I only discovered the term ‘impostor syndrome’ about 6 months into my PhD. I had spent my masters course the year before that in constant shock that I was actually attending an academic university, honestly expecting to mess up at any moment, (my undergraduate degree was textile design at an art school, I wrote approximately 3 essays in 4 years). I assumed my grammar school education was getting me through, but I never knew when my luck was going to run out. When I applied for a PhD with funding I wasn’t 100% sure if it was the right choice, and thinking my application had been rejected I had all but decided against it when I was unexpectedly given the very generous offer of PhD funding (as a second choice – someone else had turned it down). And so I took it, and I’m really glad I did as I have really enjoyed the majority of the PhD experience so far and I feel I am doing the ‘right thing.’
Impostor syndrome is basically a simple term for that ‘I don’t belong here and someone is going to find me out soon’ feeling that many people suffer from at some point in their academic or professional career. There are some great blogs and articles out there on the subject of impostor syndrome: here, here, and here for example. They all say really encouraging, supportive things that should soothe the soul of an anxious PhD student. I am not crippled by doubt and my ‘impostor syndrome’ does not stop me from working, but I am very aware that it is always in the back of my mind – particularly when I am on campus or at academic events. I wanted to contribute to the body of writing on impostor syndrome having discussed the issue with many of my lovely PhD cohort on a trip away last week, a training event that took the theme of health and well-being. Though the trip was really great, neither impostor syndrome nor other forms of anxiety or mental health issues common in PhD students were covered (aside from perfectionism, which though I’m sure was interesting for many others did not resonate with me!) We did however have the opportunity to get outside and explore the beautiful Scottish countryside with fellow PhD researchers, and it was these breaks that I found the most helpful, supportive and restorative.
It can, however, be intimidating spending time with what I mentally refer to as ‘proper PhD students’ – the ones who got to where they are by being incredibly clever, endlessly hardworking and clearly very fast readers. They seem to know everything on subjects I genuinely didn’t even know existed, and while I can’t understand what their topic is, I tell them that I spend my days researching frocks. Don’t get me wrong, I love and value my subject and I wouldn’t swap it – or my education to date – for anything or anyone, but it gives me yet another reason to worry that I don’t belong in a university or cohort of funded students. Presenting my subject to 20 other PhD researchers at the event last week (the first time I have presented outwith history of art or dress history) I felt that I have picked something very accessible – and that is the only reason I am able to study it. I felt lost again at a panel discussion with early career academics who recounted their experiences of getting academic jobs post PhD – I knew so little about the world of academic jobs (again: not discussed in art school, I thought I was going to be a designer!) and I panicked that I was the only person not teaching through my PhD. Did this mean I was ruling out a whole world of jobs I knew nothing about? Would I have to teach a course I had never taken to try and rectify this? I had no idea.
(The honest and potentially moany bit):
I feel I can and will never read enough. I feel I never work hard enough on a regular working day. I feel sure about these things because I work from home by myself and so no one really knows my schedule except me, and the dog, and she isn’t very strict. I feel bad when I see from Twitter that other people are working evenings and weekends – I rarely do this. When my supervisors tell me I am on track and doing really well – I am sure that it was fluke again and I somehow appear more intelligent and together than I really am. When I receive funding or awards I am thrilled, but I think I am just good at filling out forms. Every good grade was just lucky – or the fact that I picked a great topic.
This is certainly the most personal piece of writing I would ever consider sharing publicly, but I would like to do it because I’ve met lots of really nice, frighteningly clever people who tell me they feel the same. I don’t think I will ever fully feel that I belong in academia, and to be honest I don’t know if reading about other people’s impostor syndrome really helps – (“but they have a job/funding/etc?!”) – but I’d like to be honest, and it feels therapeutic to discuss issues such as this. I’m doing well on my PhD so far and I know I am a capable, highly self motivated person. I’m pretty sure I got here by accident, but I like writing about frocks, and if someone is happy to support me to do that then I can’t be so bad. If we ALL feel this way, surely a university is just a safe-house for impostors like me?
*If anyone would like to add anything to this post, pop it in an email or comment and I’ll update it with your (constructive and supportive!) thoughts.*