Impostor phenomenon

I ran a session for PhD students yesterday on ‘Impostor Phenonemon’.

  • Do you suspect that you got where you are by luck or by fooling people?
  • Do you feel that you don’t deserve your success?
  • Are you worried that you will be uncovered as a fraud?

These feelings are very common. They are more common in women than men, but they flourish in academia – for both women and men.

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

There’s a test you can take to see how much of an impostor you feel. The test is not very good. For example, question 10 (‘It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments’) also tests how British you are. And the scale for answers is odd: points 2 to 4 on the five-point scale are about frequency (‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’) while points 1 and 5 are about truth (‘not at all true’, ‘very true’).

Still, the figures are in the right ballpark, at least for me. I got 61 yesterday, but I think I would have got 78 during and soon after my PhD. Both results fall short of full impostor phenomenon (80 and above): I would answer ‘no’ to the three questions at the top of this thread.

Nonetheless, I used to worry that my work was very obvious and that anyone could have done it if they wanted. When I said this to my mentor, he said:

90% of academics worry that they are charlatans and the other 10% are.

Those numbers are wrong: there are academics who don’t worry that they are charlatans and certainly aren’t. But it was good to hear that other people have the same fear. Indeed, yesterday’s session on Impostor Phenomenon was partly about showing PhD students that these feelings are normal, they are common, there is no need to suffer in silence, and there are ways forward.

Here are a few tips we found in yesterday’s session. (Please add your own in the Comments section!)

  • If you’re worried about whether your work is good enough, ask for more feedback: maybe your supervisors just haven’t told you. Of course, maybe your work isn’t yet good enough – as with many PhD students! That’s common, and fixable.
  • It’s normal to spend time on something that turns out to be a dead-end. We don’t always know that in advance. Don’t blame yourself for ‘wasting’ this time. But do talk with your supervisors if you are worried that you might be going down a dead-end.
  • We can feel inadequate if we constantly compare ourselves to the best.
  • Get a support network of other PhD students; use social media to find them if needs be.
  • Feeling like a charlatan/impostor is not purely psychological: it can depend on your context, which you can change.

And there are other things you can do to mitigate feelings of being a charlatan/impostor.

Importantly, these feelings can actually be fruitful. Some academics think they’re great when they’re not; your self-doubt can push you to do better. Some academics don’t like having their work criticised and may never hear the suggestions that lead to better work. It’s good to be nervous that people may spot problems with your ideas: it means you don’t already assume that your ideas are right.

I don’t think we usually give enough guidance on what it feels like to do a PhD. I’ve looked at six books on ‘how to do a PhD’, and it’s striking that only two of them say much about the psychology of doing a PhD: Harriet Churchill and Teela Sanders, Getting Your PhD, and to a lesser extent Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh, How To Get a PhD (5th edition). (The best book for the thesis itself remains, in my view, Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD.)

And finally, it’s worth stressing that these feelings are often most intense among undergraduate students who feel out of depth at university. But I’ll discuss that another time.

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