This blog post is written by Stephanie Bonson, a postgraduate career counsellor at QUT, with a Masters in Organisational Psychology. In 2017, she started her PhD in Creative Industries researching creative career success and identity, and has been involved in the creative arts (whether advising, researching, or creating) for about 20 years now.
During my Masters, I came across a cartoon outside a PhD student office that has always stuck with me. Pinned to the corkboard beside the office door like a slightly depressing butterfly, this cartoon showed a room full of unhappy looking PhD candidates sitting isolated in cubicles, each one with thought bubbles above their head:
I can’t do this
Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing
I don’t belong here
Everyone else is so smart, I don’t know where to begin
This scenario isn’t limited to the 2D world. I’ve seen it – both personally and professionally – over and over again, and suffered through it myself. It’s so common it even has a name: Imposter syndrome.
A look through the literature will tell you that imposter syndrome comes from an inability to internalise our own successes. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about, Imposter syndrome can be described as the sense that your accomplishments are not actually deserved. You’re not actually intelligent or skilled, but instead have managed to get where you are by luck, chance, or clerical error. The people around you may have worked hard to get where they are, and are smart, talented, worthy people, but you don’t actually belong with the successful people. You got where you are by accident, having somehow managed to fool anyone who thinks otherwise, and will one day be found out as the fraud you really are.
There’s another layer I’ve observed in researchers, and it is this: You don’t deserve to be in your research program. Everyone else is a capable researcher, but you only got in on luck. You have somehow fooled your supervisors and colleagues into thinking you’re smart and capable, but they’ll find out the truth soon enough*.
Some of you reading this may find this hits a little too close to home, and I’ll be honest, some of the examples I used above came directly from my own brain, circa 2013. As a research student and a career counsellor, I’ve spoken to friends, clients, and seasoned researchers and professionals who have those same thoughts. Unsurprisingly, most people I spoke to thought they were the only one to feel this way, or that their (and only their) worries of being an imposter were legitimate. Even amongst my fellow psychology postgrads (who arguably should be pretty good at reflecting on their own thought processes), there seemed to be a sentiment of ‘I know this is probably imposter syndrome but what if…?’
There can be a tendency with imposter syndrome to feel the urge to keep quiet about it. We look at other researchers, who all seem to be managing fine, and compare ourselves to that standard, without realising that we’re probably not making accurate comparisons – our internal self, with all our worries and doubts, to the external professional selves everyone (including us) displays for other people. If you’re comparing your ‘worst’ self to others’ best selves, you’re bound to come up short.
Beyond the obviously negative impact on our general wellbeing and sense of self, imposter syndrome can contribute to some not-so-great behaviours. Why apply for that job when you’re clearly not qualified? Why push for your supervisor to review your draft when they have other students, all far more deserving, who need their help? Why speak up in class, and risk looking like an idiot? Add to that the tendency for imposter syndrome to be correlated with perfectionism and procrastination and it doesn’t paint the most rosy of pictures.
So how can we manage it?
While a quick google search will yield tons of blogs and clickbait articles promising to reveal the 7 secrets of dealing with imposter syndrome (number 6 will shock you!), I’ve never found a way of getting rid of the beast completely. Imposter syndrome can be influenced by a range of factors, including how you see the world, so it can be linked to ingrained ways of thinking that can take a while to change. I would strongly advise to speak to a personal counsellor if you feel that feelings of fraudulence are impacting your life or causing you stress, if you find yourself constantly comparing yourself negatively to others, or if you need any support in managing the roller coaster of emotions that is the PhD.
In terms of managing imposter syndrome right now, acknowledging that what you’re feeling is imposter syndrome can be a big help, as can knowing you’re not alone. Remember that you may be comparing yourself to others unfairly – if you’re keeping quiet about your insecurities, they likely are as well. Every single student in that cartoon felt isolated and as though they were the only one struggling, when in actual fact they were all feeling the same way.
Try taking a step back and reflecting. Is it actually likely that you somehow managed to bluff your way through three years of undergraduate study, got into postgrad study on a clerical error, and somehow fooled a bunch of intelligent, educated faculty and peers into thinking you’re also intelligent and educated? Isn’t it more likely that your brain is just being a jerk?
Personally, I’ve taken the go big or go home approach (this works particularly well if you’re stubborn as mule). If my brain is saying I’m a fraud, then fine!
Let’s see how successful I can get before people start to catch on. I bet I can make it to retirement.
Image is drawn by Stephanie, of a brain and negative thoughts.
*I will add a note that most academics I know feel like that too, so if you are experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’, you are not alone. We all have to tell our brains to ‘stop being a jerk!’ – Evonne