Tag Archives: imposter syndrome

Sometimes you won’t feel like talking about “IT” and it’s OK – by Carolyn Graham

As a PhD student, one of the things you will find out quickly is that you repeatedly have to tell people what you are doing, what you are “looking” at. In formal and informal gatherings, at workshops, seminars, conferences and other types of training, university and non-university encounters; either as part of the introduction or in conversations over coffee, a pint or at dinner. It doesn’t matter if you are one day or 4 years into the programme, the FAQs of a PhD student’s life remain the same: What are you looking at? How is it going? What is your topic? What is your theoretical framework? How are you going to collect data? When are you going to be finished? etc., etc. Some think it’s glamourous. “Oh the student life!” they exclaim. “You get to sleep late and work when you want.” If only they knew! IT will become your identity.SNV30975

Your response to these questions invariably begins with, “I am looking at…”

It is beneficial to speak about one’s research. Verbalization is good for formulating thoughts, to try out your ideas on others, to find persons of similar interest, to discover if you are making progress with your understanding of what you are doing, to get assistance, to get assurance, to practice for the times when you cannot avoid talking about IT and many more. Talking about your work is also good training for public speaking, in being concise, in breaking down complex ideas and for the Viva!

A tactic that I have found useful is to ask myself these same questions and write short responses to them or think up responses on the spot. I also practice varying my responses so that I don’t bore myself with my own replay. Recall that different persons are asking you so it will sound fresh and new to them, but not to you. I would recommend attending the 3-minute thesis competition, or even entering, if you are so inclined as it will allow you to develop the skill of being succinct yet thorough, while learning to put your work in a language that non-experts may understand.

Don’t forget however, depending on the situation, you can politely ask for a reprieve from talking about IT, and it is OK. The PhD life is like new parents whom everyone asks about the baby and forgets the parents, sometimes to their dismay. “What about me?” Is the silent lamentation. “I need some attention too!” At some point you feel like screaming. “Hey, I’m not my PhD, I have a life, an identity outside of my PhD. I am multi-dimensional!” Particularly if you are at a frustrating phase, just had a not-so-good supervision and you just want to forget the PhD, even for the two hours you are in a pub gathering some strength to get back to IT. You don’t always have the resolve to speak about IT. The first stages, when there is only a chaos of literature and ideas and you are struggling to put the pieces together yourself, can be a particularly dubious time. The imposter syndrome sets in and it is not made any better when asked “so, what are you looking at?” The writing up phase as well seem to be another daunting time. I am not there yet, but I have heard the tales of woe from others.

Sometimes when asked “what are you looking at?” it’s like a bombshell. The moment immediately becomes surreal, you hear the question but you are not sure what it means. When you, in slow motion, grasp the notion, your brain takes a scramble to put together something coherent and interesting. Of course, all this takes less than 10 sec11759033_958990500818475_1651712378_nonds, but for you it’s an eternity. I don’t know the full psychology, but added to the imposter syndrome is fear of sounding stupid, of not sounding intelligent enough, that your research sounds lame relative to others (all of us think everybody else’s research is more interesting) and even fear of public speaking, or speaking to strangers.

There are also those of us who, having passed through the valley of chaos and began to make sense of our work, have repeated the response so often that it becomes dreary. We have to then think of more creative, and interesting ways to answer the same question, which is itself a challenge. This is where practice helps. We also realize that, depending on who asks, we have to approach the response from different angles, and sometimes we are not sure at what level to pitch the response, ensuring the person understands but we are not patronizing.

Responding to questions about your work is a balancing act and it depends on who, when and where the question is asked. One can politely say, “wow, my brain is a bit tired now I just want to relax.” I have done that. Alternatively, you can beat the question to the punch and ask first. If you realize you are speaking to someone who likes talking about their work (and there are those who do), you continue asking them questions and this should save you. Sensitivity is important here however, people may be in a similar position to you and may really not wish to speak. In that case, it is OK to suggest a different line of conversation, such as “both of us seems to be tired of talking about our PhDs, so where are you from?”, or something similar.

