Thursday, 24 September 2015

This post will not cure your Impostor Syndrome

I signed up for the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC put together by Dr. Inger Mewburn. And although the live chat happens at the same time as my weekly team meeting, I've been following along as best I can. I'll start by getting this out of the way: sign up if you haven't already. The discussion, comment and support on the MOOC comment boards (and also via #survivePhD15) have helped me a lot over the last few jittery weeks.

Anyway, every week, I write a massive comment that will get buried. And I know that the concept of imposter syndrome has been written about endlessly. And I know that it's unlikely I can add anything new to the conversation apart from my own personal observations.

With all those caveats in mind, here are my own personal observations. 

1) Everyone feels like an impostor and this universality is quite heartening.
Module 3 of the MOOC was about confidence. Part of the courseware was the video by Sally Le Page that I've include at the top of this post. In the comments I read in response to this video, there were plenty of people with funding and acclaim who feel like impostors; there were plenty of people (non-funded, part-time) who feel like impostors. There were impostors straight out of their MA; there were impostors coming back to study.

While it's disheartening to know that so many brilliant, driven people feel this way, I do find it somewhat comforting. The fact that it happens to so many people makes me think that it's something inside of us (the sort of people who want to do PhDs) to compare ourselves to others, and to not always be complimentary in the comparisons we draw. If this sounds negative, it isn't: it means that to an extent, we have the ability to control how we view ourselves and our achievements. Perhaps I'm clutching at straws here, but if impostor syndrome isn't something inherent in the PhD process, then we might collectively have some control over it.

Of course, controlling how you feel about yourself isn't easy, or often conscious. Which brings me to my second observation.

2) I don't feel like an impostor. But only because I did for a long time.
The only impostor syndrome experience I can speak of personally is the experience of being working class at an elite university. Unlike Sally, I felt the impostor throughout most of my undergrad. Not just in terms of what I'd studied (for instance when I was the only person in a group of 6 who hadn't studied Latin or German), but how I spoke, what my family did for a living, whether I knew the right cutlery to use in hall and whether I used the term 'serviette' or 'paper napkin.' (That last example was pointed out in a seminar by a well-meaning tutor.)

Sometimes, I glibly say I used up all my impostor syndrome when I was an undergrad or I wouldn’t have survived. But, when I think more closely, I realise that I only ‘got over’ my impostor syndrome once I’d worked myself close to a nervous breakdown and realised there was still no way for me to definitively tell how 'good' I was. My essays weren't given numerical marks. My coursework grades were released at the same time my final results were. The two obvious, simple yardsticks weren't available to me. So, I gave up trying to measure my progress and accepted that all I could do was keep trying, and keep experimenting. And, keep feeling grateful for feeling stupid: it meant I was still learning.

I hadn't really thought about this experience until last week. And I don't quite know what to make of it. I'm grateful that I'm already familiar with a course of study that doesn't really have many goalposts. But equally, I know that this isn't a universal solution, or even a healthy one. And moreover, having this resilience going into the PhD is a privilege of the undergraduate education I was lucky enough to have.

So where does this leave those of us who feel like impostors? (Hence the title: this post will leave you no better off if you're suffering at the moment. Sorry.) But I do hope that it might prompt a conversation: do any other PhD students not feel like impostors?

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A False Dichotomy

(Photo courtesy of

A few days ago, I was eyeing some of the back-to-school stationary on zazzle. (Because I'm a proper grown up, yes.) For some reason, zazzle sells not just diaries etc, but also some other 'college essentials.' Including this t-shirt. Which irritated me more than it should have done.*

When I sat and thought a bit about this, I realised that the irritation is part of something much broader: I get very irritated at the suggestion that academia (and by extension, intellectual pursuits) are at one end of a spectrum. Woman things (this can be make-up, an interest in clothing, a liking of popular or selfies) are the other end of that spectrum. By misfortune of being academically-inclined, while also being a woman, we must choose. We must choose EITHER selfies OR books. Each choice we make takes us one step closer to the end of the spectrum, and comes at the cost of the other: the only way to read more books is to take fewer selfies.

And, of course, this irritation is partly personal. My own approach to beauty work, popular culture and self-image could occupy an entirely separate (very boring) blog post.** But I'm not annoyed by this shirt because I feel personally victimised by it. I'm annoyed by this shirt because it's an example of the dichotomy I've just described. And this toxic dichotomy matters in an academic context because it's part of the way that academic authority is constructed (and invested) in certain types of people. If you haven't already read it, Rachel Moss sparked a discussion a while back that made this clear: academic authority exists in certain types of bodies - namely suitably masculine, white, able-bodied bodies.

