans were a surprise. No one did that to you. You made a choice. If you don’t want to end up with crippling debt, don’t borrow the money.

Then, I thought back to my own college experiences, and about the choices that I made that allowed me to graduate debt-free. And I realized that it’s an easy thing to point debt-free fingers now, but important to remember that when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, there’s no magic place from which to get the information you need to make smart financial choices. The learning curve for how borrow responsibly and manage debt can be steep.

After one year in college, I wanted very much to transfer from my affordable state university to a fancy private school in my dream city. My parents, who were generously paying the full bill for me to attend said state school, were not happy about this decision. They didn’t really understand it. Neither of them attended a residential college. My dad commuted to his school while living at home with his parents, and my mom didn’t go to college, instead working to save money while dad was in school. “That’s just what people did,” mom always said.

So, the idea of eschewing this incredible free (to me) thing – a full ride, including room and board, at a well-regarded university, in favor of a much more expensive degree at a school that they regarded as essentially the same only this one would require plane tickets to get me there and back and a much higher price tag – was unthinkably bizarre to them.

To me, the allure was living in the brand new city, spreading my wings, and experiencing life. The school had a unique work-study program that would have allowed me a structured way to get significant work experience under my belt by the time I graduated. It also involved moving away from home, which had a lot of appeal.

My parents only saw the price tag: Fancy Private School cost a whopping three times as much as Perfectly Fine State University. My parents were willing to continue paying the same money they had set aside for me to attend Perfectly Fine State University, but I would have to come up with the balance on my own.

I knew even then that coming up with that amount of money was not going to be easy.

I was disappointed. My dreams of living a grand life in Fabulous New City were crushed. Darn my parents and their practicality!

I stayed at Perfectly Fine State University and learned to make the best of it. I made good friends. I found my own work-study opportunities.

I’ll be honest – it was a long time before I was able to let go of the big idea of attending Fancy Private School. I can look back on it now, twenty-plus years later, and see the benefit of my choice to stay at Perfectly Fine State University as I am able to move forward with my life enjoying the lack of crippling debt that an expensive undergraduate education would have cost me.

What stopped me from taking out loan after loan and [insert dramatic emphasis] going after my dream of attending Fancy Private School was not logic or understanding of personal finance. It was, quite simply, my parents.

It was seeing how stressed my mother was at wanting so badly to help me have the thing I clearly wanted but knowing she couldn’t afford to send me there. (And, to be fair, my parents gave me a pretty nice life. It’s just that the Thing That I Wanted was ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.)

It was sitting with my dad in the hotel room in Fancy New City when he took me there to visit the school (and probably hoped to show me that it really wasn’t all that different than my Perfectly Fine State University. To me, though, Fancy New Private School was all glitter and rainbows). After going on a tour of the campus, we went back to the hotel, and had a chat. That’s when he said that he and my mother were prepared to continue paying the same amount of money they had planned to pay to send me to Perfectly Fine State University, and that if I were serious about attending Fancy Private School, I was going to be responsible for coming up with the difference in cost.

“How are you going to do that?” my father asked. I had no idea. I had a vague awareness that other people took out loans. I thought I could do that, too! My dad explained a bit about how long it might take to pay off that amount of money. He talked about how difficult it might be for me to borrow the amount of money I needed, because he was not willing to co-sign a loan or sign the student loan paperwork that would require me (him) to divulge his salary and other assets to the federal government.

I was stumped. How do other people do this, I wondered?

I still don’t know for sure how people finance that kind of expensive anything without help. Through massive interest rates, most likely. Perhaps they do have a parent or other family member willing to co-sign a loan. I truly don’t know how people even get that kind of money to borrow, let alone figure out how to pay back, without any participation from their parents, as nascent young adults without an established credit history.

What I do know is that it was hard enough to figure out how to live on my entry-level paycheck for my first job out of college without loan payments to make. I don’t see how I could have gone to graduate school with that kind of debt under my belt, either. Or bought a house. Or saved for retirement.

Do I wonder, every now and then, what life would have been like had I been able to move to Fancy New City and attend Fancy Private School? Sure, I do. Am I grateful that I had parents willing to help me put the brakes on and make a more sensible decision that would affect me long-term? Absolutely. I realize that not everyone has that kind of support built in, and I try to keep that in mind when I read yet another article about someone who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of college debt without realizing just how financially crippling that would be. Sometimes, people really don’t know the effects of a decision like that until it’s too late.

