My name is Alex; I am 26 years old and am in the final stages of my PhD, based in the Department of Psychology at The University of Sheffield. I am researching how sleep disturbances impact on psychosis symptoms, particularly paranoid thinking, and how self-help interventions can be used to help. I am in what is commonly referred to as the ‘writing up’ stage of my PhD, which basically means I have spent three years collecting and analysing data and now need to make sense of it all and write my thesis. Obviously, because I have spent three years getting to the writing up stage I have everything under control, I do not feel the stress of impending deadlines and I am immeasurably knowledgeable about my subject. This, of course, is not true. Actually, I do sometimes feel out of my depth, like I am undercover in academia waiting to be exposed as soon as I do something that will give me away like asking a silly question in a seminar, and improper use of the Oxford comma (get it?). This was especially true in the first year of my PhD and is often referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’. The aim of this particular blog post is to let you know that it is OK to feel like this, it’s all part of the learning process and you should embrace it (well, maybe embrace is a strong word!).
I left University with a 1st class undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology, after this I worked voluntarily for the NHS and many charities so I could accumulate enough experience to apply for a PhD which would allow me to build a research career. I finally got there in 2011 when I was accepted into a doctoral programme at The University of Sheffield. The point is, my degree and my experience to date were not enough to stave of the looming threat of imposter syndrome that struck during my first year. Everyone seemed more intelligent than me, more motivated, more in tune with the gaps in the literature and, quite honestly, like they deserved to be there more than I did. This of course was compounded with every self-perceived failure and set back I had during my first year, of which there were many! Imposter syndrome is common, in fact more common than you think amongst your fellow PhD candidates. The problem is no one wants to talk about it for fear of appearing like an imposter! A vicious cycle emerges.
So, the important bit, how do you get over imposter syndrome and free yourself from the charlatan shackles. Well the first stage is to stop comparing yourself with others. A PhD programme is not 3/4 years of comparison with colleagues, it’s about developing yourself and your research skills. The key word here is yourself. We are far too complex a creature (humans, not PhD students), and a PhD programme is too multi-faceted to allow for a single, ‘right way’ to complete your PhD. Of course the support of your colleagues, your friends and your supervisor(s) is all vital; however you must also learn that you should approach your PhD in a way that works the best for you. Don’t worry if your friend has published X amount of papers in their first week at the University and you are struggling to write the first draft of your thesis introduction. There’s always departmental rumours of those mythical hyper-productive PhD students who already have the Nobel Laureate in the bag and have secured their first post-doc position before you have even finished your first chapter. We all progress at different rates and comparing yourself with others will not help you, it will hinder you. A PhD is not a linear line of progression where you move from A-to-B neatly, it is, as The Beatles might say, a long and winding road (sorry about that). You will take huge steps forward, and equally huge steps backwards. A PhD is a transformative process and the ever twisting, winding road will make you a better researcher and stronger person at the end.
Secondly, and finally, learn to accept that feeling of being out of your depth. That feeling, the one where you get a sudden wave of claustrophobic fear when you try to review the literature in your field, is a good thing. Why? Because it means you are developing, learning and growing. A PhD will take you out of your comfort zone. You will often be researching things that no one else has, where there are no guidelines, you are in essence operating on the edge in a bid to further the knowledge in your field. As a result, feeling overwhelmed and stupid is not uncommon. Speaking from experience, whenever I started a new project I often had to learn a wealth of new techniques and theory without authoritative support from someone in the know. This is a stressful process, which at the time made me feel stupid because I was spending large amounts of time just learning techniques when I should have been writing my thesis. Now I understand that this is a normal process, all those hours learning, all those re-writes on drafts and all that stress has made me a much, much better researcher. The Biologist Martin Schwartz, cited in an excellent article by Koen Deconinck, said that “if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying”, that this feeling is “inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown” (Schwartz, 2008). Remember, you have been chosen to do your PhD because you have the skills, the experience and the robust mental strength to do so, you are there on merit. So go ahead, use your Oxford comma liberally and ask your silly questions in seminars, chances are you will be thinking what the rest of us are anyway!