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?

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