The Day of My Defense

The day of defending my doctoral dissertation, I arrived on campus several hours early to go over my notes and calm my nerves. I had planned to spend a few hours practicing my talk in my private library study room. I walked in and noticed that someone else’s things were in the room. While the rooms were designed to accommodate two people, I had had the space to myself for years. No problem, though, I just figured I should grab a second chair in case my new roommate came to use the space. Even after completing a defense, there were still several months of revisions that were possible, and I wanted to be prepared to continue using the space during that time.

I walked down the hall to the library administration office and introduced myself to the administrative assistant. I asked for a second chair so that my roommate and I could both be accommodated. She seemed confused by this, and looked up my room assignment.

Her demeanor quickly changed to one of accusation. She said her records showed that I graduated several years prior, so clearly I had been using the room and my key card against regulations all this time.

Now I was confused. Obviously, I’m still here, I pointed out. I have not graduated. I am using the room as assigned.

She insisted I was abusing the privilege of using the room and was not supposed to be there. Meanwhile, I had a dissertation to defend and no time for this nonsense.

We left it with her saying she would follow up later, and me going back to the study area to complete the preparations for my talk, and to calm down.

This encounter was not, unfortunately, unusual at my institution. In my years there, I had encountered numerous instances of poor processes, rude individuals, and red tape with the library, financial aid, registration, my academic department, the graduate school, my dissertation committee … the list goes on.

Bottom line: the school should have offered support of my preparations for my defense, not obstacles. And yet here I was, on the day of my defense, the day to which the university had a vested interest (one would think) in encouraging me to meet with success, and I was dealing with yet another argument, yet another difficult and incongruous situation.

As annoying as the library experience was, though, I had no idea of what kind of obstacles were waiting for me at the defense.

I walked into the conference room prepared to give my talk. My dissertation advisor, Professor K, came in. A few of my classmates joined us. One by one, my department chair arrived, then the program advisor, then one of my other committee members, who also happened to be the Dean of the Liberal Arts department.

My third reader was missing. The hour was upon us. No sign of her. The air in the room was getting thick with tension. What professor is this kind of late to their student’s defense?

My advisor went to find her. More time passed. She came back in, whispered something to the department chair, and they left the room together.

An eternity passed. It got awkward, as my classmates and I all knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and had no clue what to say to each other. The department chair finally came back in and asked everyone other than my second reader and the program advisor to leave.

Finally, my third reader, Professor N, came in the room. She sat down across from me and looked uncomfortable.

I found out later that she had told my advisor earlier in the day that she wasn’t going to attend, and that she had no intention of signing off on my work. My advisor opted not to warn me, thinking that she only needed a majority of signatures on the dissertation for me to pass, and so she was going to let Prof. N. abdicate from signing.

So there I sat, with no earthy clue why one of my committee members was so rudely late or so awkwardly pulled into the room.

Prof. K told Prof. N that she needed to explain herself.

“I’m not going to sign your dissertation,” she said. She didn’t feel it was scholarly, and wasn’t willing to put her name on it.

Silence.

Remember, that also at that table were the other two members of my committee – one of whom was the Dean and the other was my committee chair, who was a tenured, senior professor – along with the department chair and program advisor. These were exactly the people you might expect to speak up for a student in such a situation. Yet not one of them said so much as a word. They simply looked at me and waited for me to respond to this bizarre news that – for me – came out of nowhere.

I distinctly remember a moment of absolute clarity during that silence when I realized this one thing: no one in that room was going to speak up on my behalf. The only person in that room who was going to speak up for me was me.

There was a time in my life when confrontation like this would have sent my crying out of the room. I would have simply retreated, having known no other way to respond.

But in this instance, it was as if the last seven years flashed before me. In my third reader’s refusal to sign my work, I saw everything I had done to get to that point. I saw the years of lost earnings while I worked part-time and gave up a career in marketing, along with the years of increased salary that staying in that field would have brought.

I saw the time after time that I was told my work was good, that I was getting close, that surely I would graduate next semester, only to be yanked back again and again because someone else had decided that the work just wasn’t ready.

I saw the end of my marriage, which had crumbled during my years in graduate school. The relationship didn’t end due to my being in school, but my earning a degree that he wanted while not being able to get into a program himself slowly chipped away at our partnership and began revealing the weak places.

No. Just, no. She did not get to take away the last seven years of work, and stress, and isolation. She did not get to take away my ideas, and my writing, and my progress. She did not get to erase my scholarship.

