Updated: Apr 28
By E. H.
Last week, my colleague explored how imposter syndrome can affect students at different stages of their academic career. It is worth reiterating this and the importance of creating a platform for dialogue for those who are experiencing such a hurdle but struggle to find their feelings validated by the academic community at large. This week, I will address the more commonly acknowledged circumstances of dealing with imposter syndrome during your PhD.
A PhD is a long-term project and as such it evolves and transforms, embracing phases of productivity, exhilaration and discouragement. This statement might sound trite, but it encapsulates the multifaceted experience of every PhD student, which inevitably consists in highs and lows.
The consequence of this reality is that each PhD student may encounter some difficulties along the way and even question the merit and worth of their research. This is perfectly normal and healthy, but the doubt can quickly turn into crushing insecurity. As they assess the progress of their work, many PhD students, at some point in their project, can be overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and some might come to internalise them to the point that they convince themselves to be undeserving of any recognition and even of being there in the first place.
It can often happen during your second year, when you begin to feel the pressure of being productive, of writing, and of gathering data. The problem is that when you experience imposter syndrome, you live in constant fear of being revealed to the world as a fraud, and the anxiety which accompanies this phenomenon can seriously impact your ability to succeed and find fulfilment and pride in your hard work.
Let us make a few points which will hopefully help to clarify this issue and address ways to overcome it.
Questioning and doubt are natural processes of a curious mind
Any researcher understands the role of scepticism to develop cogent and compelling arguments. As you formulate your premises, you cannot assume they are correct, instead you need to determine whether they withstand appropriate counterarguments. In other words, you need to contemplate the possibility that your logic can be faulty.
The process of assessing the strength and persuasiveness of your work is therefore absolutely healthy and valuable. However, don’t let it overwhelm you. It can be difficult to be objective when you are so invested in your own project, so try to focus on the positives instead of getting lost in the negatives.
Foster the power of scepticism to strengthen your work and learn to judge it with impartiality within the landscape of the existing relevant scholarship. It will help build your self-confidence.
Imposter syndrome is both real and irrational
Imposter syndrome is very real.
The manifestations of this issue can include acute stress and anxiety, which in turn can affect the body. As a result, it is important to not underestimate the problem and to monitor its progression, especially if you notice an aggravation. Mind and body are in constant dialogue and listening to both is crucial to cultivate mindfulness and self-awareness.
However, to address imposter syndrome, we need to remember that it is fueled by irrational fears. Ordinary hesitations are transformed into existential doubts about the intrinsic merits of one’s work and self-worth, which are completely unwarranted. Focusing on this aspect and on rationalising these fears can significantly alleviate anxiety and its physiological effects.
Be mindful of triggers
The academic community is a highly competitive environment, and particularly in prestigious universities, the pressure of performing to certain standards can cause you to feel tremendously insecure.
In fact, you are constantly surrounded by incredibly talented and accomplished people, some of whom almost excessively confident, and, in the process of comparing your work to that of your peers, you might experience feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. It is therefore important to be vigilant and mindful of the triggers, whether in the form of situations which make you uncomfortable and anxious or people who inadvertently fuel your insecurities.
Remember that even the most boastful and bragging students are most likely riddled with self-doubt! So, try to clear the noise around you, what causes you to feel inadequate, and instead rely on those who empower you and infuse you with a sense of self-confidence and positiveness.
Remember it is a process
Remember that it is a process, and there is no quick fix.
A PhD is a long journey and can be different for everyone. We all experience things in our own way, have unique sensibilities and struggles as well as strengths and skills. Use the suggestions outlined above to reflect on your own experience, try to rationalise your fears, identify your triggers and surround yourself with agents of positive reinforcement.
If you feel overwhelmed and need support, don’t hesitate to ask for help, whether that’s from your friends and family, your supervisor or an external counselor.
We all need a helping hand from time to time, and they will be happy to give it.
E. H. was a PhD student in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. She received an MA from the University of Florence and her research interests revolve around issues of representation in Latin poetry.