I was first introduced to the imposter syndrome almost two years ago. I never thought it would touch me; I am highly confident, a high achiever (top of the class), and I thought I was doing very well as a doctoral researcher too.
Something changed however in the past few months. I entered into my third year, and with data collection completed, I started writing chapters. And this was the turning point. I started receiving comments from my supervisors which were all criticisms, though I have to admit though most were constructive. I was told repeatedly that my writing and understanding was not of PhD standard, and that I seriously needed to improve. It was at the same time I was writing a journal paper based on my findings, which to my utter surprise was accepted at a very well respected journal.
I always thought I would be ecstatic when my first journal paper would be published, especially if I managed to publish it whilst I was still doing my PhD. However, when I received the news, I did not feel happy; I was void of emotion. This was because of months of reviewing the paper, and then receiving a very long list of corrections, I felt had taken all the joy out of it.
The more worrying part however is that not only do I now feel like I have very little confidence in my academic abilities, but I also feel anxious to share my published paper with other academics and members of the public. The findings are not ground breaking; but it could be disseminated to the public, and may be of interests to some parts of the media. However, I do not feel like sharing it because I feel that I will face more criticism and scrutiny, which frankly I have had enough of. I know it has been reviewed by four highly respected peer reviewers in my field, and accepted in a well-respected journal, but I still feel that it may be perceived to “not be good enough”, and someone tomorrow may criticise it in public, or god forbid, say it is complete utter nonsense.
I have been trying to understand why I feel this way. I think there are a few factors:
+ I have been receiving very critical feedback from my supervisors, most of which is very constructive, and will make me a better researcher. But I also need to be reminded of the parts of my work which I am doing very well. Next to the list I have been told to write about my common mistakes; I need to write a list of what I am doing well.
+ I have always been a high achiever. It is difficult to suddenly realise that actually some of my work and understanding is a bit “rubbish”. Feeling “not good enough” or even “stupid” is something I am not used to
+ I need to remind myself that I am still in training to become a researcher. My work cannot be perfect at this point, or else I would not need supervisors or need examiners to examine my thesis.
+ ‘Criticism’ in my head needs to change to ‘feedback’ – a close of friend of mine who is a senior leader told me recently that I need to change my perspective: criticism should be viewed as feedback, and not criticism. I am working on that!
I am hoping the imposter syndrome is just a very short phase for me. However, I have read that this syndrome affects not only doctoral students but also more experienced academics. This is worrying for me; because I would love to stay in academia, but I am not prepared to stay in academia if I am going to constantly feel like my work is not good enough (there will come a point where it will start affecting my self-esteem!). I believe research is required to explore the underlying factors, so that we can address the root causes of this syndrome, instead of just trying to treat it when it appears.
My purpose for writing this was not just to share my frustration, but I wanted to reach out to other doctoral students, early career researchers and academics to ask and discuss:
1. Have any of you ever felt the imposter syndrome?
a. What were the main factors that lead to you feeling this way?
b. How did you come out of it?
2. Do you have to accept that in academia there will be some/many occasions where you will feel a bit “stupid/not good enough”?
3. Did you feel a bit afraid or anxious to share your journal paper with the wider public? What did you do?