Do You Feel Like an Academic Imposter?

I’ve worked with my fair share of bright, talented and hardworking PhD students over the years. While their backgrounds and projects may have varied considerably, there was one factor that every single one of them had in common – none of them felt they were actually good enough to be doing a PhD! These students were crippled with a form of self-doubt that I believe is very much endemic to completing a doctorate.     

A PhD is the highest degree awarded in academia, so it’s no wonder that doctoral students experience a significant level of self-doubt as they embark on this journey. What I found to be quite striking were the range of stories they told me – and most importantly themselves – about how ill-prepared they were for the task ahead.  

Whether it was because they had crossed over from another discipline, or perhaps they had switched to the PhD from an entirely different field altogether. Or it could have simply been a consequence of the unfamiliar ground they were treading in their research which made them feel out of their depth. Whatever the circumstances, these students had managed to convince themselves that they didn’t belong in a PhD programme. Their aim was to simply get through and hope no one would take notice of the fact that they didn’t actually belong.  

After hearing these stories time and time again, I noticed that what so many students were suffering from is an academic version of the Imposter Syndrome. According to the Harvard Business Review, Imposter Syndrome can be defined as ‘a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.’[i]The interesting thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it affects people in all walks of life irrespective – or perhaps owing to – their levels of success. In her recently published autobiography, Michelle Obama acknowledged her own struggles with Imposter Syndrome.[ii]

While Imposter Syndrome can affect just about anybody, I believe it has particular purchase in university settings and that PhD students are especially prone. In fact, I have yet to come across a single PhD student who hasn’t experienced some element of ‘Academic Imposter Syndrome’ throughout their PhD journey.  

There are several aspects of a PhD that make doctoral students likely candidates for Imposter Syndrome. First and foremost, academia is by its very nature a competitive domain that tends to attract high achievers. A doctoral thesis sets out to make a significant contribution towards the furtherance of knowledge in a specific area, with each student expected to write as an authority on his or her subject. In this sense, a PhD student commences their doctoral journey with something to prove to others and to themselves. 

While this can amount to a significant degree of pressure on one’s shoulders, this pressure is compounded by the reality that PhD theses are independent projects. Despite having a supervisor, most doctoral students are offered very little guidance on the process of completing their doctorates, what benchmarks they are required to meet throughout or how to even start.

For many, the voice of the imposter ends up permeating all aspects of the PhD. It facilitates an unwinnable comparison between themselves and others, with the perpetual feeling that everyone else is performing much better. It leads students to question whether or not they will ever be able to finish their projects. And even when the end is in sight, this lingering voice has each student doubt if their work is actually good enough. In short, Academic Imposter Syndrome sucks the joy away from the PhD process and makes the journey of obtaining a doctorate much more exhausting than it needs to be.  

To a certain extent I believe we are all afflicted by some version of Imposter Syndrome, but I tend to think of it slightly differently. Rather than perceiving this extreme form of self-doubt in terms of a ‘syndrome’, I prefer to reframe it as a disowned part of myself, a part that I call the Inner Critic. By reframing it in this way, it allows me to take ownership of this part of myself and puts me in a better position to not only work with, but also make peace with it. 

The thing that’s so interesting about the Inner Critic is that it does not get any quieter as we achieve more. In fact, the more that we experience success, the louder it tends to get. I found this out the hard way when I finally submitted my thesis. I kept telling myself that I would start to feel confident when I had my PhD, but I actually just felt more insecure as I experienced the pressures of post-PhD life – applying for jobs, trying to publish my first book, giving my first lecture. It was all very new to me and way out of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I had graduated from being a student and was now among peers in a much bigger pond, with seemingly much more at stake. As soon as I came to this realisation, my Inner Critic started to chatter: ‘What makes you think you are good enough to be here?’; ‘Why aren’t you working harder?’; ‘Everyone has published their first book by now’; ‘You won’t have enough funding to extend your post’; ‘You aren’t good enough to be an academic.’

The most common approach to dealing with the ramblings of the Inner Critic is to ignore it. If we don’t engage with these statements they will eventually go away, right? Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. If achieving higher levels of success is not enough to quiet down the Inner Critic, covering our ears and running from it won’t do it either. 

From my experience, the best way to turn down the volume on the Inner Critic is to actually listen to what it has to say.  This means taking some time to get a bit more acquainted with your Inner Critic. Begin by getting a blank sheet of paper and writing down your responses to the following questions: 

  • What types of things does your Inner Critic tend to say to you? Take a moment to write each of them down.
  • When does the voice of your Inner Critic get the loudest? Are there certain scenarios that tend to trigger this voice for you?
  • Does the voice remind you of, or have certain similarities with, anyone else in your life? For instance, a parent, sibling, friend or colleague? 
  • Although the Inner Critic may be the voice of someone else in your life that you’ve internalized, it’s important to take ownership of how this particular voice now resides within you. With that in mind, give your Inner Critic a name – preferably a name that cannot be associated with anyone else you know. 
  • Finally, try drawing a visual representation of your Inner Critic. 

Now that you’ve explored your Inner Critic in more depth, it’s important to realize that this voice isn’t going to disappear any time soon. The next time your Inner Critic makes an appearance, try practicing the steps below:

Step 1: Recognise when your Inner Critic is present  

This first step is simply about cultivating awareness around the Inner Critic. The best way to determine if your Inner Critic is present is to check in with yourself in terms of how you are feeling. Generally, when we are feeling low or off, it’s usually a reliable indicator that this voice is present.

Step 2: Allow it to speak

As mentioned above, while the tendency is to simply ignore this voice and the discomfort that arises with it, a much more effective technique when it comes to diffusing the power of this voice is to simply listen to it. What does this voice want to say to you? Take a moment and write down what is coming up.  

Step 3: Acknowledge the purpose of the inner critic

Why did this voice first develop? For most of us it emerged at a young age as a protective mechanism. It is the part of ourselves that perhaps didn’t feel safe and would therefore talk us out of doing things in order avoid feeling vulnerable. We might therefore imagine the Inner Critic as a younger, more misguided version of ourselves. Viewing the Inner Critic in this way allows us to have compassion for this voice, and ourselves, whenever it surfaces. 

By becoming more conscious about the roots of this voice, the Inner Critic will have a lot less power over you.

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[i]Gill Corkindale, ‘Overcoming Imposter Syndrome’ Harvard Business Review,7 May 2008, available at www.hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome (accessed 11 August 2020).

[ii]‘Michelle Obama: “I still have Imposter Syndrome”’ BBC News,4 December 2018, available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46434147 (accessed 11 August 2020).

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