Thanks primarily to Dr. Robert Grossman’s excellent (if not unfortunately titled) book The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Reaction Mechanisms*, I don’t have a huge Imposter Syndrome when lecturing in front of my undergraduate organic chemistry class. I can handle pretty much any organic chemistry question an undergrad just learning the course for the first time can throw at me. Sometimes they start asking smart questions that aren’t really organic but are more physical chemistry questions (and way beyond the scope of the course), and I’ll gladly punt those questions to a future semester if I don’t know the answer.
No, my Imposter Syndrome happens while I’m sitting comfortably in my office and students come in to talk. I’ve only been a university professor for 2 years, but I’ve already had a few students open up about some deep personal issues in their lives. Being an ear and a mentor certainly falls in the job description of a university professor, especially when schools market themselves as offering ‘great relationships with great professors who greatly care.’ People with Impostor Syndrome sometimes complain of ‘never being taught how to be a teacher’ in grad school… but at least we were aware we were going to teach. No one talks about the ‘being a counselor’ part.
This has been my biggest source of Imposter Syndrome that I’ve experienced in my short professional life. On the one hand, I’m happy to be in this position – I’m glad students trust me enough to feel comfortable opening up about their personal lives. On the other hand, I am not at all qualified to be giving advice. These students are going to leave my office and have to make really difficult choices, and they want my opinion on what they should do. (And I’m not talking about ‘should I drop this class’ or ‘should I change my major’ decisions, I’m talking about tough life choices for these students.)
What have I done about this? The answer may surprise you. I always preface all my conversations with students that I can’t make their decision for them, they shouldn’t do something just because Dr. [azmanam] said to, and they should probably run this by some other adult, too, to make sure they get a range of opinions. But they did come for advice, and I’m not going to just send them away because I feel awkward. My two biggest sources of strength in overcoming my Imposter Syndrome have been my wife (who has an undergraduate in psychology and can sometimes offer insights on how to approach these conversations), and the various marriage seminars and workshops I’ve attended.
I’ve been through enough marriage workshops to know a few things about interpersonal relationships. Your spouse is not your enemy. The goal is understanding, not winning the point. You’re not listening if you can’t repeat the feelings and emotions back to them. These gems have transferred so well to office conversations with students. I use them as often as possible. I use them for all conversations ranging from ‘I got a bad grade on my exam’ to ‘this just happened in my life. Help.’
Reflective listening would be my single biggest piece of advice to other profs who feel the same way. If your students feel like you understand them and what they’re saying, it doesn’t really matter what advice you give. They usually just want to vent and have someone (with authority) listen to them. Then, to the best of my limited ability, I try to ask questions to see what they think about the various facets of the scenario. The best thing I can give my students is perspective. I try to make sure they’re seeing all the angles that I can see that maybe they haven’t thought about. If it’s safe to do so, I may offer my personal opinion, or I may just help them realize they already know what the next step should be and give them encouragement and affirmation to do so.
And, if it’s way out of my league, I make sure they’re getting in touch with the counseling center or whatever resource they need – in the litigation age, I do not want to give the sole piece of advice on which they base their decision.
Patience. Reflective listening. Socratic questioning. And a smile. That’s how I’m working to overcome my Imposter Syndrome.
*If you’re an organic PhD student, buy it today. Especially if you haven’t taken your orals yet.