10259561_723480654369462_1859309068_nThe bottom line is, like many other experiences, each person’s experience of the PhD, although there are broad similarities, is different. Personality, support, whether one is an international or local student, culture, language, and so on, all come together to influence the experience. Be reflective, know your strengths and weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to take a step back if your mind and body ask for reprieve. It is ok if at times you do not wish to speak about your PhD and it is also ok to say so; but you shouldn’t make a habit of it – discussion will benefit your ideas in the long run.

Carolyn Graham

Imposter Syndrome by Laura Cassels

A guide to surviving imposter syndrome in science

I sat there, completely intimidated, terrified. I stared at them, zipping through experiments with ease; laughing and arguing fluently in scientific language I wasn’t yet familiar with. Surely he had made a mistake in inviting me to do a PhD? Everyone in the lab had impressive CVs and an incredible knowledge base. The post-docs were extraordinarily experienced, the PhD students seemed like young post-docs, and the PI was (literally) referred to as the rock-star of neuroscience. I was so scared I wouldn’t be good enough to be part of the group. They would surely figure me out eventually and then would come a chase with pitch forks and fire. Or maybe a Bunsen burner and scalpel as we are talking about a 21st century laboratory.

20150604_093946Before joining the lab, after I first received an offer, I had all of these thoughts. Was I good enough to join this group? Or would I just continuously fail, feel awful and drop out? In the end I committed myself and jumped in. What was a PhD anyway if not the chance to challenge myself? I mean, maybe my insecurities were unfounded and with time I would become more confident?

It’s now been 15 months and I still sit in meetings and panic. Actually, despite being shocked by the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt about women in science, I have to shamefully admit that I have (in private) already shed a few tears of frustration in the past year. Why?

Well luckily for me it turns out that a lot of scientists feel the same way. In fact I discovered through several late nights at work that my colleagues who intimidated me originally, it turns out, are intimidated by me too. It’s a well-known phenomenon in academia called the “imposter syndrome”. So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I have learnt a couple of things that can help to battle this wee beastie:Untitled

  1. You are not alone in feeling like a fraud.

Every single academic I’ve met has said they have felt the same, from post docs in Buenos Aires to China, from the PhDs in the US to Italy. It’s a universal epidemic. If everyone feels the same that means even your role model is thinking this from time to time. That means that if you have particularly nice colleagues you can take solace in sharing your woes and giving each other a boost, or by reminding yourself from time to time that even the most smug, know-it-all will have this fear.

  1. Why did I feel intimidated?

Academia, by definition, is a work environment filled with incredibly talented people. No matter what subject you are in the fact is that you are never going to know everything. But the beauty of doing a PhD is the amazing opportunity you have to learn from the worlds brightest. Every day you are learning something new and it’s inspiring. Remind yourself why these people are intimidating to you, and then realise that someone saw the potential in you to at least become one of these people, if you aren’t already.

  1. Why did you start a PhD in the first place?

I guess you’re looking at this because you’re either on, or considering doing a PhD. That means you have some passion to learn about your subject. If you knew everything already then there IMG-20150627-WA0000would be no point in you undertaking a PhD in the first place. It’s a training program for a reason. Accepting that each time you don’t understand or don’t know the answer is an opportunity to learn is tough, but it comes with time.

Being honest, I used to research SO MUCH before a simple catch up meeting with my supervisor. I would freak out and get so anxious. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or to look stupid and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one day he said to me “It’s okay, you’re here to learn,” after I had made a particularly embarrassing mistake. Your supervisor and colleagues don’t expect you to know everything, just to try your best and be enthusiastic about your work.

  1. Embrace mistakes.

Make numerous mistakes, not failures. Why? Because 20150625_095658mistakes are valuable lessons. Months of failed experiments (that’s not an over exaggeration) remind me that if my experiments all went smoothly I would probably make an utterly useless post doc. I’d never know how to trouble shoot or tweak experiments. I’d never know how to think outside the box. If everything was going 100% perfect you’re probably doing something wrong without realising it, which is worse if you think about it.

  1. Talk to non-academic or non-scientific loved ones. Seriously. Do it right now.

Two months ago my experiments weren’t going great and I was feeling a little un-enamoured with my research. I was in a funk. I met with an actor friend and when he asked what I was doing my research on, I bashfully shrugged it off as boring compared to his glamorous lifestyle. After his insistence, I explained and his eyes lit up and he shouted “that’s SO cool!”.

