You're not that tricky: Imposter Syndrome as localized conspiracy theory

I, and I think many graduate students, have feelings of inadequacy, or feel that I’m the wrong person to be doing what I’m doing. It’s not constant, but it is relatively common, in a post hoc ergo propter hoc way.

However, I recently received a PhD Review email urging me to keep doing good work, and to begin thinking about a Thesis Proposal. I shared this with someone, which sparked a conversation that I found oddly cathartic. For the sake of her privacy, I’ll refer to her as J below. The conversation went something like (paraphrased):

Me: [showing J the email]

J: See? You’re not a bad grad student

Me: Unless I’ve tricked the department into thinking otherwise

J: Yeah, but I know you, you’re not that tricky

You’re not that tricky. When she said that to me, it was sort of illuminating. The implication in “you’re not that tricky” is “Do you actually believe you’ve orchestrated everything to get to where you are?”.

Duh. That’s just it, isn’t it? Sometimes I don’t believe I’m good enough to be a PhD student, but I do believe that I’m capable of maintaining a multi-year con on a department full of very intelligent people?

There’s this concept used to question conspiracy theories that goes something like “Do you believe that the number of people required to orchestrate this would have been able to keep quiet about it this long?”, to which the non-conspiracy answer is “no, probably not”.

That is, however, what I seem able to convince myself when I’m questioning my skills or capacity: that I’ve somehow orchestrated trickery that began when I was an undergraduate by requesting letters of recommendation, and has somehow continued into the 4th year of my PhD, while no one noticed.

This seems like the localized version of “wouldn’t someone have said something?”: “wouldn’t someone have noticed?”. Of course, the people who wrote my letters of recommendation, my advisor, mentors at my IBM internship, and other colleagues are all people I have great respect and admiration for. They’re all very intelligent, capable people. Not the kind of people who would easily be duped into the level of local conspiracy that it would take for me to get to where I am.

You’re not that tricky. “Do you believe the number of people required to be duped haven’t noticed for this long?” No, of course not, and that’s the point. If that’s not possible, there’s another reason I’m here, not massive trickery on my part. Their support must be because they believe something about my actual capacity.

I’m not that tricky.