“Did I just get a dissertation that is completely worthless? Do I know what I’m doing?” – The pendulum swing of imposter syndrome

This post is the first in a series of four sharing Amanda Nichols Hess’s story with publishing, peer review, and thoughts on open peer review. Amanda and I spoke in late July, 2020. She was the first person I interviewed this summer, after I re-opened a call for interviews.

In this chapter of her story, Amanda talks about the pendulum swing of imposter syndrome, how these feelings were present for her after having an established career and history of publishing her writing.

Amanda Nichols Hess

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Amanda Nichols Hess

Position: Coordinator of Instruction and Research Help/ Liaison Librarian for the School of Education & Human Services

Institution: Oakland University Libraries

Fun Fact: Amanda’s very, very, very loud typing is infamous among coworkers and can be heard down hallways in a crowded library (when people used to work together and crowds gathered).

Amanda came to librarianship from a school librarian background and experience in the K-12 education system. After having been laid off and working in a non-librarian position, Amanda got a job at Oakland University Libraries. Because Amanda came from the K-12 system, and because she had never pursued writing and publication in her graduate education, she found the prospect of research and publishing intimidating.

I was not somebody in graduate school who had publication, writing for publication, writing scholarly articles or even professional articles on my radar at all. So when I first came to my institution…I didn’t realize what that meant, or what that would look like for me when I interviewed for this job… But the first year that I started, I had serious imposter syndrome. I was like, “I do not know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do academic publishing kinds of writing.” … So, I was fortunate to have a couple of people who, not really formally mentored me, but were helpful to me as I got started. One was a colleague who was very experienced in writing articles and collaborating with other colleagues on scholarly writing. And then another was a former colleague who left K-12 education at the same time as I did and got a tenure-track position as an education faculty. So he dragged me along a little bit, and my work colleague helped me.

I feel like despite not knowing what I was doing, I learned as I went. And then once I got a couple of publications under my belt, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I can figure out ways to find things that I’m doing or that I’m working on or that I’m interested in that are interesting to other librarians or to other even educators more broadly.” And so I think coming from a different environment, coming from an academic experience in my library graduate program where I was very focused on pedagogy and working on developing lesson plans, I felt very much like I had to compensate for my lack of experience or lack of knowledge in the scholarship area. I really focused heavily on that in the first couple of years of my job, and I feel like I started a ball rolling and then it just kept on going.

Emily: It sounds like your transition from school librarianship/teacher librarian to academic librarian was a little formative for you. Your success was largely in part to some good mentorship and collaborations with colleagues. And tenacity it sounds like.

[laughs] Yes, I think a healthy dose of fear, too. “I have to do this. I never want to be a disappointment.” These are deep-seated, childhood, baked-in ways of thinking. “Okay, I have to do this right. I have to send something in that’s polished, that’s well done. I don’t want to reflect poorly on my institution.” So yes, the first couple of years I was very, very aware of, “Okay, I have to make sure this is perfect before I submit it for a first pass.” I think I’ve let go of some of that now. The comments I get now are definitely not comments I would have gotten in my first couple of years where I was so focused on just trying to do it right and just trying to get something out there.

Sometimes when I see certain comments in reviewers’ feedback, it triggers that fear of imposter syndrome in me.

Sometimes when I see certain comments in reviewers’ feedback, it triggers that fear of imposter syndrome in me. I’m like, “Oh, what are they saying?” I have found effective strategies for my own mental processing on how to separate the content of the review comments and the emotion that I feel, or the knee-jerk reaction that I feel when it feels more critical than constructive. But it can be hard, I think, when you are not having a dialogue with somebody, when you’re just seeing words in an email, or words in a feedback system or on paper. You think, “But don’t they know how hard I worked on this?” and “Don’t they know that I considered that?” No, they don’t know any of that. So I figured out how I can manage separating the — very meaningful — constructive feedback with what feels like personal criticism, which it is not. That’s my own issue. [laughing]

If I think about my most recent work that I submitted for peer review, and I think about the first attempts that I made at peer review, they are different but they’re maybe not what you would expect.

The first couple of articles that I submitted and wrote weren’t analyzing big sets of data. I called them case studies, but they weren’t classical or traditional case studies. It was like, I’m going to describe what we did at our institution and back it up with research and literature. And when I submitted, I was very fearful.  I got a response back that was, “Yep, we accept your article.” There were no corrections, no changes needed. And I was like, “Well, this is easy!” I mean, it wasn’t easy because I really honed it and had people look at it and I was very critical on my own work of how am I going to submit this for publication…But the first thing that I wrote and submitted on my own for peer review, it was just the smoothest process probably I’ve ever experienced.

