Impostor Syndrome is a term originally coined in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists. It refers, in this instance, to PhD students who are defined by an inability to internalise their achievements and where a persistent fear exists of being seen as a fraud. The euphoria of actually beginning a PhD can often mean that impostor syndrome doesn’t kick in until a couple of months into the PhD. Once you get to mingle and interact with other PhD students, who may very well be further along their journey, comparing yourself with others cannot be helped and this can lead to you feeling like you don’t belong. The reasonably unstructured nature of doing a PhD can also have an impact – goals can be ill defined and the bar arbitrary, and as progress is self-directed, it is difficult to know how much work is enough.
I’ve felt it, as have a lot of my peers and to be honest I probably still do feel it. I think it’s only natural to compare yourself to others but we have to remember that everyone’s PhD journey is different and no two PhDs are the same and so comparisons must not be drawn. I appreciate it’s difficult but I keep having to remind myself of this fact. Although I must stress that feelings of worthlessness and fatigue can be a sign of mental illness, so please don’t be afraid to contact your GP. What you also have to remember is that a PhD is a research training exercise and mistakes will happen along the way – you will never know everything and are constantly learning even long after you’ve submitted your thesis.
The feelings may dissipate quickly or may never go away at all but a period of self-reflection is needed and having a good core group of supportive friends and supervisors is a must. They will praise your accomplishments and be an ear to bend when you feel like the workload is getting on top of you. They will be constructive in their criticism and offer ways to improve. I think peer support can be wonderful for this and we are very fortunate at Loughborough to have the PhD Social and Support Network to provide a space where students are able to meet one another. It shows that no one is on their own. Similarly, the advent of social media (particularly Twitter) can be fantastic as well as reading blog posts from those who have undergone the process.
Remember: you are not alone.
Dr Andy Rowe
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