Imposter Syndrome – the cat amongst the pengiuns

This week I admitted that I worry that I am not good enough to do a PhD.  I often think that I don’t have the intelligence or research skills to get anywhere with it.  I feel nervous when going for supervision meetings as I don’t think I have done enough work or work of any worth. Coming out of those meetings I feel reassured and quite good about it all and this lasts for about a week until it kicks back in again.

I told a friend about this and she told me about Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor syndrome[1] is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Thanks to Wikipedia for actually having the most succinct description I could find.  Although this article really sums it all up if you have the time to read it – The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention

So, here are things I think about myself:

  • I have to work doubly hard to do good work while others just sail through things (this could be true in some cases).
  • I have to work doubly hard to show that I can keep up otherwise I will fall behind and won’t be able to catch up.
  • I shouldn’t take credit for things I have been involved in as others involved are probably more deserving of the praise.
  • If I do promote or recognise my own achievements I am being big headed and selfish.
  • Any feedback on anything I do I expect to be really bad.

There are a bunch of other things (being 5’2″, female, not in an academic role for example) that I think go against other things I do.  I am not sure how many of those are actually barriers or if I should stop reading articles with titles like Short Women Struggle to Break Glass Ceiling.  I often think that I shouldn’t apply for jobs because people in X department know who I am and it will put them off.

Having read more about this, I have realised that this comes into other parts of my life as well.  More interestingly (I think*) is that I don’t tell people about my worries or thoughts on some subjects as the response will be along the lines of ‘don’t be silly, that’s not true’ or ‘hugs** – we think you are brilliant’, or I think someone will tell me I am wrong and stupid***.

However, these positive reinforcements are really honest opinions from people and not necessarily people humouring me as no one wants to tell me the truth about my idiotic brain workings!

i also don’t often tell people what I think as I don’t think my opinion or expertise matters.  This applies to my academic life, work life and hobbies.

So it is out in the open.  I don’t think that there is much I can do about it except be aware of it and that it makes me worried about my supervision meetings and the amount of work I am doing.   It is nice to know it is a thing and I am not on my own.

They still haven't noticed that I shouldn't be a PhD student...

They still haven’t noticed that I shouldn’t be a PhD student…

* There is another insecurity right there, I am giving you the option to disagree with me.
**For the record “hugs” and “squee” are two things I despise on social media.
*** I do appreciate a well reasoned debate though.



Filed under PhD, Supervision

5 responses to “Imposter Syndrome – the cat amongst the pengiuns

  1. Albert Jan de Rooij

    I was thinking about your blog this morning while travelling to work, and suddenly it struck me: you are only human! Obviously there are some fine specimen out there who are completely full of themselves, have no doubts about their abilities whatsoever, but they are considered quite annoying by most of us. Expressing doubts and insecurities and the capacity of self-reflection are human assets to be cherished, don’t you think? It makes you by the way extremely suitable for doing a PhD. Good luck!

  2. Reblogged this on Telling Tales and commented:
    Imposter syndrome – we all have it. I’ve yet to meet anyone, academic or otherwise, who hasn’t felt like they were playing at being a grown up. This post from BloggerByResearch sums it up nicely. And I have the same insecurities about being petite and female. I’m not sure if that confirms these insecurities, or just points out that it’s merely physical.

    There was a particularly poignant moment a few years ago when Husband had submitted his PhD, but hadn’t yet had his viva and was not getting anywhere with finding a job. I could only reassure him as his wife that he was a smart and capable individual, but not as a fellow academic because we are is very different fields. The best thing I could come up with was to make him watch a graduation commencement speech from the New England Institute of Arts, given by Amanda Palmer on the Fraud Police.

    As I’m now pretty close to embarking on exactly the same process, I think it’s time to revisit it for myself. For some reason, knowing that someone who has a pretty successful career as a musician still fears the fraud police is comforting and motivating at the same time. You can watch it here:

    As for Husband, the day he passed his viva with minor corrections was also the day he was offered the Post-doctoral Research position he’s in at the moment. I know the chance of lightning striking twice for us is slim, but at least it gives me hope.

  3. I struggle with this on a regular basis. I think the intensity has decreased over time and as I get further into my own research. However, it’s an important phenomenon to identify. Call it by its name when it shows up. And then do the opposite of what it’s telling me to do.
    Because impostor syndrome tells me I’m lost, I’m not doing enough, my writing is drivel, etc. and those are the very things that will derail my progress.
    I agree that it could be a natural human experience or maybe a conditioned response. However, I know I am acting in my own best interest when I correct the impulse to feel like a failure with a non-judgemental appraisal of my accomplishments. And then get back to work.

    Thank you for posting.

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