A Postgraduate Survival Guide to Impostor Syndrome in Academia

As our Career Adviser, Liz Wilkinson, will be holding a webinar on impostor syndrome on March 23rd, we thought we should first touch base with the phenomenon itself. Impostor syndrome as defined by Joe Langford and Pauline Rose Clance in  Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Training is a psychological pattern in which you distrust your capacity for genuine achievement, your competence, skills, and talents. Those feelings of incompetence are often followed by a doubt over the worthiness of your achievements (while attributing your success to luck) and a fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Interestingly, first identified in 1978, the term was hypothesized in its prevalence particularly among high-achieving women. In 1993, it was found that men as well as women were affected by the phenomenon. 

The Signs of Impostor Syndrome

There is a series of signs that indicates how one could be experiencing impostor syndrome. The most common signs include self-doubt, an inability to judge or assess skills such as efficiency, adaptability, ability to communicate effectively, and problem solving. Naturally, festering self-doubt often leads to self-sabotage and other self-destructive tendencies. This leads to feeling negative when your challenging goals (that are nearly impossible) aren’t met, further perpetuating the idea that you were right all along and that you are, indeed, a fraud. Even when there are successes worthy of celebration, you tend to attribute your accomplishments to external factors, fearing that you will be discovered for cheating your way.

Who is affected?

An article from Time pinpoints some of the causes that make you experience impostor syndrome. It might have to do with personality traits, while it could also be founded in family or behavioural causes. The feeling of not being good enough can be traced, for some, all the way back to childhood. “Factors outside of a person, such as their environment or institutionalized discrimination, can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings,” writes Abigail Abrams. If you are in a surrounding where you feel like a “fish out of water,” it  can have a grave effect on your confidence. This is more pertinent, Abrams notes, if one belongs to a group where certain stereotypes about competence are attached, “including racial or ethnic minorities, women in STEM fields or even international students at American universities.” 

Postgraduate Study and Impostor Syndrome

In an article for The Life of Science, Sabiha Majumder discusses how she felt living with impostor syndrome during her PhD. “Academia is set out to train experts,” she writes, “but the more I learnt about a topic, the more I drew into its vastness. The feeling of not knowing enough, not being enough, arose in this manner. This is the catch 22 of being a researcher: You learn more and more, but feel like you know less and less.” She adds that such feelings ultimately “lead to me feeling unworthy of an expert position.” In a cover story for American Psychological Association, William Somerville also shares his experience of impostor syndrome during his PhD, noting, “There’s a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim… But I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘Am I a swimmer?'” We have already discussed the dire effects impostor syndrome may have, if left untreated: not only self-sabotaging but creating a vicious cycle of negativity that will truly impact your studies but also, your very mentality. There is only so much one can take by rolling in a deep sea of unworthiness. Combine this with the decline of mental health noted in academia and you’ve got the perfect recipe for stirring up feelings of self-loathing and anxiety. 

How to Cope

Imperial College London in their Success Guide for Doctoral Students rightly states that one of the first steps in dealing with (and eventually overcoming) your impostor syndrome is to break the silence. “Be open about your feelings and recognise when they emerge. It’s important to talk to those close to you about your concerns to help you get a sense of perspective. You are likely to discover that you are not alone.” Indeed, you are in good company. Chances are your fellow classmates and researchers feel exactly as you do, which is why it is important to have spaces to discuss why we might be feeling the way we. This can help to find ways to cope in order to become the best version of ourselves and not to be further hindered by that little voice in our heads that doesn’t know all that much anyway. Knowing that your feelings are shared and your thoughts felt will arm you with perspective: you are not alone. As Sabiha says, “When we involved my colleagues into this discussion, I was surprised to hear how even happy-seeming people were fighting the same issue on a daily basis.”

The American Psychological Associationmoreover, highlights the importance of recognizing your expertise and remembering what you do well. Write down things you are good at! Adorn your walls with post-its, if you have to! Look at previous work that has received good feedback! Changing your thinking is hard, especially when you have to reframe how you think about your achievements, but small moments of mindfulness and introspection amidst an increasingly busy work will make all the difference in giving you some perspective. Finally, realizing that no one is perfect is the ultimate step in cutting yourself some slack. If you have worked for eight hours, bask in the glory of your achievement. If one day, you have worked 4 hours or even 2, then give yourself a pat on the back, for you have accomplished a job well done. Remember, you are human, made of flesh and bones. You have the very basic needs to fulfill: to sleep well, eat well, and stay hydrated. You are not a machine and you always ought to make some breathing space. You owe yourself at least that much. 

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