Welcome to the land of PhD Imposter Syndrome…

We all feel like imposters from time to time. We can carry with us a pervasive sense that, at our core, we’re intellectual phonies. That we don’t deserve to be on the PhD programme, and that any day now we’re going to get found out. Even when faced with objective evidence to the contrary, whether that’s our grades or our very existence on the PhD programme – with all its competitive application processes and rites of acceptance – we’re still left with a sense that we must have fooled everyone into thinking we’re capable or talented, and that we have what it takes to complete the PhD.

PhD Imposter Syndrome

This feeling – imposter syndrome – is widespread and can derail our progress and sense of worth. At one stage or another, most (perhaps even all) PhD students feel it. It’s often carried around like a huge weight, limiting our ability to flourish as academics and researchers, bringing with it a fear that we’re not really meant to be doing a PhD at all, and that we don’t have the skills or knowledge to contribute.

Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, such as our grades, publications, milestones and feedback, we can attribute our progress to luck, or to our ability to fool those around us into thinking we’re more competent than we are.

It is no surprise that PhD students feel like imposters from time to time (or perhaps all of the time). Entry onto a PhD programme means new rules to learn, new roles to adopt, and increased exposure and pressure in the face of an environment that encourages frequent evaluation, competition, high workloads and a pressure to publish academic work.

But it is important to recognise our inner imposter, and to seek to restrict it of the ammunition it needs to bring us down. Left unchecked, imposter syndrome can breed fear and an ability-avoid mindset, whereby we stop striving for excellence and instead start striving to avoid demonstrating incompetence.

In this post, I want to offer some consolations for PhD imposter syndrome – snippets of advice and meditations designed to help you think differently about your place in the academy and your own abilities.


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You’re only human

To be human is to be fallible, to make mistakes, to learn as we do. We might think that we’re on the verge of being exposed as frauds, but the reality is that there is nothing to expose. We are all, in fact, fallible. We will all make mistakes. We’ll all stumble our way through our respective projects, hoping for the best and being carried by varying doses of good fortune and circumstance.

Our fallibility is what makes us human. Fallibility, in this context, is our capacity to make mistakes, to be confused, to feel overwhelmed, and so on. It’s a common aspect of simply being alive and being human. And when you throw us humans into the PhD arena, with its intellect, workload, and culture, our propensity for fallibility increases significantly. We will make mistakes here. We have to if we are to chart a course forward. So while we may, from time to time, act foolishly, that doesn’t in itself make us frauds or mean that we are particularly terrible. There is, indeed, nothing to expose. There is no lie or fraud we’re living. We do, in fact, deserve to be here, and we do, in fact, have what it takes to succeed.

You’d need to fool countless others

A defining characteristic of PhD imposter syndrome is a sense that we must have fooled those around us to get where we are today. But look around you. Those people – your supervisors, admissions officers, journal editors, or whomever else it may be – are awfully smart. They’re switched on, they know what they’re looking for, and they can smell a fraud a mile away. For you to truly be an imposter and for you to truly have fooled those around you into letting you get where you are now, you would have had to fool some very smart people. Have faith that they had faith in you when it really mattered.

Good enough for what?

If you knew how to do the PhD, you would have been awarded it by now. You’re on the PhD journey, and there are a lot of unknowns. You’re still learning the skills required, and still uncovering the various pieces of the puzzle. Your picture is incomplete, and that can be scary. It’s easy to feel like you’re not good enough when you’re knee-deep in the PhD and can’t see the way out.

You’re training to be good enough, and part of that is learning how to do what the people you look up to do. The trouble is, it’s hard. You’re surrounded by people further along the PhD journey, and those who finished theirs and have worked as academics and researchers. They’re all further along the journey than you are, but you’re in an environment where, in theory, you’re to work on an even playing field. But you’re a trainee – an apprentice still learning the skills and attributes necessary to be able to truly compete on that playing field.

You may think that you’ll never be good enough, or never have what it takes, but that fear can often come from comparing your progress to that of others. But it is your journey and yours alone. Those around you are working on different things and in different ways. They may be further along the journey, may have more experience as writers or researchers, or better supervision.

Perhaps everyone feels like an imposter some of the time

The perverse thing about imposter syndrome is that it seems to affect the highest achievers the most – those with the most accolades and objective accomplishments can often be the biggest sufferers.

When I find myself feeling like an imposter – which is most of the time – I’m reminded of two quotes from two people who would, for most people, be classed as incredibly accomplished. If they suffer from imposter syndrome, there is really nothing to worry about. We may feel like impostors, and perhaps everyone does, but our feelings most often have no basis in objective fact.

  • “Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things. On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.” And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”-Neil Gaiman
  • “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” (Albert Einstein).

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Remedies for PhD imposter syndrome

  1. Give yourself an appraisal – step back and give yourself positive feedback from time to time. What are your skills? What could you talk about for hours? Being aware of what you are good at is really useful at shutting that internal critic up.
  2. Reflect on all the positive feedback you have got and perhaps even keep a ‘feel-good file, where you store and collect praise. Read through old notes of praise and kind words, or remember back to positive feedback you got for a particular chapter or conference paper. Whatever it is, remember how good it feels to hear kind, positive words in response to something you wrote or created. Each time you do, you’ll get a confidence boost and remind yourself of your greatness.
  3. Spend time with people who lift you up, not bring you down – surround yourself with love and who can see and remind you of your success. Spot the people in your life who only remind you of your flaws and who chip away at your confidence.
  4. Keep a journal – this isn’t a ‘dear diary’ of a journal, this is a more purposeful journal that you use to shed light on your talents. Use it to write down things you’re grateful for, things that made your day great, and things that would make your day even better. Over time, the act of writing down your accomplishments and showing yourself gratitude will increase your self-confidence and belief in your abilities because it will show you all the good you’re doing.
  5. Realise that you’ve already made it. You’re on the PhD programme, you’ve been accepted into the club (as a trainee apprentice at this stage) because of your skill and competence. That skill and competence are still there, and you still have what it takes to complete.

Hello, Doctor…

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