What on earth made me think I could study for a master’s degree when all my life I’ve felt inadequate and incompetent?
I understand that today it’s an everyday thing to go to university and, for many, to study for post-graduate degrees. I’m surrounded by colleagues at work with at least one Level 7 (Masters) qualification and lots of them have the ultimate post-grad degree and could claim to be a doctor.
For me, a child from the sixties, despite 7 wonderful years at a Grammar School, the university experience was never considered an option. I was only allowed to stay into the sixth form because my Mum knew I was going to go to nursing school and be earning a wage straight away – that was in the old-fashioned days when practical experience and good level 2 qualifications were what was required to become excellent nurses.
My favourite quote, something which I have etched into diaries since I was 15 years old, is from Bertrand Russell and I first read it as ‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt’. If nothing else, it always meant I never felt stupid. 🙂
A succession of Lemony Snicket events and outcomes encouraged the life-long feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness and I plodded on. Life happened in all kinds of ways and I gained first class honours via a circuitous and lengthy part-time study route through a foundation and top-up degree BA. I’d made it. By some fluke I’d fooled the assessors, internal and external and blagged a bloody FIRST CLASS HONOURS degree!
The year before I had landed my dream job and the degree finally made me begin to feel like I deserved it. The gremlins were never far away though and I battled continually and quietly with many increasingly noisy internal put-downs. I was convinced that everyone else knew what they were doing and that I was there by deceit; I had some magic skills which meant I could fool others into thinking I was great at my job, a good parent, a nice parent, an okay student. All the time I knew I was rubbish. In fact, the more I succeeded the more I felt I was only getting better at fooling others.
Just under two years ago that changed; well at least my understanding of it did. I had a regular meeting with a much senior colleague and he asked me what was holding up my progression. I explained what I’ve described above and was gob-smacked when he told me almost everyone he knew at his level and much more senior felt that same. Every day he was ‘winging it’.
I began to hope that I wasn’t this big faker and after some random googling I discovered something called ‘Imposter Syndrome’. That was me and Bertrand Russell’s quote to a tee. I learned also that it included others such as Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein. I learned that the self-doubt which correlates negatively with increasing success was quite normal; it was a consequence of the condition to believe that I was simply getting better and tricking people into thinking I was good at what I was doing.
So working full-time in a challenging job was no excuse to not do it; the faker in my head is a voice which, although I must hear it, I don’t have to believe it. It’s shaped my life and it’s time to challenge it knowingly and head on. By accepting the vulnerability, I can become strong (I owe Brene Brown that one). So, here I am – studying part-time for an MSc in Social Research Methods and Statistics, aged 53 and 3/4 whilst working full time as a senior researcher. And, I know I can do it even if (or perhaps because) the imposter says I can’t.