One common source of doubt for scholar is the general lament, “I’m not smart enough,” or the corresponding question, “am I smart enough?” This is one version of the common problem known as “imposter syndrome” (a different version is to say “I don’t work hard enough”). If you doubt you have the intelligence to do your work, then you’ll anticipate failure, which can certainly trigger anxiety. But chances are that you do have enough or more than enough intelligence. A rational eye towards the actual standards of academia is useful when doubts about your intelligence step in and interfere with writing. I cannot prove that you—unknown reader—are smart enough, but a lot of people who are smart enough (at least as judged by their careers) have also doubted themselves, it is possible, even likely, that you might be another.
What does it mean to be smart, anyway?
To know whether you are “smart enough,” it helps to know what it means to “be smart” and to have some sense of how to quantify or measure “smart,” but “smart” is hard to define, and hard to measure. Any number of standardized tests have been developed for measuring intelligence. But is a score on a test an accurate measure of usable intelligence?
Universities are placing less and less emphasis on standardized tests in their admissions, which suggests that they don’t think tests offer valuable insight into ability. Of course, universities have historically used such tests, so if you happen to be in academia, you probably scored high enough on the test to satisfy the admissions committee, which is an indication that, at least according to the test, you are smart enough.
I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of trying to define “smart” or “smart enough,” but, if you’re worrying that you’re not smart enough, it is worth thinking about “smart” critically: What makes someone smart? Ability to do logic puzzles? Large vocabulary? Good memory? What about “emotional intelligence” or kinds of intelligence? There are probably many different things that the average person would consider “smart.” So, whatever “being smart enough” means, it’s a complex multidimensional thing.
Instead of asking whether you’re smart enough, ask whether you can achieve the goals you set for yourself, and what you would need to accomplish those goals. If you take this pragmatic perspective, it doesn’t really matter how much innate talent or “smartness” you have, what matters is what you do with your abilities.
Pragmatic measures are relevant because they give you empirical evidence regarding your ability to meet successive challenges and grow. Each step you take provides some evidence about how you can deal with the next step. If you did well in undergraduate studies, you have evidence that you could do well in graduate studies, and you can ask what more you might need for that next step. If you have done well in graduate studies, you have evidence that you can write a graduate thesis, and you can ask what more do you need to take the next step. If you have written a graduate thesis, you have evidence that you can get published, and you can ask what more you need to do.
The evidence you gather at each step is not conclusive—success at one level of competence doesn’t guarantee success at the next, a high school athletic star won’t necessarily be a university athletic star—but it is suggestive. Universities are pretty good at identifying students who have the ability to finish degrees (even in the case of doctoral students, who only receive a degree about 50% of the time: of the students who don’t finish, many could have finished if not for life circumstances).
Believe in the empirical evidence of your past successes, rather than in your doubts about moving to the next level. And trust the skills that got you where are.
Intelligence and self-confidence
In many ways, success in academia is as much dependent on self-confidence than on any innate “intelligence.” The arrogant fool pushes ahead, blind to their own failings and the weaknesses in their own work. They produce and share work, and then proclaim its greatness. And others accept that claim. Meanwhile, the insightful, discriminating and self-doubting scholar keeps working trying to eliminate problems, rather than sharing it. As a result, no one can find it interesting because no one knows it exists. The arrogant fool can end up publishing many times when the careful scholar is still working on a single piece.
Ideally, a scholar balances the discerning self-doubt/self-criticism needed to maintain quality with the self-confidence to share work despite imperfections. It’s easier to maintain that balance if you remember the inevitable uncertainty in research and the crucial role that confidence plays in proceeding despite uncertainty. As I have argued elsewhere, research, at best, offers strong and convincing evidence; it does not offer certainty. To proceed in the face of these uncertainties, a scholar needs confidence. Your confidence can be supported by remembering that uncertainty springs up in research no matter how smart you are. Heisenberg was plenty smart, but he’s still known for his uncertainty principle. Accepting the uncertainty in research can support the confidence to discuss the limits of your work: if you expect to experience limits, and you know other scholars in your field also struggle with limits, it’s much easier to discuss and examine those limits as product of the difficulties of research rather than a reflection of any lack of intelligence.
Writing and the critical eye
There are a lot of people who, when trying to write, think “I’m not smart enough for this,” but who, when they’re reading, think “this work could be better; the author(s) ought to have considered XYZ,” or, when they’re talking with colleagues/peers in informal settings, feel confident enough to criticize the work or the theories of others. This is, I think, partly the product of the general ability to criticize: when someone presents their work to you, you have a chance to find problems with it. This is useful when reading other people’s work—the ability to criticize is a crucial tool for finding the proverbial “gap in the literature,” to which scholars respond. However, when you write, suddenly it’s your own words and ideas that are on the page ready to be criticized. Too often, writers take that opportunity to criticize themselves into paralysis.
You know your own work better and in greater detail than you know the work of others, and when you’re writing about your own work, there is no rhetorical device that can head off your own criticisms. This perspective makes your own work look weak, and in the moment of writing it’s likely that you’re focused on your own work, not on the weaknesses of other people’s work (despite the fact that the motivating force behind most research is some sort of weakness or “gap” in previously published literature).
What abilities do you need to be a scholar?
Good research and scholarship do not require brilliance. Mostly, scholarship requires careful attention to detail, reasonable ability to discriminate, a decent memory, and a little imagination. You can’t be an idiot to be a scholar, but you don’t have to be a genius.
Scholarship mostly depends on doing careful conscientious work. It doesn’t take great intelligence to identify a “gap in the literature”—i.e., an unanswered question—it just takes enough intelligence to understand publications in the field, along with the persistence to read a bunch of them. Questions abound: lots of scholarship leaves questions that could be asked in the future, sometimes formalized as “suggestions for future research.”
Once you’ve identified something to study, it might take some imagination to figure out how to make a research study out of an idea, but mostly what’s needed is attention to detail to flesh out the research plan and enough confidence to accept imperfect plans.
Good analysis of data can be difficult, but often it merely requires following a prescribed method. It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that a lot of good analysis happens implicitly: if you think something is important, that’s analysis; if you think there’s a problem, that’s analysis. Insights that seem dreadfully obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to others.
There are many moments in the scholarly process where imagination is valuable—coming up with interesting questions, novel hypotheses or methods, or insightful analyses of data—but a lot of scholarship requires only careful pursuit of questions and methods for answering questions. Focus, discrimination, persistence, and careful attention are absolutely required for research, but once-in-a-generation brilliance is not.
Doubting your own intelligence can trigger anxiety, but asking whether you’re smart enough is the wrong question to ask. Ask what you can do with the abilities you have. Focus on the abilities you have used in the past, and try to expand them a little at a time. If you have ever had success in academics, those successes suggest that you have enough intelligence to continue moving forward. Look for ways to build on past successes and trust the abilities that got you there. Your limits may keep you from pursuing certain projects, but it’s most likely that the limits you face will be practical, not intellectual.
Although I’m convinced that this is a subject worth discussing, I’m not very happy with this essay I’ve written. Nonetheless, I’m sharing it with you in part because I want to demonstrate my willingness to proceed in the face of doubt.