I first heard about imposter syndrome during a post-grad orientation seminar I attended about 6 months into my PhD. Some people who had recently completed their PhDs were dolling out advice to a room full of terrified looking newbies. However the speakers reassured us all that they too had once felt what we were feeling. They called it ‘imposter syndrome’, or the feeling that:
• you are completely underqualified for your position
• that everyone else is much smarter (and further ahead) than you
• it won’t be long before everyone will figure out that you’re totally incompetent and kick you out.
Over the years imposter syndrome has come up time and time again in PhD pep talks and discussion groups. I’ve never, not once, heard someone say they’ve never felt it. Even senior, high achieving, silverback/legend-status academics admit to feeling it from time to time. Imposter syndrome, it seemed, was everywhere.
Then it hit me – imposter syndrome really was everywhere. Apart from a few, supremely well-adjusted individuals, everyone had it. So I started thinking, if everyone has it, then maybe these feelings are normal. And if it’s normal, it can hardly be called a syndrome can it? Instead, maybe it’s just a completely normal response to throwing yourself in the deep end and tackling the unknown. That’s the nature of academia after all – finding out what we don’t know. Taking on difficult questions that nobody has answered before is bound to make you feel stupid every now and then.
I worry that calling it a ‘syndrome’ gives it too much power and almost makes it more debilitating. If we think of it as a syndrome, as something abnormal, then we can’t get on with our work until we’ve found a cure. “Sorry, I won’t be able to submit that chapter on time. I’m off sick with imposter syndrome… ”
But we’re not sick, we’re just feeling a little scared and insecure. We all feel this way at least some of the time. The trick is not to let it fester and become destructive.
So, next time you get that sinking, anxious feeling, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re here to learn. Talk it out with your friends or advisors – remember, there’s a good chance they’re feeling the same way at that very moment. And be patient with yourself. Yes, that academic is amazing and has a lot of publications, but they’ve also been working in the field since before you even started highschool. Give yourself (and your ego) a break.
Also, don’t forget what you’ve already achieved – big or small. Admittedly, it’s a little dorky, but I have a big, yellow ‘happy place’ folder. Every time I attend a workshop or conference, get a grant, have an abstract accepted, even have work show up in the local newsletter it goes into the folder. Flick through it whenever you feel like you haven’t achieved anything yet (or after your supervisor requests 100+ revisions on one of your chapter drafts).
Whatever you do, don’t EVER let “imposter syndrome” hold you back. Because chances are, once you join that workshop, deliver that presentation or lead that discussion group you’ll realise you actually know what you’re talking about. And that is a very good feeling.
Originally posted on my old site ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com, October 12, 2012.