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

By guest blogger, on 4 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.

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

  • 1
    Mark Dawson wrote on 23 September 2020:

    Dear Alexis,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful piece. I am sure that I will feel like an imposter at some point (I know I have in the past) but I hope that in such a moment, I will remember these wise words and take comfort that others feel the same. I am sure you will have helped many with this. Cheers!

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