Postgraduate study, Imposter Syndrome and You


“All my life I fear that one day a little man will walk up to me, tap me on the shoulder and whisper ‘I know everything about you’”, my professor once revealed. I could tell he was only half-joking. It stunned me that an eminent scholar, the editor-in-chief of a world-renowned journal and the man responsible for some seminal reference books in his field, which until today remain required reading for scholars, was hinting that he struggled with doubt about the accomplishments he had accumulated over decades of research and work. At the same time it was strangely reassuring to realise that a great man like him too is human and has to grapple with an issue I thought only mere mortals face.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The imposter syndrome is what psychologists describe as a crippling self-doubt experienced by clever and talented people who attribute their success to luck, and downplay their genuine effort or ability. Some sufferers of the imposter syndrome may believe it was hard work rather than talent that brought about their accomplishments. In extreme cases, they may believe that they somehow fooled others into thinking they are more competent than they really are. A common refrain among sufferers is that they feel like a fake.

The imposter syndrome goes beyond ordinary humility or modesty. Instead, it can have a paralysing effect. Unable to internalise their external achievements, even in the face of abundant tangible evidence, imposters may pass an opportunity for a promotion that comes their way, a researcher may decide against submitting a paper for a conference, believing no one will read it, or a performer may skip an audition, imagining that the competitors are so much better they stand no chance.

Who gets Imposter Syndrome?

Studies show the imposter syndrome to be surprisingly common and affect not just students and scholars, but also political and business leaders, entertainers, and basically, experts in every field. In fact, the imposter syndrome is more likely to affect high achievers and successful people rather than those who are less talented. As post-grad students we face strong competition from peers and have highly critical parents, teachers or professors, all with good intentions of spurring us to greater heights, but academic imposters can begin to feel we can never be good enough and react in two predictable ways: we either give up trying, or we over-compensate by becoming obnoxious or drive ourselves to the ground trying to prove ourselves.

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome There is good news for academic imposters. Recognising that you are suffering from the syndrome is the first step towards managing and coping with it. Postgrads are constantly being peer-reviewed and inundated with feedback from publishers, so it is all too easy to fall into despair and doubt one’s competence. A reality check is in order. Speak with someone who can give you honest feedback about your true ability. Your tutor or supervisor would know your work well enough to give you an accurate assessment. Usually, just sharing about your struggles with other students diminishes the power of the imposter monster when you realise others are struggling with it too and that it is normal. The Student Wellbeing page provides some links to people who can support you too.

There will always be some people who are better than you and some who are not. Having this healthy perspective will help you position yourself more realistically and value your achievements in a way that is fair to yourself. And if someone invites you to present your work, it means that person recognises your worth. Trust that person's judgement. If your academic imposter syndrome is causing you severe emotional anxiety, it is a good idea to seek professional advice too.

On the whole it is not a bad thing to have a tinge of healthy impostership, as it can keep us grounded, humble and motivated to continue to work hard at bettering ourselves. Just don’t let it paralyse you.

Useful Links Student wellbeing
Suceeding as a postgraduate
Settling in
Readjusting to life after postgraduate study

1 comment

Heath Oct. 31, 2016, 6:18 a.m.

Hey, thanks for the article.Really thank you! Want more.

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