On friends, imposters and networking as a PhD student

It’s been a week since I have come back from a conference. It was a wonderful conference. After two years of the pandemic, this was the first in-person conference I attended, and as is usually goes: you only know what you have missed when you experience it again!

Meeting all those amazing scholars, even in some cases establishing a relationship with them which is based rather on friendship and support than solely on academic exchange, was something I knew is part of academia, but completely forgot about during those days of the pandemic in which the closest we go to that was during individual conversations with colleagues in our own university or during the occasional online meeting. Still, a dinner (and maybe a glass of wine) beats all this. 

Those three days of the conference were an emotional roller coaster. Because it is easy to get blinded by the shiny things in academia and networking. What I had to learn the hard way and got to experience second hand as well during that time: not everyone networks with the sole purpose of exchange and getting to know other scholars. Some, well, I have to admit it is “most”, only look out for themselves. By doing so, they might want to trick you. 

As a PhD scholar, or at least I hope this will change a bit later on, it is even easier to get pulled into the aura of those well-known scholars who often lead the most influential departments in the field and, of course in the background, play the puppet masters. 

Once they compliment your work, seem interested and maybe even hint to the possibility of funding opportunities, that is when they get the chance to get you on their hook. Of course, as I said, there are those who do want to help you, those who are genuinely interested in your work, those who want to help you to find postdoctoral opportunities.

But then there are those others. How can we know who is who?

Here are my suggestions (please add more) to reveal an imposter*

*(I intentionally call them imposters, since it is never them who have the imposter syndrome, but actually those who should have):

  • Imposters seem interested, ask questions, but never add their own perspective or input on what you have just said – only if they refer to a work they have already published in that domain.
  • Imposters ask whether you already have funding opportunities, say there might be something coming up, but never suggest a single opportunity.
  • Imposters say they highly value your opinion, maybe even your criticism. They might ask you to read their new work. They do not ask about your publications. What you wrote is only important to them if you’re already in their domain and your work in exchange with theirs.
  • Imposters ask you about colleagues that you both know. They want to know what you know, they speak highly of everyone they mention. They never reveal their relation to any colleagues.
  • Imposters ask you questions; they tell you that this is an interesting thought which needs to be looked into. They do not ask whether you are already working on this and might want to get it published; they do not propose to work together.

As an early career scholar it might be tricky to deal with this. Because we have to ‘play the game as much as we can endure it’, to quote a friend, we cannot just not reply to the imposter. We have to speak with them, because having them on our side or just in neutral relation is where we need them. Having them as our enemy can only work once we have finished our PhDs, and maybe only once we have secured a permanent position. 

Furthermore, it feels nice when the imposter acknowledges you. Getting compliments in academia is much too rare to not be touched by it. But this is exactly what the imposter plays with. They know how to play the game, not because they have always won it, but because they have made the rules!

I am always wondering if and for how long we have to be part of this game. When am I finally allowed to change the rules? Is there even such a time? During the last months, the community of En-Gender has grown into such a beautiful space that I thought it might finally be possible to change academia. But it really isn’t. 

The only thing we can do is to distinguish our friends from the imposters. 

To quote another friend, we have to ‘build our army’ – and always make sure that you also reach to those coming after you! Otherwise, you will once be an imposter yourself. Our networks have to reach through all levels of academia; it starts with students and ends with professors. If you cannot see the value that both can give you as a person and as a scholar, then you’re on the best way to become a great player in the game – an imposter. 

At one point at the conference I got the feeling that I have fallen into the imposter’s trap. I told others that I am afraid that someone might use my idea without referencing me or working with me. They encouraged me to publish as soon as possible. Maybe even as a blogpost, like here, because imposters can publish much quicker in other formats than a PhD student can. 

But then I met a friend at lunch this week who said to me:

“You know, there are two kinds of people in academia. Those who have all the great ideas and those who steal them. Just give it to them, if it makes them feel better, you are the one who will have a thousand more great ideas.”

This was such a nice way to look at it. But does it really help? 

It took me some time to decide whether I would write something up and publish it (here or elsewhere) or just to let the whole matter pass. 

Here is what I am going to do: 

I want to create new rules and so I ask my peers: is there someone out there who is interested in working on the esoteric / kabbalistic elements of poststructuralism? 

Obviously I am not the first or only one thinking about this, so if there is someone out there, who is as much interested in poststructuralist theory as I am and also interested in the literary / religious / esoteric elements of it – write to me!

Dear imposter: Working with others to make our research better is much more fun than working for your own benefit! But if you do want to work on this idea, I can give you a list of works by some fantastic scholars who have already established the relationship between esotericism and poststructuralism that you seemed so interested in. 

There is nothing new under the sun – the question is what we make of it!

PS: A note on friends

There might be some friends who have all our best in mind but often do not reflect their own position. They might not always see that they are in a status in which they can easily publish a high profile paper which you cannot, but you developed that idea together or just helped them formulate theirs by discussions and literature suggestions. 

How do we recognize them as friends? 

  • If you ask them to quote a work of yours they might have missed, they ask you if there are any more they should add
  • They are the ones also giving you literature suggestions
  • When you criticize their behaviour, they want to change it
  • You should find your name in their acknowledgement section

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