Dr who? An imposter! Dealing with imposter syndrome

It was not so long ago when I was happily researching other peoples resarch projects, I began to envision myself sitting quite happily with my academic elbow patches, easily and contently researching the questions that were at the heart of my desire to start and then complete a PhD.  These questions were the ones that had propelled me forward, given me focus, and ignited my passion to combine my two loves, museums and academia.   Not once did I question my ability to answer them.  I was caught up im the excitement of it all. I started my own research. The most terrifying and exhilarating  thing I have ever done.   then the reality hit me.  I realised I had managed to fool myself and everybody else into thinking I was competent.  The panic set in. Soon they will all know the truth that I am actually incredibly stupid and don’t belong here.

I’ve always had self confidence issues, forever shy and I still firmly believe that I’m not intelligent, I just work hard, and a serious of lucky events of being in the right place at the right time has led to be being where I am today.

I often get told about Imposter Syndrome, which is basically characterised by the belief that you have somehow fooled everyone into thinking you are clever, and soon someone is going to find out that you shouldn’t really be here and you are a fraud. I feel like this on a daily basis. Apparently it’s very common in female academics. For about a year I have been bluffing this feeling with bravado. Getting excited by digital museum geekyness and pretending everything is fine. But since I’ve damaged my shoulder I have had a lot of time for procrastination and the fear of being discovered as an academic imposter has returned with a vengeance.

No matter how many times I hear the words imposter syndrome; it doesn’t seem to fit how I feel.  Why? Because it sounds like something other actually intelligent people suffer from.  Whereas I really am quite stupid (I am blonde after all) and it is fluke that I’m attempting to complete a PhD, and work with incredibly clever people. It’s only because I get excited by everything that I managed to bluff my way through so far.

This post is an attempt to understand why I feel like this.  To be honest I don’t know if it has helped. But according to all the Imposter Syndrome posts I’ve read they point to sharing how you feel and discovering other people who feel exactly the same.  So I ask you this, am I an imposter? And more to the point are you?

12 thoughts on “Dr who? An imposter! Dealing with imposter syndrome

  1. PhDs aren’t about brains, Claire. They are a little about dedication, and a lot about learning to research. Your PhD does not have to be the most amazing thing ever written. It is your first major research project and is about teaching how to undertake the process, so that you can go on to do great work.

    It doesn’t need to be perfect – and won’t be. It just needs to make one small original contribution to knowledge. And really, if the best research you ever do during your career is the PhD, then you might be doing it wrong.

    Still, it’s natural to feel the way you do. I know I get it too. Just keep plugging through, and you will get there. And let yourself put things in perspective. After all, you know how to write an essay that scores high marks, yes? Well, you are just doing that exact thing, but a little bit bigger. Easy. (Well, easy might be taking it too far, but you get my drift.)

  2. Clairey, having not long since finished my PhD (all being well the award ceremony is next Sat) I think you really have to be your own judge. I have done this PhD as a mature (at least in age) and distance-learning student so had very few opportunities to talk things over with other students or staff, so just had to be a bit dogged and stubborn about it. Some of the hardest points were after the two intermediate reviews, one of which of necessity involved an internal examiner who had no interest or sympathy with the entire cross-disciplinary approach I was using. His summary comment was along the lines of ‘well, it doesn’t have to be good, just original’ which was not exactly confidence-inspiring! But after a certain amount of smouldering I decided that he was entitled to his own interests and me to mine, so in the end it did not substantially affect the direction I was going in.
    I do think you need to have a certain determination that the thing you are interested in pursuing really is worth pursuing, even if hardly anyone else in the world agrees! I suspct from your blog posts in general that you do have this determination…

  3. I wonder if imposter syndrome isn’t particularly prevalent in cross-disciplinary fields like the digital humanities? When the boundaries of the field are poorly defined, and when it’s probably impossible for any human to master all the skills and specialties that everyone agrees are within the “big tent” — everyone is likely to feel anxious.

    As a programmer I was quite comfortable when I applied to the first THATCamp, but when the list of participants went up I was horrified to find I was one of the only non-academics and probably the only camper without an postgraduate degree. Three days later, I read a blog post by a professor whose work I follow fretting that he felt like an imposter reading over that same list of participants, since he didn’t program — and he cited my own project as an example! Perhaps we all feel this way in the DH world?

  4. Claire, this post describes me to an absolute T. And I don’t mind saying as much, particularly if it helps you in hearing it. I too am one who has worked extremely hard to get the good grades and “be smart.” It does not come easily, but I am passionate about the subject and devour it to the point that I can at least seem to be smart. I am rarely ever confident that I actually am, though. I suppose “smartness” is subjective though, and passion and diligence can as easily be deemed “brilliant” as those who have photographic memories and can recite facts… but they might not have the passion. And that’s what makes us shine 🙂 even in spite of our second-guessing.

