Imposter Syndrome: Dealing With Negativity


In the early days of your PhD you set off for campus, with your brand new Moleskine Diary, and a set of new pencils, itching to get into the archives and start reading. All the people in the department are welcoming, friendly and supportive. Yet, something is not quite right? What is that horrendous feeling of woe, the feeling that you don’t belong? The feeling that you are not good enough, and you will be found out.

That would be Imposter Syndrome. At best it is a minor feeling that will pass. At worst it can lead to depression, anxiety and even thoughts of giving up your research. Nevertheless, Dr Stephen Brookfield, of the University of St Thomas, has said that, ‘  I would not want to work with anyone who didn’t have a healthy touch of impostorship, because it keeps you humble and focuses you on improving your practice. Without this syndrome, lies a megalomaniacal belief in your own infallibility!’  This article has some good points, but having been a victim of this on more than one occasion, here’s a few pointers of how I deal with it:

1) Don’t Give In to It

It is healthy to be aware that your work needs improvement. Letting Imposter Syndrome get the better of you, however, can lead to procrastination, avoidance tactics and falling behind. To avoid this affirm your authority in the subject.

Firstly, avoid the negativity on Twitter. It can be full of it. ‘Oh woe is me, PhD life is so hard.’ Shut your eyes to this and focus. If you are overwhelmed by people in your department, remember this, they were in exactly the same situation as yourself, often not that long ago, mixing part-time hourly paid teaching with research and often working a number of non-academic jobs as well.  Try to ignore the jargon. REF this, collaboration that, what are these strange acronyms? You will be quoting them soon enough. In short, it is all to easy to let social media, and the feeling that people are more succesful become overwhelming. This is nonsense. Don’t give into it.

2) Deal with That Comfort Zone

The first stage is to get out of the department. Get into the world. My own  preference was to arrange talks to community groups outside academia. Local History Societies were a good starting place. The benefits of getting your research ‘out there’ are many. Nevertheless, in the context of dealing with Imposter Syndrome, it makes you work. Firstly, you have to approach the people, explaining who you are, and why you are interesting. Secondly, you have to stand in front of strangers and explain your research. This is all uncomfortable. That’s the point. When it starts to become comfortable move on. Always be pushing forwards.  Having to explain, and defend, your research puts you in a position of authority, you are starting to become succesful as an academic.

Secondly, more feeling uncomfortable. Some time ago someone said to me, ‘oh! Your’e the brass band man.’ That was a compliment, of course, nevertheless, the point is I like to be thought of as an all-round historian. Recently I was a teaching assistant on a 1970s modern history module. The point, of course, was that I was forced to read,and lecture on, an area of history I was unfamiliar with. It was amazing how the areas of class, culture and gender transferred from the Victorian era to the modern. I was, of course, nervous and uncomfortable, but that was the point. It helped me develop authority as a historian, not just the ‘brass band man.’ This makes Imposter Syndrome vanish. It’s a cliché, but push those comfort zones.

3) Collaboration is the Key

Twitter is a great networking tool, if you stay away from pictures of cats. Through this you can get invited to conferences and also be invited to give talks. This networking is important. Speak to colleagues, are there any areas you can collaborate on? Do you have a similar research area? What about arranging a conference? This is because conference arranging introduces you to a range of administration skills that are always needed. Being able to arrange and organise things with internal and external agencies is vital. You have to discuss, agree, negotiate and compromise. All this, of course, banishes Imposter Syndrome, if nothing else you will be too busy to worry.  The point is that you are reinforcing your authority as a reliable and organised person, as well as working with colleagues. This is especially important for part-time PhD people.

4) Communication is Vital

This is important for part-time researchers. Let people know you are alive. Firstly, tell your supervisors what you are doing  and what your plans are regularly. Email is fine, perhaps a summary once a month. Not only is this polite, but you can express any problems and they can be dealt with quickly.  The bonus, of course, for part-time people, is that your university does not forget about you. Ensure that you go to events, seminars and discussions. Be known. The point is that people who may intimidate you with their knowledge, success, or whatever, are just people. Be sociable, you would be surprised how approachable people are. In short, take a deep breath and talk to people. Yet again, you will be explaining  your research to peers. This strengthens your authority, and may result in opportunities.

4) Final thoughts

If you network, collaborate, communicate,  organise and be reliable then  Imposter Syndrome should get more manageable.  It never goes away, but by being an active researcher, in no time at all you will be discussing REF stats and impact strategy.

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