Overcoming Imposter Syndrome – 4 Tips for PhD Students | FindAPhD.com

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome – 4 Tips for PhD Students

Earning a spot on a PhD course is no easy feat. If you’ve made it through the application process and are now rising to the challenge of doctoral research, you’ve already demonstrated determination, independence, and an ability to understand complex ideas at a high level.

Nonetheless, Imposter Syndrome – that niggling sense that you’re not actually as clever or deserving as others perceive you to be – is all too common amongst PhD students. The fear of being revealed as a fraud can be a real barrier to your research. You may feel compelled to avoid taking risks and mask any insecurities or gaps on your knowledge.

If your own feelings of inadequacy have ever led you to worry that you’ve stolen your PhD place from another applicant with a similar name in a tragic administrative error, or that you’re living in your own version of the Truman Show where everyone around you just pretends to think you’re super smart – you’re not alone.

We’ve put together four tips to help you overcome Imposter Syndrome and get back your confidence.

#1 Remember that you’re not the only one

If you’re struggling with Imposter Syndrome, it’s a burden you share with countless – including the likes of Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, and even Albert Einstein.

It’s easy to recognise the achievements of these high-profile Imposter Syndrome sufferers – few would argue that the Theory of Relativity is not the bedrock of modern physics, or that The Fame Monster is not the best album of the late 2000s.* Still, it’s clear that no amount of success is a guaranteed antidote to the sense of inferiority that so many of us feel.

It’s also a pretty safe bet that at least some of your fellow PhD candidates feel the same way. If it’s obvious to you that the insecurities of your peers are ill-founded, it’s probably obvious to them that yours are too.

*Ok, maybe this one is a matter of opinion.

#2 Reassess your self-expectations

Often, our sense of failure is compounded by an unrealistic idea of what we ought to be achieving. Perfectionism, Imposter Syndrome’s evil co-conspirator, may have convinced you that you should have hammered out a chapter of your thesis before breakfast this morning, or that you should be booked in to present at two conferences next week.

Setting smaller, more manageable goals will allow you to close the gap between your aspirations and your accomplishments.

#3 Stop being afraid of what you don’t know

Those with Imposter Syndrome are haunted by the constant fear that, at any moment, they could be revealed as the frauds they perceive themselves to be. One ‘stupid’ question, one misremembered fact, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

In reality, a small slip-up isn’t going to pull back the curtain and reveal the ordinary man masquerading as the Wizard of Oz. Simply by securing your PhD place, you’ve already proved your capabilities.

It’s worth remembering that a PhD is the beginning, not the end, of your journey as a researcher. Nobody is expecting you to know everything. So next time you come across a gap in your knowledge, take it as an opportunity to deepen your expertise by consulting a fellow PhD student or supervisor – rather than worrying that you’ll reveal your own ignorance.

#4 Take stock of your own achievements

Here at FindAPhD, we condone (occasionally) basking in your own glory. It’s easy to get so caught up in the next academic challenge that you forget how far you’ve come.

Next time you feel your insecurities creeping in, it might be worth a trip down memory lane to recall just how much blood, sweat, tears and printer ink it has taken to get to this point. Even if you’ve had a particularly disappointing day, week, or even month, zooming out to look at the big picture will undoubtedly reveal that you’ve achieved much more than you think.

Hopefully, this blog post has provided some useful tips to help ward off your inner critic. If Imposter Syndrome is proving particularly difficult for you to tackle, there’s no shame in reaching out to a friend, colleague or supervisor for advice – we can promise that you won’t be the first… or the last.

We have plenty of content to help you navigate the challenges of PhD study, from or tips on avoiding burnout to our PhDiary series.

avoiding burnout

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Last Updated: 04 August 2022