Imposter syndrome is that terrifying feeling that your success was acquired due to pure luck or other external factors rather than your own effort, capabilities, skills or talents.
We often talk about imposter syndrome when it comes to PhD students or people in the early stages of their careers - my colleague will cover this topic in the next article of the series (don’t forget to check it out next week!). However, I was not aware of the impact imposter syndrome on undergraduate and master's degree students until I moved to the UK and started my degree.
What puzzles me is the lack of discussion about this important mental health topic for undergraduate and master’s students. Research suggests that up to 82% of the population might be having these feelings, so why aren’t we normalising it for all students (undergraduate, master's, postgraudate and PhD level)? Today, I want to share some of my experiences throughout my academic life in the UK to hopefully encourage you guys to also contribute your views on this and recognise that you are not alone in this.
My experience at University
When I arrived at University College London (UCL) to do my dream undergraduate course in psychology, I could not have been happier – what an achievement!
This didn’t last long… At some point I learnt that universities have a pre-set number of international students they have to accept, and I started to panic. “I don’t deserve to be doing this course, I only got accepted because of the higher fees I am paying” – these are just a few of the thoughts I had back then.
These thoughts calmed down a little when I graduated and then got accepted onto a master’s course.
Then the new fears came rushing in – “everyone is so much smarter than me.” Indeed, master’s courses tend to have a greater variety of students, ages, professions, and reasons to be doing this course. Yet again, I powered through the fears, successfully graduated and got accepted into a fully-funded PhD programme. But wait a minute… “My master’s colleagues are doing cooler PhDs, gotten into professional doctorates (e.g., DClinPsy) or have amazing jobs.” “My PhD opportunity was only luck – they announced the funding too close to the application deadline, so probably no one even applied and hence I am here…”
I bet many of you can resonate with this experience, and I want to reassure you that you are not alone in this, and most of your peers likely feel the same way, they just don’t say it out loud - out of a fear of looking like an outcast yet again.
My coping strategies
Although the focus of this article is not about giving tips, I still want to share some of the things that helped me personally. I think this experience is very different for everyone, so I would love to hear about ways that help you cope in the comments!
I think one major way out of the loop of these thoughts is to try and think rationally about it, as much as possible. Yes, there is some truth in the system encouraging international students’ applications to be able to fund and support research. HOWEVER, a simple glance at the statistics of how many people apply to universities in the UK, be it home, EU or non-EU students would easily explain that if you managed to beat the competition of 10-50 people per place (on average) – there must be something about you that made the university think “Hey, this student would be awesome at doing what they want to do!”.
One major thing I started doing recently is filtering the information I read on Twitter. It feels like 80% of tweets are from people who came on to the platform to share their exciting news of getting published/getting accepted into amazing courses that you feel you can only dream about/getting accepted for fantastic internships that you will never get in for.
It is important to be happy for your friends, as celebrating each other’s victories has a positive impact on your well-being. However, most of the tweets I see are not even from people I know! No matter how much I have achieved in life, Twitter always makes me feel like I could be doing even more or that I am not good enough because I have not yet won an award like half of the people tweeting have.
Sometimes it can be good to find additional motivation from social media and to push yourself to do a few extra things.
However, you should not forget that everyone has their own paths, skills and needs. Things that other people achieve might not do anything for you or your development. Focus on yourself and how far you’ve come in your own journey.
With that being said, one thing that inspires me the most is… myself. It is easy to forget all the great things you’ve achieved, so sometimes I open my CV just to remind myself that I completed my BSc and MSc at UCL, I deserve to be doing my PhD, and I would be a strong candidate for the positions I would want to apply for after I finish my PhD. And so would you!
Celebrate your achievements with people who you know would never belittle all the hard work you’ve put into something. In my case, it’s my family, who are usually so proud of every little thing I achieve that their pride in me gets contagious. Avoid sharing the news with toxic people who cannot support you without a pinch of salt.
Finally, never forget how great you are. You’ve come a long way and there are other people who would give anything to have had the success you have had. It’s normal not to feel okay sometimes or feel like you could do more. Use this as your inspiration, and don’t let this imposter feeling stop you on the way to your dreams. I look forward to hearing your stories and tips, so please do share in the comments, let’s normalise this together!
A.V. is a Psychology PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London working on student mental health. She previously completed a BSc Psychology and an MSc Clinical and Mental Health Sciences at University College London. She is a member of the British Psychological Society and an aspiring clinical psychologist, currently working as a crisis counselor.