Imposter Syndrome


Shema’s recent blog discussed the seven secrets for successful research, the seventh of which is thinking “I can do it”.  In her blog, Shema reported feeling like an imposter, a feeling that is not uncommon to me, but it is only as I rapidly approach the end of my PhD that I feel confident to talk about this insecurity.  Throughout my PhD I have felt like an imposter, fearing that at some point somebody would find out that I do not belong here, I am not good enough and throw me out.  In fact, whenever people eventually get out of me what I actually “do” (see earlier blog for my ramblings on this difficulty) and they ask me what I will “get” or “be” at the end of my PhD, I answer “well IF I am successful at my Viva I will be Dr, but it is a very big if”.

This insecurity is nothing to do with my academic school, who have been welcoming and supportive, nor my academic supervisors who have been wonderful and encouraging.  I felt so lucky to be awarded funding to undertake my PhD in a topic that I feel strongly about and I threw myself into the opportunity.  Within the school, my confidence and sense of security has been very slowly increasing since my first year, when I finally admitted to my supervisor that I felt like I was an imposter and was not good enough to be a PhD student.  Her reassurances that I was good enough helped, as did passing my end of year review.  Gaining approval from NHS ethics also bolstered my confidence – other people believed in my study and deemed me suitable to undertake it.

Undertaking postgraduate research at Cardiff University afforded me the opportunity to attend research training for the Graduate School and attend I did – 23 sessions so far and counting!  Having chosen ethnographic research methods, which the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff is renowned for, I joined their Ethnography group and attended regularly, barely saying a word.  They were again friendly and the sessions were fascinating, but I worried that my clinical background and being a novice researcher did not make me qualified to comment on the incredible research they were undertaking.  I also had the opportunity to attend three modules on the MSc in Social Science Research methods – qualitative methods, quantitative methods and philosophies of social science research – and again I worried that the other students were much more worthy of postgraduate study than me.

However, I have had a breakthrough.  I submitted an abstract for an oral presentation to the Spotlight on Social Sciences conference, an event for postgraduate researchers.  The abstract was accepted and I gave my presentation to a group of interdisciplinary research students last Friday.  As the Twitter feed on this page announced, I was very fortunate to be awarded a prize (third) for my presentation.  I am rather bashful re-announcing this, but I have to say I was thrilled.  This gave me a boost that, as a nurse adopting social science research methods, my work sounded legitimate to social scientists.

I have been recently encouraged to discover that in fact friends of mine who are undertaking PhDs (in engineering, the social sciences and indeed within our post-graduate office) also feel like imposters – so why have we not discussed this before?  Perhaps we feared that articulating these fears would lead to our rapid expulsion?  I think that not being over-confident is important, as well as seeing the PhD as a learning opportunity – we may well not get it right straight away.  However, maybe we should be more open about “imposter syndrome” and try to reassure each other a little?  Having said that, a friend of mine who recently completed his Professional Doctorate has admitted feeling like an imposter now he is working in industry – maybe this insecurity never really leaves us.

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