How I Learnt to Manage the Impostor Syndrome in Academia

If there’s one thing I have experienced throughout my entire time as a PhD student and early career researcher, it is the impostor syndrome. It is the horrible feeling and I know for sure that I am not the only one who has experience this. It’s quite common for many people in my position to feel the same way but, why is this such a problem, and how can we overcome it?

What is the impostor syndrome?

The impostor syndrome is essentially a psychological issue people face where they question their accomplishments and face a fear that they will be exposed as a fraud and as someone who doesn’t know anything about their profession. It typically affects very high achieving people, especially if you’re in an industry which requires a lot of training and expertise – like academia.

This post contains a few things which I have come to learn over time. It is more focused on PhD students / early career researchers as it is quite common to experience the impostor syndrome quite early on in the process. These things worked for me and I hope that these points will be of help to you too.

There is no right or wrong way

In academia there are many routes to go down post-PhD. There’s lecturing (also known as “Teaching and Research”), becoming a Postdoc (just staying in research with no teaching) or leaving academia and going into industry. As you can see, there are many viable options to consider, each with their own pros and cons. There are even more options which include things like contracting and freelancing to list just a few.

Whatever route you choose to pursue, there is no right or wrong way to succeed. Based upon my own experience everyone’s career path in academia is different, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s one of the best things about a PhD is that you’ve learnt skills which are highly desirable and can be transferred to so many different industries (writing, reviewing, performing research and analysis e.t.c). I found comfort, knowing that there is no such thing as a bad option.

You can’t please everyone

Naturally, I am a people pleaser. It goes without saying that in academia, I’m very quick to go above and beyond to please people and to succeed in their expectations of me. This attitude was partially fuelling my impostor syndrome, as I wanted to be someone I wasn’t.

The bottom line is it, at the end of the day, we all make mistakes. This is perfectly normal. No one is going to strip you of your job title for making a minor error so go easy on yourself. Universities are educational institutions and are very much designed to encourage people to continue learning and to improve their skills.

Just Wing It!

As I said before, the impostor syndrome is something which many academics experience. For this reason, I would imagine it is highly likely that your colleagues are feeling the exact same way. Everyone feels what you’re feeling to a certain extent, or at least have done in the past. When I started out, I heard a great saying which was “you need to fake it until you make it”. This was coming from a professor! It just goes to show that if a professor can do it, so can I.

Final thoughts

Just some final words of encouragement. If you’re really struggling with the impostor syndrome, talk to your supervisor or principal investigator. I’m sure that they have experienced this themselves or at least know someone who has. For the record, I’m still struggle with the impostor syndrome from time to time, and I’ve finally accepted that it’s okay to admit it. Things will improve over time.