Research Student-made

PhD Diaries: Imposter syndrome in my first year

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The first year of your PhD. Everything is very new and can be a lot to take in. One of the main things that is commonly experienced at PGR level is imposter syndrome.

I really struggled at school. I didn’t get a full set of As or A*s (as the grading system was then). It took me a lot of extra hours to get Cs and Bs in maths and sciences. Though I was fortunate to have access to additional tuition, my engagement and motivation was always a struggle being neurodivergent. Yet I absolutely thrived and succeeded at what I was passionate about. And it is this that I find contributes towards my imposter syndrome. I find my schooling experience to be both a blessing and a curse with my PhD – I’m used to academic challenge, but also used to succeeding at things I love, and so now pesky imposter syndrome  creeps in because a PhD brings a whole new way of  approaching learning and studying.

So here are a few of my experiences, and the ways I’m trying to overcome the challenges imposter syndrome still throws at me. Hopefully I can help to show that you are not alone if you ever feel like this.

Not being amazing at everything I do, even in my area of expertise!

Actually understanding this helps me to be comfortable with the idea that I won’t enjoy every aspect of what I study or feel like I’m doing a ‘good job’ at every aspect, even though I’m passionate and driven about my project.

For example, I am very out of my depth with some of the methods and data collections I will likely be using. Similarly, I am not familiar with all of the areas I am researching…but that’s the point, and I will learn! Remember, you don’t go into a PhD or any research project being a full expert and that’s okay.

Communicating ideas with others

At first whenever I communicated my ideas to my supervisors and others, receiving both critiques and praise for my work, was daunting and overwhelming. This has definitely got better with practice and personally, I have found coaching very helpful in building my confidence in receiving feedback.

Finding different learning methods has also been incredibly helpful. I am a very visual person so using diagrams and tables to summarise my research to then expand upon with writing has been great. This is instead of feeling like I have to write masses to start with and therefore is a quicker way for me to have something to show my supervisors if I have not managed to write anything into full paragraphs yet.

Going for opportunities

I am usually very good at going for opportunities but being new to PGR level academia, applying for opportunities such as conferences and events has been challenging, but equally very rewarding! It is always worth going for opportunities even if you feel your applications are not strong enough. You can only do your best and it is very good practice to sign up and apply for opportunities because you will find that you get to understand your research better from having to explain this to others who you have never met before. Whether you are successful in your applications or not, the process brings some helpful insights.

Presenting at events

This year I presented at a doctoral seminar which was held in Berlin as part of a wider conference. It was overall a great experience but equally had a lot of challenges riddled with imposter syndrome. It was my first time abroad since the start of the pandemic (after two years) and I had also never travelled abroad by myself. Presenting definitely meant being vulnerable to criticism – of which I got a fair amount – but it also meant the opportunity to receive really worthwhile feedback at such an early stage in my PhD. Standing up in front of people and presenting original thoughts and ideas meant of course I would receive mixed feedback, but it is a good learning process to go through. It can help to learn about the best ways to communicate to your audience in different settings, to have a think about other avenues of research to pursue or even to validate just how unique your idea could be.

Trusting I have interpreted the literature ‘correctly’

This is one that really does get me a lot, and one I’m still working on. Much academic literature can be quite a challenge to read given various written styles and information-heavy content. I personally find a lot very inaccessible to read which can make it a lot harder for me to read and understand what the author is talking about. This often leads me to worry if I have read a paper correctly or if I have cited an idea from the right place. One of the areas this has made me worry the most is the construction of my research problem given my focus is on something that appears to have been very overlooked in current literature. However, what keeps me going is I know that this journey really is a process. It is impossible to have read everything at each PhD milestone as well as even by the end of your studies. But this is where self-trust really does come in because you can only do so much to form your argument.

As you can see, imposter syndrome really can sneak up in different areas of your work. It is very helpful to at least be able to notice this and be aware that it occurs so you can communicate with your supervisors, other PhD students and any support systems that you are seeking help from. Despite experiencing this, you will be able to do what you need to complete your PhD, no matter how many external or internal hurdles are thrown to you.

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