That was the case with my solo written articles the first couple of times. And then I feel like I settled into more of a groove of: have an article written, you’d submit it to a journal and they’d say, “Oh, this is really out of scope for us,” or they’d request revisions. But then more recently I had this very large dissertation, mixed methods, so I had interviews and some quantitative data. I took the interviews and more of the narrative data and was able to get a book out of it, but then I have this quantitative data that I was like, “Well, I think there’s meaning here” but it just didn’t work in a book. I was like, “Well, maybe I can make some articles out of this.” And so I’m riding high. At this point I think, “I actually know what I’m doing in research. I’ve taken research methods classes. I’ve written a dissertation. I’ve done all this. I can just clean it up a little bit and submit it.”

Well, first of all that wasn’t the case. I had to do some legwork, more legwork than I expected. I was like, “Oh, I’m redoing all of this work. I’m redoing this lit review.” So it was more effort than I had thought. I sent out inquiries to editors of two journals and I said, “Would you be interested in something like this? I think there’s a lot of data so it would be more than one article. I’m not sure if you would want it to be comprehensive.” Both editors said, “Oh yes, we’d be very interested.” I thought okay, great. I have real quantitative data, which is often not found in library literature and especially not on the topics that I’m researching and publishing on.. And I’m like, “Okay, great. I’m going to get some really top-tier journals to publish my work.”

And both of these articles were the ones where the reviewers were like, “This author is a terrible writer. This person does not know how to write. There are so many grammatical errors.” I’m like, “Excuse me?” They were just summarily rejected. I take that back. One journal editor was like, “Our reviewers really don’t think this fits, but I would be happy to work with you.” They were very constructive and they really tried. But at the end of the day they’re like, “We just can’t publish this.”

I felt very defeated…

I felt very defeated and I had to really put those away for a while. And when I was able to come back to the articles and to the comments, I was able to get more clarity. It’s not that they necessarily weren’t constructive, but I felt like it all just hit a little close to home.

That’s kind of personal because you’re really talking about my ability to write. I feel like at this point I’ve published enough that I feel like I can write for an academic audience. Or their comments were something to the effect of, “This person doesn’t know what they’re doing in terms of analyzing their data,” or “These statistics are wrong.” I’m like, “Did I just get a dissertation that is completely worthless? Do I know what I’m doing?” So it really led to some self-doubt and some questioning …So I gave myself a break. I took a break and I was like okay, I’m going to go back to some of the tactics that I had used in the past, or I had a colleague read a draft. I told them, “I’m really struggling with this. I think I’m too close to this. This is the feedback I’ve gotten. What do you think of this?” I asked people whose opinions I really value, whom I knew would be straight with me, who would sit down and talk with me about this.

In one case, that colleague and I talked it through and she said, “I think, for example, why they’re saying ‘this person has so many grammatical errors’ is that your writing style is more like how you speak, which actually makes it really easy to read, but it’s not really academese.” She said, “You’re flipping things around in your sentences, so if you go through and see a comma, go back around and try and change that.” I’m like, “Oh – that’s actually something I didn’t really realize I did,” but now that she pointed it out, I see a lot more now in my first drafts. So in talking with her and in looking at my articles, I could see the issues that I had. I could see this is why these were maybe rejected, and also because I was still trying to be too broad, or I was providing details in the way that really weren’t helpful or really weren’t targeted at a library audience.  I was still in that dissertation discipline, since that’s really its own thing, and that wasn’t useful. I was able to, again, finesse, revisit, and even break my research down into smaller, more manageable chunks. And when I did some of that I was able then to find a journal where an editor was willing to work with me. I got some really good constructive feedback from peer reviewers, and from there it was like the dominos fell. I was able to see more clearly these were the changes that I needed to make. These were the issues that people were having with how to understand what I was trying to say. Because it was dense. It was statistical research and I needed to put it in more practical language. I’m generally really applied in how I look at my research, and I was really not doing that. I was trying to get away with some laziness in how I was talking about my statistics and talking about how I did my analysis. And the reviewers were catching me on it. When I finally came around to talking with a colleague and finding a journal where they really were willing to work with me and they said, “We think this has value but we think it needs a lot of work,” I was able to really clearly see how I could clean up other pieces of data and present them in a way that was meaningful for other publications.

