For a huge portion of my PhD I felt like an imposter. One day, someone was going to figure out that they made a huge mistake – that I shouldn’t have been put on the course and I was going to get thrown out any day soon. That despite no one showing any concerns, I clearly I wasn’t up to the job.
These thoughts and feelings have a name – it is called ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ It’s apparently widespread throughout academia (although no one talks about it) as well as in other professions and it is more commonly reported in women.
A few months ago – when no longer entirely in the throes of imposter-style thinking, I was called out on it. Imposter syndrome came up in a conversation, and my supervisor looked at me and casually said ‘oh yeah, you have that’ and then the conversation carried on.
Oh no! My secret! It was known all along!
When I decided to write this post, I naively thought that surely, there wouldn’t be much written about this affliction – but I was wrong! The internet is full of posts detailing imposter syndrome within and outside of academia, and the reasons why it may be more common in women.
So instead I thought I’d write about how, on reflection, I believe I came to feel like I was an imposter (and how I’m getting over it) in the hope another early-career researcher will read it, realise they aren’t the only one feeling that way, and can build up their own confidence and move on. And if that encourages someone to stick with research when they feel like they should quit, then hurrah!
- You don’t know what you know
My undergraduate degree was in Psychology – while it contained some modules on basic neuroscience, it was a world away from the biochemistry/cell biology PhD that I went on to do. For much of my first year I was coasting on barely remembered snippets of A-level biology – I was lacking the absolute fundamental basic knowledge and I had to catch up quick. I also tended to keep the fact that I did psychology quiet, as many ‘proper’ biochemists still see it as a bit of a joke subject with no scientific merit. This did little to aid my confidence and to convince me that I should be there!
When I started my PhD, my supervisor told me something that has stuck in my head, and I have retold it numerous times to other students when they needed some reassurance. It is that:
One of the most difficult things about doing your PhD is learning the difference between what YOU don’t know, and what NO ONE knows.
It is incredibly accurate and describes the stages of my PhD pretty well – in the first year I didn’t know anything (see above!), but I thought that everyone else knew everything. It felt like everyone else was privy to all this information that I just didn’t have, and that made me feel a little excluded, that I was tagging on and just ‘faking it’ to be a part of the group like everyone else. But, the learning curve was steep and by the second year I was now aware of what NO ONE knows – in both my office and in the scientific community. The difference between ‘them’ and ‘me’ got smaller, and accordingly so did the feeling of being an imposter. By the third year, I knew how to do things no one else in the office knew, and from doing my research I now knew things that no one else in the world knew. And that is pretty freakin’ sweet.
- You don’t get graded and you get less feedback
I’m a nerd. Always have been. I have always tried to get the best grade that I can – I shot for the ‘10/10s’, ‘A’s, the ‘A*’s and the ‘first class’ – and more often than not, I got them. Academia is somewhat different. And it took me a while to get used to.
There are no grades, and typically there isn’t a great deal of positive feedback either – every experiment doesn’t get marked, each report doesn’t get a score. This was a huge adjustment for me. Coming into my PhD, I was used to having constant feedback on my work – constant reports, coursework, essays and exams were all regularly graded and given back so that I knew if I was on the right track or not. Without regular reports and grades, I had no idea if what I was doing was correct or good enough – and as I tend to veer towards a pessimistic personality, I could easily convince myself that I was doing everything wrong and didn’t deserve to be there.
The feedback that you do receive in academia can actually be overwhelmingly negative – this is because in order to ensure the highest quality work is being done, anyone reviewing that work has to be highly critical, meaning they are more likely to pick out your errors and mistakes or tell you that your theory is wrong than say ‘wow this is great – A!’ If that reviewer is in a bad mood (or just a mean person that relishes creating student misery), then you also can’t guarantee that the feedback will even necessarily be constructive.
This combination of the removal of active positive feedback and the more frequent occurrence of negative feedback is perfect for breeding insecurity, and consequently feelings of being an imposter. Now, I’m not saying that PhD students should be coddled and told how great they are – the point is to push them and train them up to be confident, independent researchers that can stand their ground and produce the highest quality work possible, so constant hand-holding and reassurance would be damaging. But a little warning that things were gonna be different would have helped!
I’ve probably found this contribution to Imposter Syndrome one of the hardest to tackle – time and experience have proven to be the best solutions. With the more work that I do and the more successful experiments that I’ve run, I have become much better at self-reassurance (although there is the occasional wobble). I have also come to the conclusion that if no one is saying anything to you about what you’re doing, then it’s probably alright – a big deal will only be made about it if you’re doing something wrong! So carry on in the knowledge that you’re doing just fine!
- The Academia bubble
I am the only member of my family to have completed an undergraduate degree, so doing a PhD has been a pretty big deal. My friends also seem rather impressed by this accomplishment. And getting a PhD IS a big deal! It’s hard! Not a lot of people do it!
All of this is forgotten upon entering the academia bubble.
In this bubble, everyone has a PhD. It’s a totally normal thing. In fact it’s an essential requirement for an academic career. You are no longer the top of your class, no longer the best of a bunch of interviewees – you are bottom of the food chain! Bottom rung of the ladder! In these circumstances, it’s easy to forget that getting a place on a PhD course is an excellent accomplishment, never mind completing the darn thing! In this environment, a new, insecure researcher can lose sight of their ability, talent and worth, while trying to do their best in the shadow of the post-docs, fellows and professors above them.
The solution to this issue? Get out of the bubble and into the real world whenever possible! I particularly enjoy giving my title as ‘Dr’ whenever I’m asked whether I’m a ‘Miss or Mrs?’ As well as being quite entertaining, it’s a nice little boost to the ego. And that confidence is essential to be an independent researcher and keep on going in the face of failed experiments and harsh criticism.
- My brain
Finally, I believe that one of the biggest contributing factors to my feeling like an imposter is not the fault of the system around me, how people have treated me or even necessarily in reality or logic. It’s rooted in how I think and interpret things. As I have already mentioned, I can typically be pretty pessimistic and negative – this shapes how I’ve dealt with all the points I’ve described above. When I first started in science, I would interpret any criticism (or even lack of!) as an indication of failure and proof that I wasn’t up to scratch. A more optimistic or naturally confident person perhaps wouldn’t struggle with the removal of feedback, wouldn’t be phased by bubbles and would worry less about comparing themselves with other people in the lab (those students DO exist and I find them creepy!).
While my pessimism and negativity hasn’t generally been helpful, the belief that I wasn’t good enough has pushed me forwards to be better. I discovered a ‘screw you – watch this!’ attitude when I came up against individuals who didn’t respect my work. People started to come to me for help and advice.
And eventually I realised that actually, I am good. I am really very good at what I do (and with my British sensibilities that’s a difficult statement for me to post on the internet!).
My negativity and the pressure I put on myself to do and be the best can still sometimes damage the occasional evening (and endlessly annoy my poor husband), but it no longer dictates how I feel about working in research or whether I deserve to be there.
There’s no magic solution for getting rid of Imposter Syndrome – I found that time, experience and allowing myself to indulge in some positive thinking, ‘letting the haters hate’ and working hard pulled me out of it. Recently I was speaking to a colleague in the lab who was recently given a new contract, and she told me she was waiting for them to realise they had made a mistake – so it wasn’t just me! Knowing that countless other people have experienced the same thing gives it much less power, and makes it a much less individual and personal experience.
Below are some links to other sites discussing Imposter Syndrome in more detail and how to deal with it: