Hot-housed academic flowers and imposter syndrome

Sophie Harman


The academic summer is a halcyon ideal that I launch myself towards brimming with the thought of reading research in parks, flaneuring around London with big thoughts, and pitching up to hipster cafes to drink flat whites (when what I want is a skinny latte) while writing a 4* publication and nodding along to Chadian drumming. Seven academic summers have passed since I was awarded my PhD and this ideal has never been realised. The summers have been lovely, with more time to catch up with friends and colleagues and a higher proportion of lunches where I leave my desk, but I have always had the nagging back-of-mind fear that the book or grant application had to be finished by September and the swarm arrival of students. This summer is different.

I, friends, am going to say something no academic will ever say: I have nothing to do. No book projects to complete. No grant applications to write. And this worries me. I – as my good friend and fellow FAC member pointed out – am part of the breed of hot-house flower academics. Hot-house flower academics are bred in institutions to complete their PhD in three years, and to paraphrase Irvine Welsh choose a job, choose to publish, choose to get a grant, choose to get a promotion, choose to talk yourself up at all times, and choose a career. I know I am fortunate to be in this position and that my career has been built on right place right time, working on a niche part of IR, and supportive colleagues as much as hard work, sleepless nights (four new lectures a week with all those people staring at me for 50 minutes – yikes!) and loss of skin pigment. I also accept that worrying about not having something to do because you’re about to start a big fun project in September (woohoo!) is akin to a spoilt child being given an endless bag of Maltesers with the nutritional value of kale. And, yet the imperative to do something persists.

The imperative to do-something is a consequence of the hot-house flower breeding. However for me it is as much to do with the nagging imposter syndrome that somehow I have winged it up to this point and am lucky that people haven’t worked out that all I do is talk to people about their lives and work, dress it up in some fancy language and ally myself with good colleagues (and some not so good, I’ll save that for the defamation case blog). I think by consistently doing and producing I am somehow legitimising my previous work, job and position in academia. To lounge around and read a bit, and not for any purpose just for the joy of knowledge – preposterous!

Fortunately I have read something (but in the evenings that I don’t classify as real work time): feminist blogs, studies such as that in International Organization mapping the citation and publication differences between male and female IR scholars, and THE reports on gender pay gaps, and realised this imposter syndrome – TA-DA! – is bullshit. And perhaps may impact on women more than men (she writes ducking from the below the line comments). I regularly get told how young I am when I meet people for the first time (too young for this profession – imposter) or when I tell them of a promotion (too young to be a Reader – imposter), I have sat in workshops where people have cited my work by my male co-author not me (it must have been Will and David who did the work not me – imposter), and students often comment more on my appearance and humour rather than my work (academic-light imposter). Talking to female colleagues and reading these fab blogs I get the sense I am not alone in this. This is not to diminish the significant health impacts anxiety associated with modern academia can have on both men and women – this is a serious issue that Universities are seemingly mixed or rubbish at addressing. My point is, look at student evaluations and comments, colleague behaviour in meetings, and think who is made to feel the imposter here? We know that imposter syndrome is bullshit, yet my sense from talking to colleagues is that it still persists.

I have therefore committed to read with abandon this summer. My hot-house breeding is still within me and I have compiled three extensive reading lists for my new project. I have also made two to-do lists. I am going to enjoy this time as I know I am bloody lucky to have it. I am not going to feel like an imposter anymore. And as I finish this I am going to walk over to hipster central Hackney Wick to enjoy brunch with an awesome colleague at the hippest of cafes (think waitress with a propeller on her cap, more avocados than instagram, and a lot of people playing solitaire on their Macs). I choose not to choose imposter syndrome: I choose coffee and journals.

One thought on “Hot-housed academic flowers and imposter syndrome

  1. Excellent. A joy to read & nice one for rumbling the nonsense. As a former academic & chronic sufferer of imposter syndrome I can confirm that, sadly, being a female academic is not the risk factor, being female is. Don’t allow it to suck the joy from your career & the pleasure you take in your talent.


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