On imposter syndrome and ‘fitting in’ in academia

From https://www.chanty.com/blog/stop-feeling-like-imposter-work/

I first came across the idea of imposter syndrome early on during my PhD research when I recognised a lot of the symptoms in my own thinking and behaviour. This week I was inspired to write this blog post about imposter syndrome, its impact, causes and consequences after reading Imposter Syndrome Remedy, the latest book in Dr Emee Estacio’s You Can Do It! series.

What is imposter syndrome?

In Imposter Syndrome Remedy, Emee Estacio describes imposter syndrome as…

A nagging belief that you personally lack the skills, knowledge or competence to fulfill your job, despite external recognition and evidence of good (and often, excellent) work.

Being awarded a studentship for three years of PhD research was a real highlight and moment to celebrate. You would think that this recognition and achievement would also serve as a reminder of my skills and competences. It didn’t. When I started studying for the PhD, the anxiety and awareness of all that I DID NOT know began to creep in. I looked to online forums for advice and support and there I stumbled upon references to something called imposter syndrome. It was also around this time that I discovered PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) Comics! The familiar sounding stories of other PhD students’ anxiety and the satire of PhD comics were equally reassuring. Having a name for the weird and unjustified sense of insecurity I often felt was in itself a reassurance if not a remedy.

Imposter syndrome is relational

Imposter syndrome stems from negative emotions and an irrational belief about ourselves (and others). It comes from self-doubt and feelings of insecurity. As a social and community psychologist, I’m most interested in the socio-cultural causes and facilitators of imposter syndrome – the environment in which we live and work, how we were brought up, our social identity, social norms and culture. Imposter syndrome is ultimately a relational concept. It makes no sense without others to which we compare ourselves or rather, to which we ascribe unremarkable talent and intellect. All to the detriment of our own self-worth.  We think others know more, can do more and work harder than us. That may be true about some things or some of the time but it is unlikely to be true about everything all of the time.

A feeling of not quite fitting in

Emee Estacio describes how one source of imposter syndrome is a feeling of not quite fitting in. She says this can be linked to differences in gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability. For me the issue was social class. I had related much of my own sense of feeling like an imposter to my working-class background. I was fortunate to be studying alongside other PhD students from similar backgrounds however these people seemed few and far between as I progressed through my PhD, post-doc and first lectureship. Despite a growing and competitive CV, I sometimes I found it hard to distinguish between feeling different and feeling inadequate. I’m incredibly proud of my background and feel it has given me many of the skills that have lent to my success to date. At the same time, I still find that I have to navigate certain cultural barriers in academia and fight against the self-doubt that this sparks.

Tackling imposter syndrome

I wish I could say that I am completely ‘over’ my imposter syndrome, that I shook it off or fought it off fiercely. But it is still there. It isn’t there all of the time but does sneak up on me from time to time. When it does I have to stop and remind myself of the irrationality of my thoughts or behaviour. I would highly recommend Dr Emee Estacio’s Imposter Syndrome Remedy and its accompanying workbook and action plan to anyone who has encountered feeling like an imposter. This book helped me face up to the fact that my own imposter syndrome has not completely gone away. More importantly, it has given me lots of practical tools to keep it in check, realise its irrationality and remind myself of how much I can achieve.

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