    While I may not be able to blame it on the blondness like you do ;), I tend to blame it on my extreme visual learning style. I do not do well with abstractions and I’m not good at quickly articulating my thoughts. I’m able to slog along well enough when I have time to sit, reason and write things out (that’s why I make a fantastic blogger, like yourself!) I need a picture to explain what’s in my brain, and that’s not always easy in our field.

    I am excessively introverted and tend to latch onto my comfortable social scenarios, which I fear led me to not introduce myself in Atlanta. I do wish we’d chatted and I hope we’re able to make up for that lost time soon enough. In the meantime, know you can always chat me up when you’re having an Imposter Syndrome moment. It’s important that we remind each other that we are actually quite smart, and passionate, and that makes us even better. 🙂

    • Lori, this made me laugh because I only met Clairey after a chance meeting in an elevator… and you, young lady, are absolutely underrating your ability to work with abstractions and the articulation of thoughts.

      Imposter syndrome is natural for everyone – but having met both of you, I am absolutely confident in both of you. The fact is, we are all mere humans. Even those rock stars in our fields are just human and make as many mistakes as the rest of us. But that’s where learning comes from.

  5. I can safely say that you are not an imposter at all. Every time I speak to you or read one of your blog posts I’m impressed by how much you know and how much your finger is on the pulse of all the things that I wish mine was more on the pulse of. In fact, speaking to you or reading your blogs often makes ME feel like an imposter!

    Everyone has these moments and your broken shoulder probably isn’t helping, but I know you’re not an imposter. You’re a bright and knowledgeable and passionate person and I’m very much looking forward to reading the PhD which I know you’ll get through and finish!

  6. Thanks for all the comments, its really interesting to hear different perspectives on issues of self confidence in the work that we do.

    @Ben, you are probably right big tent DH is always going to highlight people with very different skill sets and there are going to be levels of anxitey about thins, especially programming! so i suppose this something everyone does go through at one point or another.

    @Toby, and @ RichardI think thats is part of the problem, I am my own worst critic. I never thing my work is up to scratch. Being your own judge is difficult when you never thing you are good enough.

    @Suze Ive always been worried that I’m not good enough, its not just the PhD! thats why I’m so busy all the time to try and counteract any imposter creep. It does help to write about it, I think.

    @Lori you know I did exactly the same thing at MCN, I panicked and did my normal ‘safe’ social situtation rather than introducing myself to you! which is stupid because we’ve emailed! I think this is why I like the digital realm so much, as you say, its much easier to blog and have time to articulate thoughts rather than try and deal with the difficulties of face to face.

    @Rhi you’re right my broken shoulder has given me time to stop and think, and allow self confidence to fall really flat. But it is something that is always there. A constant shadow of self doubt.

  7. Thank you for writing this, I just started my PhD last month and already am feeling like this at times. “OMG they hired me to do this project… When are they going to realise they’ve made a huge mistake?!” So you’re most definitely not alone, and it’s nice to know that I’m not either.


  8. Egad! After reading that I’m finally glad to have found a name for something I too have been feeling for as far back as I can remember (I am also blonde though hide it well by wearing glasses I think and passing off my ‘blonde moments’ with a joke when possible).

    Although I have to say to both you (and Lauren who’s just joined our Curiosity Zone project) that I’m incredibly awestruck by anyone who does a PhD and think it shows incredible focus and intelligence to be able to work on something like that for such a long time.

    I am currently waiting for the day when I’m escorted into one of our meeting rooms and quietly informed that while my services have been appreciated they have in fact discovered that I am not needed and my job could essentially be done by a number of Excel spreadsheets or computer programme. And it would be done ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ etc

    So you’re definitely not alone! And if anything I feel more of an ‘imposter’ then you 😛

  9. Gee! its great that talking about Imposters Syndrome hits a nerve with so many people. I think everyone goes through phases of self doubt, at lots of different stages of life. New Job, new degree, in meetings, every Tuesday… One think I can safely say is that I have found it quite liberating writing about it, and discussing it with others. I don’t think it has changed how I think, I still think I’m an imposter. But it’s quite nice to know there are lots of imposters sneaking about too.

    Lauren – From hearing a brief synopsis of what your research entails… I’m sure you’ll be fine! It sounds ace! I know paying compliments and saying the mantra ‘ It will all be fine’ is a bit empty if you constantly doubt yourself. But my supervisors told me in no uncertain terms this week : “If you were rubbish, we would have told you by now”.

    Lizze – being blonde sort of exacerbates the imposter feeling, battling stereotypes of “oh she’s blonde she must be stupid”. I do the whole wearing glasses (I’m pretty blind) thing too. If you hear ‘dumb blonde’ lots, you start to believe it. Dont being blonde and clever is on the way up! (I hope!). I love the centre for life blog by the way!

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