So when we code 'feminine' things (an interest in appearance, popular culture, style, bright colours) as in direct opposition to the 'proper' world of academia (research, seriousness, high culture) we're directly supporting the gendering of academia as [white, hetereosexual, able-bodied] male. And this matters because academia is (like most institutions) rife with inequality.***

And, ok. I get it: for those of us just coming into this game, we want acceptance. We don't know how to be academics: there are no rules. We all feel like frauds and we all want to navigate those feelings and no longer feel like impostors. And so long as academia remains coded masculine and remains male-dominated, perhaps de-emphasising the aspects of ourselves that are coded as 'woman' means we feel like we're gaining more purchase a the system which is still coded 'man'. And perhaps that's a confidence boost that can help individuals navigate a very insecurity-inducing environment. I understand that desire.

But this confidence-boost is shallow, because it isn't based on the quality of your work. What's more, these actions have no long-term material value. For example no woman is ever going to be favoured for promotion or publication purely on the basis that she's never been seen wearing eyeliner. Accepting the dichotomy won't challenge inequality, it just allows inequality to perpetuate.

I feel grateful that the new platforms and online spaces researchers inhabit are challenging this dichotomy. The state of women in the academy is widely researched and disseminated. Alongside the discussions outlined above, the growth in researchers using blogs to talk about the rest of their life alongside their research may help break down this dichotomy. One recent exciting) Sartorial Science (run by Sophie Powell and Dr. Sam Illingworth) invites researchers to submit photographs of what they're wearing alongside a description of their research are.

These individual conversations (and our own individual efforts) have to exist alongside bigger institutional change. And I'm confident that the academy (like most institutions) will become more equal in time. In the meantime, I'll get to work on designing my 'MORE BOOKS MORE SELFIES' t-shirt.


* Not least of all because of the irony of a pseudo-intellectual shirt making a grammatical error.

**Put short, it's complex: I often wear make-up; I rarely shave my legs; I watch RuPaul's Drag Race and listen to Bach; I rarely take selfies. None of these individual things matter so much apart from one characteristic that they share: none of these preferences interfere with my research.

*** Melissa Terras' blog about the representation of academics in children's books has a good round-up of some of the disparities in gender balance across academia. I'm currently looking for more resources on other inequalities in academia.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A Late Summer Lull

Photo taken by me.
A few weeks ago, I visited home for a week. Although I was back for a family christening, I decided to take full advantage of 'home' being an island. 

I caught up with friends and family. I ate a lot of seafood. I swam in the sea. I went for walks along the cliffs. I didn't check twitter. I read a lot. 

And then I came back. 

And then, not much, really.

It's been just under two weeks since I arrived back and I've been struggling to get back into the pattern of work I'd established. I've been having to use pomodoros to manage my time, otherwise I find myself ankle deep in tabs that have nothing to do with work. 

I think there are a few things that have contributed to this. Firstly, I got out of the habit of getting up early while I was home. I'm most productive before lunch. This means that I'm still struggling to get into my stride before lunch time. Secondly, because I'm focusing on a manuscript collection, I am still reading my primary texts. And - because of a lack of foresight - I am now left with mainly theological texts. Which aren't really my primary area of interest. It isn't that I don't find them interesting, it's just that they don't spark off lots of tidbits and trains of thought like other texts might. This means I'm less motivated to get on with reading them. 

Also linked to this is the fact that there is very little secondary literature on some of these texts. Which gives me less of a framework with which to approach them.

I haven't blogged about this until now because - frankly - I've been too busy beating myself up for this lull. How could I possibly be this demotivated? Why am I so lazy? Am I just too thick to 'get' theological texts? Or am just intellectually immature?

But now that I've sat down and had a stern talk with myself, I'm going to try this instead:
  1. Set smaller goals. It's unlikely I'm going to write 4000+ on every grouping of texts this early on. Instead, I'm going to aim for more manageable goals. This week, for example, I want to finish the secondary texts and note down areas I'll explore.
  2. Remind myself why I procrastinate, and stop it. Like most people, I procrastinate because I'm a perfectionist. I'd rather do less work than produce shoddy work. So I'm getting strict with myself: as of this week, LeechBlock is going to be back on my browser.
  3. Figure out what I need to come back to. These texts are really exposing my unfamiliarity with theology, and reading history scholarship. Which is going straight on the list of areas to explore later.

Does anyone else feel demotivated after taking a break? Any tips would be gratefully received!