Claire E. Aubin |
Before we dive in, it is worth warning you ahead of time that the following blog post aims squarely at one of the many intersections of academic insecurities and mental health. It’s an experience that many academics go through, and it can be insufferable. That being the case, I will begin by sharing a personal anecdote as a means of offering my own qualification to speak on the subject.
On the first day of my PhD, I, a normally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student, was terrified. I had never formally studied history before, did not have research funding, and hadn’t written anything resembling an academic paper in over a year. As my cohort explained their research topics, I waited for a giant hole to inevitably open up in the floor below me, depositing me in a bin marked ‘she shouldn’t be here.’ When that didn’t happen, I waited some more. Every afternoon tea, every workshop, every 9:00 a.m. Thursday morning course where we discussed our academic futures — all seemed like traps, designed to catch me out for not being a Real PhD Student.
If this sounds familiar to you, congratulations. You might be experiencing impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome, or “the psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions,” is not uncommon in academia. In fact, it’s everywhere. Feelings of impostorism can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and low self-confidence, all of which act as hindrances to the already onerous task of undertaking postgraduate study.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that the pathological need to please others is inherent to the majority of postgraduates and hopeful academics; our entire careers revolve around others’ opinions. When this need for approval meets comparison to those around you (another key building block of academia), it’s no wonder that we begin to feel as though we are constantly on the precipice of being discovered as frauds. And if you’re from a non-traditional or minority background, the likelihood of you struggling with impostor syndrome skyrockets.
So what can you do about it? What follows are my personal techniques for combating the fear of being found out for the fake you are (not):
- Surround yourself with people who are supportive. Beyond academic colleagues, the people in your life should be impressed with you. This includes your family and friends, your partner, even the Tesco checkout person. Surrounding yourself with people who also think you don’t deserve the things you’ve worked for creates an echo chamber of insecurity. If you’re still working on lifting yourself up, the support of your loved ones might help you build a solid emotional and mental foundation. They think you’re worthy of praise and accomplishment, so maybe you should too.
- Give yourself a break. Take some comfort in the fact that everyone else in academia is equally as worried that they’ll be found out for being an impostor. As a result, practically no one at all is concerned with whether or not you deserve to be here. How freeing!
- A little brain space goes a long way. Your studies are not your entire life. If you centre your world on them, any perceived failure will feel like evidence that you don’t deserve the life you’ve been building. Do something other than studying/researching/presenting/applying; you are certainly qualified to pick up a hobby. If you can find personal worth elsewhere, that confidence may spill over into your academic life.
- Take real stock of your qualifications. If you didn’t deserve to be here, you wouldn’t have been accepted in the first place. On the whole, graduate schools have far more applicants than acceptances, so there is clearly someone who thinks you’ve earned your spot. Read over your CV and attempt to see it through the eyes of someone who would be assessing your qualifications. I bet you would want to supervise yourself.
- Fake it ’til you make it. If you’re a fraud, you might as well be a good one. If you think there was some big cosmic mistake, then great news! The universe has ruled in your favour. Don’t let it down now. At the end of your programme, you might just surprise yourself and produce a really excellent research project.
At the end of the day, nobody really cares whether you arrived at your postgraduate studies through an Oceans 11-style con. You’re here, aren’t you? Your doubts, no matter how distracting they might be, are almost definitely unfounded. Academia is a difficult enough environment to survive as it is, and questioning your right to exist within it only makes the experience more painful. Fortunately, the hole in the floor hasn’t opened for me yet, and I’m starting to believe that it never will.
Claire E. Aubin is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh researching immigrant Holocaust perpetrators. She spends her spare time drinking tea with oat milk, doing vinyasa yoga, and not reading about Nazis. You can find her on Twitter here.
All Images: Pexels.
 Joe Langford and Pauline Rose Clance, “The Imposter Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment.,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 30, no. 3 (1993): 495, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3184.108.40.2065.
 Dawn X. Henderson, “Why Do Students of Color Feel Like an Imposter in School?,” Psychology Today, accessed January 23, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-trajectory-race/201704/why-do-students-color-feel-imposter-in-school; Kristin Wong, “Dealing With Impostor Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Impostor,” The New York Times, June 12, 2018, sec. Smarter Living, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/smarter-living/dealing-with-impostor-syndrome-when-youre-treated-as-an-impostor.html.