I looked her square in the eye and said:

“I have been working with you for years. I have made every change you have asked for. I have read every book you suggested. You wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, praising my ideas. I consulted you on scheduling this defense and you approved our meeting today. If your feelings against my work were this strong, why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”

More silence. She was stunned. I think everyone else was, too. She then had to explain herself, and really couldn’t, because there was simply no acceptable explanation for her behavior.

She tried to say that the problem was the font that I had chosen. That’s right: the font.

The graduate school had a list of acceptable fonts from which to choose, and I picked one off the list that several classmates who had graduated before me had chosen. She had recommended I choose a different one. That is the one and only change she had suggested over the course of years that I did not implement, because I had followed the rules and, frankly, had had it with being jerked around here, there, and everywhere doing everything my committee members said I should do instead of being expected to think for myself. I picked an acceptable font, she said her suggestion was just a personal preference and not a requirement, yet here we were.

I was then told that I had a choice: I could accept that she would not sign my dissertation and be ABD forever, or I could start over from scratch with a new topic that would likely require a new committee.

I said neither of those options was acceptable. I had done everything required of me. This was insane.

She then said the other option was for me to replace her with a different third reader, potentially making the changes that person wanted, and risking that the new third reader would not be happy with my progress. My chair had some names in mind of who might be a suitable replacement. Fine. If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it. Prof. N was officially excused from serving on my committee.

I somehow made it through that entire ordeal without crying. To this day, I don’t know how. I know my voice wavered. I know I looked upset. But I did not cry.

I did not cry when I got to my car and started texting the friends who were going to meet me at a restaurant to celebrate, telling them that the party was off.

I did not cry the entire hour drive home.

I walked in my front door, grabbed the mail, and saw a card from a dear friend. She had timed mailing it to arrive on just that day, to congratulate me on my hard work and for finally, finally finishing my degree.

That’s when I broke down. I’m not sure how long I stood there in my living room, sobbing. I eventually got myself together and realized that one friend who didn’t have a cell phone and who was driving from a different state, was probably at the restaurant. She was. I met her there. I’m glad I did. The whole party was not something I could handle, but a drink with a close friend was the perfect thing.

I took a deep breath, and then another. I had come this far, and I was going to finish that degree.

My Journey to the PhD

Every so often, I am asked about my experience earning a PhD. Typically, the questioning comes from someone who wants to embark on earning the degree himself or herself. I feel an obligation to be honest, and to say that, given my experience earning that degree, I do not recommend following that path. That advice is usually met with surprise and disappointment. The truth is that earning a PhD was one of the most – if not the most – negative and unsatisfying endeavors of my life.

In one important way, I grew from the experience. I am a stronger person now, and have much more confidence in my own intellectual and professional abilities. But I learned those things in spite of my journey to the PhD, not because of it.

Earning the degree sounds so romantic and important, doesn’t it? Along the years it took me to earn the degree, I would try to talk to people about my concerns, my fears, and eventually, my nearly soul-crushing experiences. I was always met with, “But then people will call you Doctor!” and the even more frustrating, “But who wouldn’t want to hire you with a PhD.”

Here are two truths about having a PhD:

  1. Most people do not call you “Doctor,” and the people who insist upon being called Doctor by others are generally self-important jerks.
  2. Many, many people will not hire you because you have a PhD. The degree is overkill for a lot of jobs, and there are so few that do require it that getting one of those jobs in your field is virtually impossible. I know an awful lot of people with PhDs who are underemployed or who left academia altogether because they needed to earn a living and couldn’t do so in their chosen field.

Sure, I’m now in the top 2% of Americans in terms of education*, but so what? I also lost ten years of earning potential and career-building time while I put life on hold to earn that degree.

If the path to earning the degree had been satisfying in some way, that would have helped, I think, but the endeavor was fraught with frustration, red tape, insecurity of others, and lack of program structure and leadership. For a long time, I thought that my experience was unique to me and to my program.

In hindsight, though, I have met with plenty of others who have similar stories at different institutions. There is a whole community of us who love English language and literature, who went into the advanced study of our favorite subject out of love of story and humanity, and who are now limping towards creating a professional life that tries to reclaim that love. I feel it is time to write about some of those experiences, to share the truth of that experience, and in doing so, to move forward from it.

I do not write these stories to cast a negative light on my university, which I will not name in this space. This is because I do not believe that the challenges I experienced are unique to my institution. I also do not write these stories to influence anyone to making one decision or another. Pursuing an advanced degree might be the right path for you. My purpose here is to share my own experience in an effort to shed some light on it. Do with this information what you will.

*http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before