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Do you not feel clever enough? Some advice to existing and new PhD students about Impostor Syndrome.

guest blogger4 October 2018

This blog post is written by Alexis Karamanos, who is a very active and engaged PhD student within UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care (Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health). A big thank you to Alex for providing this piece which I’m sure many staff and students will find useful.

Doing a PhD is rewarding, but at times challenging. During my PhD, there are times when I feel I should not be there. While I was indeed struggling to get some results, other very clever students in the IEHC were doing an amazing job; they were publishing to international journals, they were writing and talking to the media about their work, and they were also attending great conferences in the UK and abroad. It was then that I started feeling an outsider in academia; that I maybe sneaked my way in and I was/am about to be found out anytime soon. This is impostor syndrome and (believe it or not) it is very common among PhD students. Paradoxically, impostor syndrome is that intrusive idea that your success is due to mere luck and not your talent or qualifications. Evidence shows that about 70% of people experience it, according to the Journal of Behavioral Science https://www.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521 . So far, there is no single explanation as to why impostor syndrome occurs. Some experts believe that it has to do with personality traits like anxiety or neuroticism, while others focus on family and behavioural determinants.

Working day-in day-out towards an ultimate goal; a completion of a PhD in this case was never meant to be an easy task. Many people describe PhD time as an emotional ‘’roller coaster‘’ (https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/11233054.pdf) with many ups and downs along the way, but for some people like me, it looks to be more than that. During one of the first panel meetings with my PhD supervisors, one of them explained to me that ‘’doing a PhD would render me an expert in my topic’’.  While that is true to a certain extent, living up to such an expectation (if taken literally and really did take it literally) can be very difficult. However, the good news is that impostor feelings can be managed to enable you to work to the best of your ability.

One of the first steps to start dealing with impostor feelings is to acknowledge that you have impostor thoughts and put them into perspective. Remind yourself than an impostor thought is just a thought, and not the reality.

Consider your PhD as just a beginners qualification. A PhD is the time during which you develop basic research skills, which you can further develop along the course of your professional career (academic or not). Never say never! Probably in the future you can become a prominent expert in your field, but this certainly takes much more effort and time than a three or four year long PhD.

Something that my PhD topic and experience has taught me so far is that my/your ability is not fixed, but something that can be developed and improved over time with effort and most importantly, patience. What I am always trying to remind myself of is the Socratic paradox; according to which the Greek philosopher Socrates responded to an oracle posed by Pythia, the oracle of Delphi ‘’Socrates is the wisest’’ that ‘’The only thing I know is that I know nothing’’. Truly liberating!

One thing that you can also try is to reframe your thoughts. One way to do so is to learn how to respond to challenges by learning how to value constructive criticism; that it is not a sign of academic incompetence to ask ‘’stupid’’ questions, to ask for help even for something that is considered ‘’easy’’ by others, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it.

Last but not least, it can be helpful to share your feelings with trusted friends, your partner, mentors or your supervisors. When in doubt, our thoughts may be tricking us to believe in something which may not be true. Therefore, being open about your impostor thoughts may allow other people to critically assess your thoughts together and possibly de-dramatise them. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, and knowing others have been in your position can make it seem less frightening. Nevertheless, if you think that by doing so will not make any difference, it will be wise to seek professional help. UCL’s Students Psychological and Counselling Services  are doing a great job in helping students with challenging feelings such as those related to impostor syndrome, either by providing a number of one to one sessions with a therapist or by providing specialized courses on how to overcome PhD perfectionist thoughts (I have been to one of those great courses and they really do help a lot).

To conclude, if you have impostor thoughts, it is important to remember that most people experience moments of doubt, and that is completely normal and not something to feel bad about it. The main goal should not be for you to not have impostor related moments, but not an impostor life. No matter how much effort and time it takes, the impostor syndrome can effectively be managed and overcome.

Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

guest blogger2 October 2018

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado and  Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester describe a major new study, which has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a down-side. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers. We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over-50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Health testing

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently, towards the end of their working lives, had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, we cannot make any causal claims. There may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

This blog article is courtesy of the Work Life blog, which is a blog about the relationship between work and  health and well-being of people, whether they are preparing for  working life, managing their work / life balance or preparing for retirement and life beyond retirement. Led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London