By Kelsey Larsen, Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida

Now that MPSA23 is in full swing, all of us are getting into our conferencing groove; comments are being offered, posters are being presented, mini mentoring session coffees are being drank. While not all of the conference socialization anxieties I unloaded in my earlier post have disappeared, something about successfully introducing myself to a few people I didn’t know in the lobby—including, horrifyingly, one who wasn’t even here for MPSA—took some of the networking edge off.

But particularly if you’re a millennial (like me) or Gen-Zer (wearing the styles of past me), you know well to chuckle at the idea that everything is now fine. One does not simply stop being anxious, you laugh to yourself while picturing a classic Lord of the Rings meme. One simply finds new pathways for those anxieties to express themselves, you think while picturing Gollum clinging to anxiety like it’s a Precious.

So I think it’s worthwhile to explore the next natural phase in conference anxiety: the Imposter Syndrome phase. Of course, it’s been written about extensively in political science, including here, here, and here— so I won’t offer yet another take on how depressing it can be to feel like everyone knows more than you, or how avoidant you might be of setting anyone’s expectations too high, or how stressful that imposter feeling can be particularly among graduate students or junior faculty surrounded by their conference peers. I mean, the term “imposter phenomenon” first appeared in this 1978 piece by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes—we’ve been collectively aware of how we torture ourselves for at least four decades now; I think we’re plenty familiar with the concept.

But the thing is, all this work on Imposter Syndrome sort of revolves around this singular conceptualization of The Scholar and our desire to become that person. For those with the Syndrome, they hold this persistently embarrassing belief that they’ve fooled others into thinking they’re The Scholar, even though they aren’t. For those without the Syndrome, they either already are The Scholar, or have adopted a growth mindset that they will one day become The Scholar. No matter what, this singular image is the one that we’re either faking, aspiring to, or becoming. And the seminal advice for fighting Imposter Syndrome? To trust that you actually are The Scholar, that you are that image.

Who is The Scholar? Probably a mélange of actual elite political scientists mixed with media’s subliminal messaging about what makes for a good academic. Those classic folks you cite over and over again, integrated with the most dynamic professors in the movies you watch. The heavy hitters who MPSA Awards are named after, blended with the life-changing faculty members in the TV shows you stream.

And look, as a standard goes, such a blend is undeniably fantastic—these folks are cool, calm, collected, confident, inspiring, insightful, dedicated, and dynamic. And of course, hiring and promotion processes are in part built to reward The Scholar standard. But (as I’m sure the folks I listed above would agree), just because we admire, envy, and aspire to elements of The Scholars’ careers doesn’t actually mean that’s the golden, or only, standard available to us. Just because these are outstanding Scholars doesn’t mean we need to tell ourselves we’re merely facsimiles of them, nor that we should feel bad about it until we’re perfect replicas of them.

In other words: what if instead of telling ourselves “I’m trying so hard to be The Scholar but I’m not and everyone’s going to know it,” we started telling ourselves “I’m my own version of a Scholar.”

If you’re like me, you’ll will still have this tiny jerk in your brain who crawls out of his anxiety bunker eating from his I’m-here-til-the-apocalypse stash and he’ll say ignore her, you aren’t your own version of a Scholar—but that’s just because he is still wedded to The Scholar’s conceptualization. But if you look around MPSA23, you’ll see that: evidence abounds that political scientists are not some perfect cohort. Even our Scholars aren’t all The Scholar. You don’t need to feel like you’re a fake version, because there isn’t actually one standard that you should be meeting; no singular vision you should be pretending your way into, or that you should be worried we’ll discover you don’t have.

To wit: I’ve seen a tenured professor at a conference describe their own work as the best political science research of the 21st century. I’ve seen a quiet junior faculty audience member faceplant while trying to slip out of a room realizing the rockstar panelist wouldn’t be arriving. I’ve seen an undergraduate cut their finger while trying to hang their poster only to have to describe their thesis work with bloody fingerprints all over the poster behind them. I’ve seen a full professor spill wine on their tie, wring the tie back into their cup, and continue drinking the wine. I’ve heard a junior professor try and land a Palmer House happy hour joke using the term ‘heteroskedastic’ and instead pronounce it as it “head-or-ass-d..” uhhhh you get it. And how can I validate that I heard that professor? Because I was that professor.

It doesn’t cure the anxiety conference goers feel, I know, to simply recount the many ways in which we’re a diverse, unique, stone cold pack of weirdos. But we are, and the sooner you embrace that you’re not failing at being The Scholar, but rather are succeeding at being one of us weirdos, the more successful your MPSA will instantly become. The Scholar is actually the scholars in political science; an island of misfit toys who just love understanding government and its operations. We’re a collective so far from perfect that we need to be excluded from the regression.

So: sending you all the confidence in the world as you continue to deliver, attend, and think about your panels—can’t wait to see you all thrive as the true outliers you are.


About the Author:

Kelsey Larsen is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida, where she conducts research on political psychology and national security. Her first MPSA presentation was in 2008, when we were still using transparencies and projectors to present papers. And yet somehow she has not aged a day.

Find her on Twitter at @DrKelseyLarsen