You forget how novel the idea oIMG-20150703-WA0002f manipulating DNA in cells is when you’re amongst scientists, but to someone else it’s fantasy from a sci-fi movie involving ugly aliens and Tom cruise. My parents, enthusiastic little dears, hang my past conference posters in the house and from time to time I’ll let them come into the lab. It’s always a massive pick me up to remember why you fell in love with science in the first place and see it through a new pair of eyes.

  1. Look back at past reports.

It sounds ridiculous but if you see some of your past work from your undergraduate years you will see how far you have come in such a short space of time. Cut yourself some slack and remember that in three years time, during your post doc you will look back at your PhD self and feel the same way. It is a learning process that takes time, but you will get there.

 

Laura Cassels, Wellcome Trust PhD Student
(Prof. Yves Barde’s Group)
Cardiff School of Biosciences

Stress; Prevent rather than Cure!

by Shema Ammer

I am currently working on an analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data (mixed methods). Although a mixed method design is challenging due to its inherent complexity, I believe that this method enables me to gather a wide variety of data to measure and compare the outcomes of the intervention. To analyse the quantitative data I used the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 18). To analyse the qualitative data I decided to use Thematic Analysis. The process of data analysis is challenging and takes time, so to motivate myself I attended several workshops. These included:

  • PhD Comics – ‘ The Power of Procrastination’ (a talk by Jorge Cham)
  • Stress Management
  • Fearless

The things I learnt from all of these workshops are helping me to cope with the stress that I experience from data analysis and my PhD studies in general. The presenters of each helped me to learn how to manage and control my stress in order to feel more happy and productive as a PhD student.

The main thing I learnt through these workshops was that we should prevent, rather than cure, stress by:

  • developing resistance
  • improving productivity by realistic planning and time management
  • setting realistic targets and expectations
  • analysing or recognising ourselves (self-awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is power).

I believe that attendance at these kind of workshops improves self-awareness, particularly regarding the challenges being presented by PhD study.

Sarah Worley-James, who gave the talk on “stress management” taught me that the stress and anxiety produced by undertaking a PhD is unique due to the following factors:

  • Isolation and limited support
  • Pressure from self (perfectionism)
  • international students
  • Pressure of Viva
  • The Imposter Syndrome

I learnt that when we are facing a problem or challenge, one of the key questions we need to ask ourselves is: “Okay. So what do I plan to do differently so I can have a chance at a different outcome?”

If we can succeed in doing this, managing our stress and anxiety effectively will equip us with the ability to:

  • solve problems effectively
  • identify difficult situations
  • think calmly under pressure
  • believe in ourselves and  improve self-confidence
  • cope with deadlines
  • plan our time effectively
  • communicate well with others
  • feel positive
  • avoid procrastination and perfectionism!!

 

The TOP TIPS I learnt from these workshops:

  1. Take 1 minute at the end of each day to write 3 things that you have achieved. (This should help to build your self-confidence and self-esteem.)
  2. Focus on the evidence for positive outcomes of your efforts
  3. Reduce mental stress by identifying and challenging fearful thoughts, as well as relaxing through imagination and mediation.
  4. Reduce physical stress using muscular relaxation, deep breathing, exercise and a healthy diet and environment.

I hope that these tips will help us to progress along our chosen career path; minimising the risk of stress overload and burn out.

 

Some websites I would recommend:
www.robertsoncooper.com/iresilience
www.nhs.uk/moodzone
http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk
http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/counselling

A day of positives

I’m not sure many people actually enjoy speaking in public. As with many things in life, the more you do it, the better you get. But actually enjoying it?? Seems unlikely. So knowing that my name isn’t on that programme list gives me a nice warm feeling inside. I can just sit back, relax, and listen to what other people have to say. However, listen and understand are two very different things, and if I said I understood every part of every presentation during the 2012 PGR symposium I’d be lying. Some of the ideas were far too complex for my tiny, first year PhD brain to comprehend. At times I felt the look of confusion and bewilderment creep across my face that I see so often when one of my friends or family asks me about my ‘course’. Therefore I would never attempt to relay the information from each presentation in this blog entry (which I “volunteered” to write…and which had nothing to do with any coercion applied by Dominic or Katie!).

