“You’re no good at this.” “If everyone knew how awful you were, they would all hate you.” “What if I don’t know anything? What if everyone finds out?” – just a few of the things that my raging impostor syndrome has repeatedly dictated to my consciousness during my PhD. Today I’m going to share my experiences and things I do to deal with these kinds of negative thoughts.
For a long time it didn’t even have a name. I only became aware of the phrase towards the end of the first year of my PhD. A quick Google search brings up ‘impostor syndrome PhD’ as the second suggestion. Second! I don't know why it happens to me, and I don't know if I actually have it worse than others, or whether it's just that I'm prepared to talk about it more. But having a problem isn't important, it is how you deal with it that matters:
So what do I do?
1. “You don’t know anything” - Write everything down and take stock
I don’t have much experience with swords, but apparently a pen is mightier than one. A few months ago, I decided to write down everything I knew about my project in an effort to combat my impostor syndrome. I realised that I knew perhaps more than I thought I did after about 10 sides of A4.
Without sounding horribly self-absorbed, I also find that it helps to write down all the things I've done that would make me 'successful': conference prizes won, solving problems that had been on me for months, making discoveries, raising mental health awareness, and so on. Downplaying your own successes is part of this syndrome, so switch off your filter for 10 minutes and just write about how great you are!
2. “You’re no good at this” - Be kind to yourself
I think one of the things I struggled with most with moving to postgraduate from undergraduate studies was the complete lack of structure. Assessments are common during undergraduate, so it's easier to track progress and to benchmark how much work you're doing. Doing a PhD, it's rare that you'll be told that you're doing enough, and there's almost no assessments. It's very easy to fall in to the mindset of "I'm not doing enough, I'm not good enough". In addition, perfectionism and impossibly high standards are common among us impostors. When we don't or can't reach our own standards, this compounds the "you're no good at this" problem – a damaging circle of negative thoughts and feeling low.
This is a lot easier said than done, but you need to be kind to yourself. Comparing yourself to other students is a toxic mentality that will only make you feel far worse – it is also completely irrelevant because everyone is doing different things. Everyone – and I mean everyone – makes mistakes during their PhD. Of all of the things I've done during mine, it's the times when I haven't met my own standards through making a mistake that I've really learned something. What is a PhD if not an opportunity to learn new things?
3. “What if everyone finds out you’re a fraud?” – Talk
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: As a PhD student, I work alongside people who are either going through the same process – or have done very recently. These are the best people to talk to! If the statistics are correct, then between 5 and 6 of my 8 colleagues also have impostor syndrome. Just have an honest, open and unfiltered conversation about what's going on – though I understand that this isn't easy! Even if they can't help you, just to know that you're not on your own in feeling like this may well make you feel a bit better.
My experience so far suggests that this will probably be a never-ending battle, but I still believe that I will win in the end. Just like with a PhD, it's probably going to be a series of little victories that culminate in the end product. So here's my summary on what helps me to combat my impostor syndrome:
• Write down everything you know.
• Write down all of your successes or good things in your life – no matter how big or small.
• Write a plan for your thesis – you'll realise there's more there than you think.
• Talk to your friends, colleagues and supervisors about how you're feeling.
• Don't be so hard on yourself – you are human! Let the mistakes happen – they're what you really learn from.
• Know that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling.
I'm Will and I'm a final year PhD student. I've been dealing with anxiety since I was 14, and depression since I was 23. I found that writing and talking about my own experiences of mental health as a postgraduate student were hugely helpful to my recovery (and stress levels). I'm now working on improving student wellbeing at all levels and raising awareness of mental health.