Building your Identity as a Researcher – Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Cross-posted from The Wellbeing Thesis.
If you have been accepted onto a post-graduate research degree, you deserve to be there. Academics are busy people and they have no inclination to accept candidates who aren’t able. They take students who they believe have the ability and potential to produce good research over time. You are good enough.
If you are reading this and the voice in your head just said – “Yes, they mean this about everyone else but they don’t mean me.” We do mean you.
Clance and Imes (1978)1 coined the phenomenon Imposter Syndrome and repeated research over the years has shown that many successful individuals experience it and ascribe their success to external factors. Imposter Syndrome fosters feelings of being a fraud and unworthy. There is no correlation between Imposter Syndrome and actual ability – in fact it is often highly capable people who feel the most fraudulent.
Imposter Syndrome has been strongly associated with PGR students and is a topic that emerged again and again from our student panels2.
It is important to remember that Imposter Syndrome exists in our thoughts. It is not an accurate judgement of our ability in reality. It can however have very real impacts as it can steal confidence, energy and focus, reducing your productivity and willingness to take up opportunities. As a result it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy3.
Part of this is about the expectations we place on ourselves. If you expect to have the ability of an experienced researcher, on the first day of your degree, you will inevitably fall short of this impossible to meet measure. Moving from novice researcher to experienced and confident researcher is a process that takes time (See “The Stages of PGR Student Identity“).
One of the ways to counteract Imposter Syndrome is to build and recognise your own mastery. In other words, making explicit, focused efforts to develop your skills and to take the time to recognise and mark your own development4. The more you are able to demonstrate your own understanding, knowledge and ability to yourself, the more confident you can feel.
Be aware that Imposter Syndrome will often make our abilities invisible to us – we normalise what we’re good at and assume everyone knows that or everyone can do that5. This is why it is important to take control of this, recognising your own development and progress. You can do this each week as a task, making a list or drawing of what you have achieved, what you have learned and where you have improved. It can also help to set regular, achievable goals and take time to note when you have met these goals.
You may also find that teaching or helping others, using your new found knowledge or skills can boost your confidence.
Developing your identity as a PGR student is a complex task. You are becoming a post-grad student and a member of a research community at the same time. This means that, at times, you may misjudge how you should behave in a given situation. This is OK – it’s how we learn the rules of our new environments. Over time, you will learn the subtleties of this new world and soon you will fit comfortably into the research community.
In moments of doubt some students find that visualisation practice can help. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and imagine yourself being successful in small ways and large. Imagine discovering something exciting, making an important connection, telling your supervisor about a breakthrough, getting a paper published or receiving your doctorate or Masters.
Then make sure you tell others “I am a researcher.” Because you are.
1 Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
2 Waight, E., & Giordano, A. (2018). Doctoral students’ access to non-academic support for mental health. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(4), 390–412. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2018.1478613
3 Parkman, A. (n.d.). The Imposter Phenomenon in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact. Retrieved from http://www.m.www.na-businesspress.com/JHETP/ParkmanA_Web16_1_.pdf
4 Kiley, M. (2009). “Identifying Threshold Concepts and Proposing Strategies to Support Doctoral Candidates.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 293–304.
5 Gardner, S. K., & Holley, K. (2011). “‘Those Invisible Barriers Are Real’: The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education.” Equity & Excellence in Education, 44(1), 77–92.