However, what struck me was the passion and enthusiasm that these people had for their subject. Each of the PGR students spoke with such pride that they had been able to nurture the smallest nugget of an idea into a substantial and original piece of research, regardless of how near (or far) they were to completion. It’s hard to imagine that these people, these researchers, were in the same position as me not that long ago. While I’m still battling with the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ and trying to concentrate on what I’m doing, while out of the corner of my eye looking at the door, waiting for security to escort me out of the building because my supervisors have realised they picked the wrong person, these people are well on their way to being called “Doctor”. The realisation that with a lot of hard work and support I can be in their place one day is incredibly reassuring.

Of course those who were not speaking did not get off the hook completely, as many of the attendees had submitted posters describing their research. While it was clear that everyone had put a great deal of work into their posters, a special mention should be given to Laura Goodwin and Abdulrahman (David) Aldawood (oh, and myself) who were chosen by Professor Gareth Williams as the top three. Our reward? An I.O.U. from Katie for an Amazon voucher…which of course we will only use to buy books and other educational materials!

So by any measure, today was a day of positives. The only negative…realising that sooner or later I’ll be one of those up there speaking!

With a little help from my friends…

I find myself sitting at a large desk in an office with a view of the city, staring at a computer screen, and silently panicking.  Surrounding me are people much more experienced and professional than myself, and suddenly I wonder how on earth I managed to blag my way into this position.

Within half an hour I have a pile of journal articles towering beside my keyboard, and abandoned highlighter lids scattered across my desk – long separated from their rapidly drying-out other halves. My hair is in a loose bun (a sign that I’m either concentrating or eating), and a collection of different coloured writing is scrawled in the pages of my notebook. I sit back and absorb the scene – and to my surprise, I grin. For the first time in months I feel happy in a job. The panic has subsided and been replaced with a nervous excitement. I’m doing a PhD. Slowly it’s starting to sink in.

About 6 months ago a PhD was one of the last things on my mind. The final year of my degree (BSc. Applied Psychology, Cardiff University), had been tough – the death of my Nan had left me a non-sleeping, non-eating mess, and I almost hadn’t made it through my exams. Refusing to waste 4 years of hard work, I mustered the determination and dedication to secure myself a First Class Honors, however my passion for academia had been somewhat tainted by my experience. It was then that I decided to get some “real-life” experience. Having loved Cardiff during my undergraduate years, I moved back here from my hometown of Exeter, and began working in a residential school for children with Autistic Spectrum Condition. It was, both physically and emotionally, an extremely challenging job and within a year in the position I began to feel the pull back to academic life. When the search for  research assistant positions within Cardiff University proved more difficult than expected (the University, after all, is far too popular!), I let myself consider the possibility of returning to university to train as a midwife (something I had always had a deep passion for). This led to an interesting combination of keywords in job searches – “midwife, maternity, psychology, assistant, researcher”. Luckily for me, this was the perfect combination of keywords for the journey I am about to embark upon.

My research proposal focuses on the relationship between UK midwives and ethnic minority mothers. In the recent Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries (CMACE) report (2011) into maternal deaths, ethnic minority women were noted as being over-represented in the population. Efficient emotional support and communication in maternity care is important for a number of reasons including, in the most extreme cases, the prevention of maternal mortality (CMACE, 2011). Relationship, trust and communication problems have been consistently noted to prevent equality in service provision; including language barriers, stereotyping, and a lack of cultural competence. My aim, therefore, is to discover the factors leading to the success/failure of relationships between UK midwives and ethnic minority mothers. Long-term, this work would ideally lead to a reduction in mortality rates.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t experiencing the “secret fears”, so accurately laid out for us this morning by one of my supervisors, Dr Katie Featherstone. I do feel like I don’t belong…I do feel like I’m not good enough….and I am worried that this will be the time that everyone figures out that I’m not as clever as they think I am. (I also worry about being the youngest PhD student in my department – something which makes me feel as though I almost “playing” PhD). Nevertheless, I am also experiencing the “secret satisfactions”; I am going to enjoy my work for at least the next three years…I do have a set of wonderful and inspiring people around me…I have made it this far, despite the hurdles,….and I WILL succeed (with a little help from my friends).