Most academics I talk to experienced a brief period just after receiving their doctorate when they feel like it isn’t real, or if it is, it must be some sort of mistake. The feeling, for me anyway, reaches its peak when we achieve our goal of a university job. We unpack the diploma, turn on our computers, and sit with the doubt and fear that accompanies the excitement of achieving the biggest accomplishment many of us will ever experience. We eventually settle in and settle down, but every now and then, that feeling, a symptom of Imposter Syndrome, can reappear at any time. That’s what has happened to me.
First, let me say that I am thrilled with my new job: I am a dean. Wow. Let me say that again. I am a dean. Not only that, I am a dean at a place I really want to be–USC Upstate–in a college that has a great culture of collaborating and caring for students. This is not a college that is broken and needs fixing, and that’s very important. If I had to characterize it, I would say–based on my interview and talks with folks over the last couple of weeks–it is a college that was very recently a school, and it wants to be brought to that next level. I’m not sure either of us knows precisely all that entails or the challenges that will accompany the move.
I worked hard to get this job. It started when I applied for a dean position at a university in Alabama, which would have put me in the same state with my family. I really thought I did well and had a shot at the job. We probably jinxed ourselves by packing some boxes. When I didn’t get it, I decided to hone my interview and presentation skills by applying for additional positions; I probably applied for 10 more this year, which put me at 20 applications in total. I pretty much threw spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck, applying to openings at small colleges of education all over the country. I didn’t get them, but I made finalist–which, I was reminded by my mentor was a feat to be proud of. And I was, but rejection is the cousin of imposter syndrome. This year, I applied for jobs but limited my search to small colleges in the southern region. It wouldn’t be the same as moving to Alabama, but the South would be home enough. I was a finalist at two universities and offered the job at Upstate. The euphoria lasted a couple of weeks, when the announcement was made at my old university and then again when the press release came out at Upstate. I have to say, it feels good for congratulations to start coming in. That was in late May. I had another month to serve as Honors College dean at KSU, and the Upstate gig started mid-July. I took two weeks off to sell and buy a house, pack and unpack, and deal with new-house chores. When it slowed down, I had time to wonder, What if I can’t do this? “Too bad,” says Sarah. “We’re already here.”
My imposter feelings were fueled by my earliest negotiations for salary. Research shows us that in general women are not as effective negotiators as men are. I fall into that category, and supervisors can sense it like blood in the water. When I got the first offer–all initial offers are only the first and supervisors know it–I felt a strange mix of disappointment and fear–along with the excitement of getting that life-changing call. I called my mentors. I was in Germany with students at the time, and the faculty leaders were looking up South Carolina pay scales in the local biergarten. When I got home, I presented a counter offer, utilizing the memorizing the arguments my mentor had given me–“Don’t leave money on the table, whatever you do,” he said. The provost accepted my offer, and for 2 days, I was euphoric–and triumphant! My counter was accepted; I was a negotiating genius. And then I realized I was using old data, so my new salary–a terrific raise from department chair–was a year or two behind that of my counterparts. I began to obsess. “Look,” said another mentor, “it’s like buying a car. We all think we could have gotten a better price.” I reached a strange place of zen when South Carolina’s legislature announced a 3% pay raise for employees who had been hired before July 1. I my hire date was July 16. The week I got my job offer, Georgia, location of my old institution, had announced a $5,000 pay increase for higher ed employees. For the following year. Not only did I not negotiate as hard as I could (should?) have, I single-handedly missed out on raises in two states. Now that takes talent! But, I did some affirming self-talk and reached out to the HR coordinator, who assured me the 3% was in the works. Imposters don’t follow through like that.
So finally, here are the affirmations I tell myself as I move a box of plants into my office. A search committee hired you; they have confidence in you. Everyone you meet is so glad you are here. You’ve been preparing for this job for 7 years; you are ready. You have a great track record building culture and good, solid working relationships. You. Deserve. This.
And I do.