The ballad of the PhD Student & the Impostor Syndrome

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.

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Countryside therapy: SGSAH getaway to the Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae

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 courseĀ  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?

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Stupidly clever PhD types ^

*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.*

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6 thoughts on “The ballad of the PhD Student & the Impostor Syndrome

  1. Hopefully all the positive feedback that you are receiving from conferences will help you feel part of the academy. But being part of academia often means deciding what you want to do with it, for it and in it and that may mean grabbing it by the throat, from time to time and setting your own terms. Following many PhD careers as a supervisor, I have seen that when the criticism comes, and it will, standing up for yourself and defining what you do and where you position yourself in response is the moment when you feel you belong.

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  2. Really glad you blogged about this, Lucie. I had a conversation with a group over dinner in Millport – Dee was also at our table – about feeling like I’m not going to be taken seriously: a) because I’m so casual and feel quite “unacademic” about most of what I do and how, and b) because I am one of the youngest PhD students in my department, and I feel like I lack the “life” and “real world” experience, having only worked for a couple of years in between degrees. I’m also one of the youngest in my family, so I’m used to being the “baby” and so I’m used to not being taken seriously.

    Like you, my undergraduate wasn’t particularly academic, and my Masters was a taught research methods degree rather than a Masters by Research. I also didn’t realise imposter syndrome was a thing until recently, but it’s good to know we all go through it.

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  3. Can you get teaching work while doing your PhD? If you want to go onto being a lecturer, you will need this – but if not, then focus on your studies (by the way, my PhD is in criminology, but I can relate to this, even though most of it was done while I was a senior lecturer!). There is a sense that until you are a ‘Dr’ you don’t really belong, yet the best lecturers I know come from practice and engage students in ways researchers cant always manage. Oh and all other PhD students are cleverer, doing something more useful, have done more fieldwork etc etc etc…..but you know, I think the advice to be proud and get used to defending your work will stand you in good stead, advice I shall remember myself! I do sometimes think those doing weekends, evenings may be close to finishing so it is one last push, are working full time as well (as I was), or………..perhaps are not managing their time, or dare I suggest…..not focusing on the task if they are on twitter telling everyone! We all work at a different pace, at different times, so it will be a unique experience for all – the main thing is its your achievement and no-one elses. Oh and then post PhD life begins and apparently this is just the beginning…….good luck!

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  4. I think there are a lot of paths into a PhD, and most of us suffer from impostor syndrome. I come from and academic family and studied English before starting a PhD in dress history (although I do sew proficiently- or I did before starting grad school). None of us can read everything, and we all have gaps in our knowledge base. I’m happy to find another dress historian blogging about her PhD!

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  5. Thank you for sharing your struggles and fears. I totally relate to your story and always look at other students/coworkers wondering if I am good enough and why I am here. But as you said as you long as yoi enjoy your research/work then you should carry on and stop worrying. Thanks again for sharing your story.

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