I was fortunate that I had the luxury to do that

I really struggled with the feedback that I got from the first round of reviewers and also the figuring out how to take that feedback and make it meaningful. So it really took me some time to sit with it, think about it, and even step away from it and not think about consciously, but turn it over in the back of my mind. I was fortunate that I had the luxury to do that because, at this point, I had gone through tenure and promotion at my institution, so I wasn’t as if I really had to push to try and get things out there. If I had that experience when I was still under review, I would have been a basket case. But I feel like I was able to take more risks and stick my neck out there a little bit more. I could let those things simmer and not just shelve them or throw them in the garbage can. I had the flexibility to go back to both peer review in a very formal sense of going through journals’ processes, but also talking with my own peers at my institution and saying, “Okay, where am I going wrong here? What am I missing? What’s not making sense? What doesn’t make sense to you?” I found that the ability to have a conversation with somebody across the table in our library café–when we used to be able to sit with people in the café–it was easier for them to tell me, “I’m not getting this,” and for me to say, “well, this is what I mean.” And then they could respond that, like “oh, okay, I understand it now but this is the area that I think is tripping you up.” That’s not really a peer review in the sense of what you’re probably looking at, but that kind of dialogue was just really helpful for me in surmounting the most challenging or upsetting peer review experience that I had, which was my most recent peer review experience. It’s very fresh in my mind.

Amanda’s story will continue in the coming weeks.

Why Stories?

Recently I was catching up on my podcast listening and was delighted to hear Radiolab’s Latif Nasser talking about how he finds stories. “I tell myself that there are 7.5 billion people on planet earth… and if you presume that one percent of those 7.5 billion people have those stories, there’s no way all those stories are getting told…There’s an infinity of stories all around us.” I truly believe that when we open ourselves to others’ experiences, we in turn reflect on our own. We have much to learn about ourselves by listening to others.

For years I have been fascinated by peer review and moving toward open peer review. I’ve thought about it, written about, and even helped develop some experimental open peer review processes. But I have truly come to believe that this work, while important, cannot have the same effects on others unless we sit down to listen to stories. To really listen. And really listening means that we will also reflect. And then we might take action.

But we cannot take action if the only way we can listen is confined. Allowing stories to filter into the open, where more people can listen, so more people can learn will better position us to take that action. It’s not just the sharing that’s important, it is that we openly share.

Peer review is essential to our work, but it is also imperfect. It introduces bias into the literature. Many publications lack clear reviewer guidelines, or reviewers do not use the guidelines to review. Reviewers in blinded review processes may not have accountability for their words or actions. Most peer-reviewing is hidden labor. Students may not learn how to provide peer review, nor do they learn what processes they may face as authors undergoing it. Our scholarly rewards system is broken and relies heavily on the tradition of peer review. This system introduces systemic bias. All this and more.

But we really don’t have that much evidence in LIS. We don’t know what people have experienced. We don’t know the challenges they have faced. We don’t know the wins. It will be in human experience. It will be in stories where we can discover evidence. That is why stories.

Welcome to Stories of Open

Stories of open began 3 years ago, when I sought to expand my research on open peer review. I was looking for a more involved qualitative research project that would gather and share personal experience narratives about peer review and open peer review in Library and Information Science.

As such I began to codify for myself a research project for an upcoming sabbatical. My aim with Stories of Open was always to gather and share personal experience stories. With an accepted book proposal, IRB approval, as well as a forthcoming sabbatical, I began to gather stories in the form of interviews. These stories, and their analysis using narrative inquiry methods, are forthcoming by ACRL Press.

But that is not enough. Everyone has a story to share. According to educational researcher Jeong-Hee Kim, narrative research’s purpose is to “… invite readers to a sphere of possible contact with a developing, incomplete and evolving situation, allowing them to re-think and re-evaluate their own views, prejudices, and experiences” (p. 235). Kim, Jeong-Hee. Understanding Narrative Inquiry. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2016.

I am continuing to conduct interviews. My sincere hope is that I am able to share the transcripts of those interviews–our colleagues’ stories–on this website. The stories won’t be heavily analyzed, and the transcripts won’t be heavily edited. They’ll be offered in readable and digestible form.

My hope is that reading these stories inspires you to share your own, either here or with a colleague. My hope is that reading these stories makes you think about how our community can work to improve peer review. And my sincere hope is that the changes we collectively make to peer review will make it more just, more equitable, more inclusive, and our literature more diverse.

Please contact me if you would like to share your story or open or your experiences with peer review.