Managing Imposter Syndrome Throughout Library School

I have been thinking about the incoming cohort at the University of Washington’s Information School and wondering how they are coping with the unknown and uncertainty of graduate school life that is coming for them in September. I want them to know that imposter syndrome is something we all experience and for me it has come in waves throughout the last two years. We all experience it and this topic has been discussed frequently over the years in several HLS blog posts. In 2019, Alyssa Key discussed her feelings of imposter syndrome when she compared herself to her classmates who had more “practical knowledge” and experience in the field and were obtaining their MLIS to expand their already established careers. She notes that imposter syndrome can fester in feelings of persistent self-doubt despite being successful in something you are doing. Kelli Yakabu discussed imposter syndrome from the perspective of a person of color and made the important point that mental health issues can lead to extreme imposter syndrome for people of color when they are faced with signs from the library field that they don’t belong. I will add that imposter syndrome can even tell you that you do not deserve to be where you are or experience a certain opportunity because you are not capable of completing it with any measurable level of competency.

I am dealing with an almost debilitating case of imposter syndrome right now as I am about a month into my Directed Fieldwork (DFW) assignment this summer as part of my MLIS degree. I am approaching the halfway marker of my eight weeks with the corporate library and archives I am working at and I feel some of my projects are just too complicated and hard and I am unsure why I decided to put myself through another 20 hours of work each week on top of a full-time job and managing the other crazy in my life. Part of me wants to back out and stop the DFW completely but I know I would regret that decision (or maybe not?). So, I need to take a deep breath and remember that I have valuable things to contribute, and I can do hard things. I have been thinking back to the difficult classes I have succeeded in, the hard papers I wrote over a weekend, and the XML class I survived spring quarter of my first year. This DFW has nothing on XML! I also need to remember to check in with myself and I may have to let one of these DFW projects go if it is taking too much time and causing too much stress. As I approach my final year of my MLIS degree I realize I need to take things off my plate and really try hard not to add anything unnecessary to my workload. Self-care also needs to be a part of overcoming imposter syndrome as feeling like you are not deserving of something or aren’t good enough for whatever reason can take its toll mentally and physically.

There is a lot of advice out there about imposter syndrome and how to combat it. The most helpful points I’ve found are:

  1. Be your own advocate. This could mean reaching out to a professor to ask for an extension on an assignment or asking for clarity on a project that doesn’t make sense. Do not assume that if you don’t understand something it is your fault or that you are underqualified. Your project supervisor or manager maybe did not do a great job of explaining or training you to do the job well. Remember your worth and that you are capable if given the right tools.
  2. Push back when necessary. Know your own boundaries and take a break when you need it. Don’t be a martyr and try to do it all; real maturity sometimes means setting limits for yourself and your work.
  3. Take things OFF your plate. It is so easy to say yes when you are asked to serve on a committee or a student organization or agree to just a 15-minute Zoom call but all these activities add to your mental burden and drain energy away from activities that you may rather focus on. Prioritize your physical and mental health and do not feel guilty for saying NO!
  4. Check in with your colleagues and peers. You likely are not the only one in your peer circle experiencing imposter syndrome and your friends will appreciate that they too are not alone. Talking with others who are feeling the same way can really help.

Bottom line: remember you are not alone with feelings of imposter syndrome. These feelings may strike at various points during your library school journey and know that you can overcome them. Reach out for help if you need it, take care of yourself, and please remember you do belong!

What are your tools for managing imposter syndrome?

By Erika Whinihan, rising third year online MLIS student, Information School, University of Washington (erikaw9@uw.edu)

2 replies

  1. Thank you for this. I am a second year MLIS student at University of Denver, with zero library experience and recently decided due to imposter syndrome that I just don’t even want to work in a library anymore. Our program aims its education to those who have experience and I have felt like I don’t belong from day one. I am only finishing it because it is way too expensive in both time and money not to at this point. I am very disheartened.

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  2. I graduated with my MLIS in May from San Jose State, and I still feel like maybe I don’t deserve the diploma – I mean, I didn’t do an internship, and while I work in the information field, I don’t work in the library so why did I bother.

    To everyone out there – if you are enjoying the classes, the internship, or the career, you deserve it – you are good enough, and even if you don’t end up applying every single class, or everything you learned – it is okay. sometimes just the learning is enough.

    (and to thebendingmoment, hang in there – I didn’t have the experience either, doesn’t mean that you don’t matter or that you can’t do it. )

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