by Amanda Larson, 2nd Year

Since I have your attention, I’m going to draw it to an issue that often affects graduate students, early career librarians and archivists: Impostor Syndrome. It is something I have personally struggled with throughout my time in academia and on the job.


First, let’s define what Impostor Syndrome is.  I really like this definition from the Geek Feminism Wiki:

Impostor syndrome describes a situation where someone feels like an impostor or fraud because they think that they have duped the people around them, their boss for example, into believing that their accomplishments are of a high calibre, but in fact believe that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as the praise or promotions they are accorded based on those accomplishments. They have a fear of being “found out” one day to be lacking the skills and intelligence they are perceived to have. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is applying an unfairly high standard to themself (and not to others).

Okay, definition in place! So how do you know if you have Impostor Syndrome? Well, you could go get a psychological diagnosis or a mental health check up. There’s no shame in either. Or you could take a look at the list of ways that Impostor Syndrome presents itself and see how many you tick off the list.

I highly recommend checking out Caltech’s Counseling Center Page, where they break it down into three subcategories: feeling like a fake, attributing success to luck, and discounting success. I’m guilty of all three.

You might be wondering, hey it’s Archives month – how does this apply? Impostor Syndrome tends to affect women more than men due to many factors (stereotype threat, lack of representation in higher level positions, etc.) But that doesn’t mean men don’t also experience it, they are just less likely to discuss it. According to Payscale, the gender divide in archival positions is 69% female and 31 % male. Don’t let those numbers fool you, though, archival positions follow the breakdown of many higher-level jobs, where men hold higher earning and higher-title positions. Linda J. Henry did a study that looked specifically at the number of women in positions at Federal Government Agencies (a lot of archival positions are government positions or government appointed-like State Archivist) and found that they were affected by the glass ceiling. Federal Archivists were split 65% men to 35% women in 1992. In addition, the recession has cut many archives staffs drastically. This means for women going into archival positions there is more of a likelihood that they will experience impostor syndrome. Especially since early career archivists are more likely to find themselves in the position of being a lone arranger with minimal support staff. That means as archivists we need to be able to do a variety of different tasks within the archive-collection development, processing, arrangement and description, conservation, preservation, etc. When you have to be able to do such a wide array of things all at once there is more of an opportunity for you to feel like a fraud, because someone might discover that you don’t know how to do it all!

My first semester here, I took the Intro to Archives course and worked on a group project with the donated materials from John Boll (an important figure and instructor in the development of the graduate program at SLIS). As a group, we had to decipher the best way to handle the materials physically, catalog them, and then make a recommendation on where they should end up and how they should be cared for. That was when I felt the first inklings of impostor syndrome in this program. Who was I to help decide these things? I didn’t know anything about any of this? Even though I had read all the materials and understood the proper way to do these things, I felt very much like an impostor.


Then I got my second job on campus, working at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), building a project from the ground up on Wisconsin Women’s History. I learned how to scan images at the correct DPI and crop them to meet the standards expected by the WHS. I learned how to create clean metadata for each scan using Dublin Core and push it through CONTENTdm (a content manager program used by the WHS). Here I was left alone with historic materials, with little supervision, and trusted to make this project happen. I felt like a fraud! Surely, they’d figure out that I wasn’t as competent as they thought.

Even today, in my Teaching Assistant position at Learning Support Services, I feel like a fraud who will be found out any second, even though I’m well qualified for the job and it’s a learning position (I wasn’t expected to know everything the job would entail) but would be trained to fulfill my duties.

So, if you’re feeling like a fraud or that you’ve only obtained your position here through luck, that’s surprisingly normal and there are things you can do to help overcome those feelings and be successful.

I first ran into the term Impostor Syndrome on Jenny Lawson’s blog ,“The Bloggess,” during my first Master’s program. I had an “ah-ha” moment, when I finally had a name to give the combination of things I was feeling. It didn’t go away, but I got better at managing what it does to my psyche. I am now more able to recognize when I’m opting out of something because of Impostor Syndrome (like job opportunities, conferences, professional development, networking) and can take a step back and really assess what is going on. I’ve also developed a network of friends who don’t let me get away with sabotaging my future with non-participation or turning down opportunities.

I also have developed coping strategies like “faking it till I make it” and  keeping track of the positive accomplishments (and not allowing myself to diminish them to mere occurrences of luck). One strategy in particular that works for me is watching this video for Jenny Lawson’s Book Furiously Happy. It highlights the way that people can feel broken and how they can also feel furiously happy. I watch this video when I am feeling like a fraud because my brain is the thief of my ability to recognize my worth and ability.

I hope you’ll check out the links below for  further reading and tips for overcoming impostor syndrome:

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.


One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s