When reading makes you feel like an imposter

Ages ago I wrote a post about reading like a pirate that was very popular and got picked up by the Times Higher Ed blog. Reading a recent article about imposter phenomenon (IP) led me to revisit the ideas.

According to Cisco (2020), reading can prompt feelings of being an imposter in graduate students. Students with IP say things like:

I’m like, ‘I really should have known this. […] How do you not know these things? […] Am I the only one that doesn’t have any inkling what that means?’

‘[I never] completely understand what I read’.

‘Am I smart enough to pull-out what somebody else would see as important?’

Student quotes from Cisco (2020)

This is not how I read and not how I was taught to read (thank you to my undergraduate years studying English Lit at Cambridge University, where they actually taught this stuff!!). But perhaps this feels familiar to you. If so, read on. 

What these students show is they see reading as an intelligence test. (To be fair, they probably learned this from school.) As a graduate student, they have been a ‘smart’ person all their life, but maybe now they are not smart, or not smart enough.

They also display traits of what we technically call a ‘fixed intelligence mindset‘. People with a fixed mindset see intelligence as an innate characteristic: you are smart or not. So if they are failing the reading intelligence test, that would prove they are not smart and certainly not smart enough for a PhD. That would be terrifying. Fortunately, this is not true! 

Academic intelligence and learning are actually things you can be taught, you can learn, and you can develop. Realising this and acting in this way is what is called a ‘growth mindset’.

If you have a growth mindset, then a text you don’t understand or a concept you can’t get as an opportunity to develop, not a judgement on your capacity. If you make a mistake, it’s a chance to fix it, to try again, to have another go. (In academia, we call this the experimental method and it is the basis of everything we do!) The whole graduate degree is not a test of whether you already know this, but a chance to get to know this. Whatever this might be! 

The point of a research degree is to create new knowledge. To do that you need to be curious and experimental. If smart people already know that, it’s not new knowledge. If everyone knows that, it’s not a unique contribution. 

So how should you, or can you, read in a research degree? How do those other people, the ones who seem to be having a better time than you, read? What’s the secret?

My expert reading advice:

  • Read like it’s an adventure.
  • Read promiscuously.
  • Read around the text.
  • Just read the index.
  • Skim read.
  • Start with the Wikipedia page and come back and try again.
  • Put the text down and come back in ten years.
  • Read it really slowly.
  • Read it out loud.
  • Listen to someone else read it to you.
  • Skip to the end.
  • Find something else you like and read that instead.
  • Read it ten times.
  • Only read the introduction. 

Different strategies will work for different texts, and for the different reasons you are reading the text. But everyone of these is a valid and useful strategy. I’ve used them all, regularly! (The books I put down for a decade include Foucault’s Discipline and Punish which I have just finished a book chapter writing on, and Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann which yes I did read in French, and many others… so I both totally practice what I preach here, and hope I have demonstrated ways in which waiting for a decade didn’t make me a ‘bad reader’.)

IP is painful to experience, but it’s also getting in the way of your success (just like perfectionism). If you have a mild case of IP, blogs like this can give you the encouragement and permission to throw off the shackles of feeling like an imposter.

See this post about being made to feel like an imposter by bullies, though, which is very different! And if it’s more than you can do on your own, I encourage you to get expert help in changing your mindset.

However you get there, seeing academic reading as an experiment, an adventure and a chance to learn new things will make reading, writing and speaking more enjoyable, and also set you up for success in your academic future. So please do have a go at changing your mindset!

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Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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