PhD Life The Industry Mindset

Imposter syndrome during and after your PhD.

The challenges and solutions to dealing with imposter syndrome during and after your PhD.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is essentially feeling that your accomplishments, ability, or talent are not good enough to do whatever it is you’re doing. Put simply, it’s the fear that someone will suddenly realise that you’re a ‘fraud’ and not actually as smart or able as everyone else.

I think all PhD’s experience this at some point and it’s really heart-breaking, especially for first year PhD students. In your first year, whilst you’re battling with imposter syndrome, you’re also learning new things or making a lot of mistakes which can ‘confirm’ this irrational fear. Of course, this is not limited to first year PhD students, and for some people it remains present throughout their entire career. You ever had that professor, supervisor or manager that just chats utter nonsense about something? Imposter syndrome – they just simply can’t admit that they don’t have a clue, so instead cover you in verbal diarrhoea.

Where does Imposter Syndrome come from?

Before we talk about overcoming imposter syndrome or how to deal with it, it really helps to understand why you feel like an imposter. For a lot of PhD students, it boils down to comparing yourself to your peers or more senior members of faculty. Why this happens is partly human nature, as we are driven to compete for survival and all that good stuff. But this is really unhealthy when it’s not about survival, aka doing a PhD. Furthermore, rather than focusing on the positives, you focus on the negatives, which feeds into the distorted thoughts of not being good enough, you feel more anxious, make more mistakes, and further down the rabbit hole you go.  

Majority of PhD’s are the academic elite, the ones who do well at school, the ones whose parents always talk about ‘good grades’, and the ones who get into a good university to complete their undergraduate degree in the first place. Being surrounding by other people who are also highly intelligent can feel extremely unfamiliar, and because you’re no longer top of your class you think you’re in the wrong place or a ‘fraud’. Another reason why most PhD’s always do well at school or anything within the academic world is because they’re perfectionists. Planning, organising, and executing ideas with minimal risks is your forté. But now you’ve been thrown into an environment where sh*t goes wrong (often), your decisions are accompanied with risks, and your skills of planning and organising go out the window because it’s extremely difficult to plan something that’s really complex, especially when a lot of other people don’t understand your field either (hence the PhD).

Ahh, a plan with nothing, excellent.

Another contributing factor to imposter syndrome is academia itself. PhD students, reviewers, professors, and supervisors are the best of the best when it comes to critical thinking (it’s why a lot of career options for PhD’s involve problem solving). Once again, you’re in an environment that is designed to be critical. Everything you do will be scrutinised and pointed out which can really get to you if you don’t take it with a pinch of salt. Some academics actually take out their own PhD wounds on their students. ‘My PhD wasn’t easy, and my supervisor made my life hell, so it’s only fair’. It’s expected that you will find it hard and struggle. This normalisation is one of the reasons I want to leave academia. I don’t think it’s conducive to growth or a nice place to be. Furthermore, because being critical is so commonplace, even if you do something that is perfect, they’ll still critique it. If you’ve ever submitted a paper to peer-review, you’ll know what I’m talking about. People in academia love to critique, and if you don’t recognise that, you’ll think the problem lies within you instead of the person doing the critiquing. There are of course a few other reasons, but these are the most common ones that contribute to imposter syndrome.

How to manage Imposter Syndrome

First and foremost, understand it’s normal. All PhD’s students go through it. If you feel like an imposter, the other people you share a lab or office with feel the same way. Secondly, remember that a PhD is actually a training programme so it’s appropriate for you to not know a lot of things. The whole point of doing a PhD is to learn more about a topic area and to also conduct good research. If you were to know everything about the subject and research, what’s the point of doing a PhD in the first place? If you feel like you don’t know something (or anything), that’s healthy. Acknowledging that you’re not a wizard is disappointing, but it helps take the edge off and can reduce feelings associated with imposter syndrome.

Another strategy I find helpful is to take ownership of the stuff you don’t know. Admit you haven’t understood something, admit you have no idea how to use a particular piece of equipment, or how to conduct the appropriate procedure. Doing so will actually help you learn new things. Learning new things will make you feel more competent in your PhD and in your ability. When the same issue arises next time, you’ll have more knowledge, reducing the feelings of imposter syndrome. Over time, you should feel less like an imposter as you’ll learn new things. Sure, there will still be things you don’t understand, but it won’t freak you out as much.  

I mean, you might still get your Hogwarts letter…

The last way to deal with imposter syndrome is understand that other academics are just people. They themselves do not always hold the answers. Sometimes they make stuff up, guess, or try to make logical assumptions. In these situations, maybe the least knowledgeable person in the room isn’t you. The amount of times I would read papers, relay the ideas to my supervisor only for her to correct me, and by extension, argue with peer-reviewed published scientific literature happened a lot. Accept that senior academics love to criticise for the sake of it and make mistakes too. Take their comments with a pinch of salt and accept that there isn’t always one correct way to understand or do something.

Imposter Syndrome in Industry

Imposter syndrome doesn’t just happen to PhD students, it happens in industry as well. I found some of my imposter syndrome creeping back at the end of my PhD when I was looking for a career change out of academia. The premise is the same, but now you think that you can’t do a particular job or career because you’ve been in academia for so long. This can damage your confidence, influence your decision on whether to even leave academia, or alter the types of jobs you apply for.

Once again, to overcome this, focus on your strengths or transferable skills. Take note of what you would be contributing to industry by having a PhD or academic background. Certainly, do not let it make you think you’re not good enough or underqualified – throw your hat in the ring even if you don’t match every single requirement on the job specification. You never know what could happen, in the ‘real world’ most applicants don’t fit the job specification fully either and businesses are driven to build teams with diverse skills (which is very different to a research lab that specialises in a niche field). It’s more about competency, your interpersonal skills, and ability to learn – not necessarily your hard skills.

Moving into industry after your PhD can be a confusing time. But if you understand the value of your PhD, and that the vast majority of people on the planet do not possess one you’ll appreciate all the things that you can do instead of the things you can’t!

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