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Imagine this: You are a doctoral student, working hard to make meaningful contributions to your field. But deep down, you cannot help feeling that you are just pretending to be competent, fearing that others will discover you are an imposter. Or that they will soon figure out that you are not as smart as they thought you were. Welcome to the world of imposter syndrome, a common struggle that, unfortunately, many doctoral students face.
Understanding imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is that nagging voice in your head, whispering that you’re not as capable as others believe you to be. As a doctoral student, it’s easy to fall victim to this phenomenon, when you are surrounded by high expectations and relentless competition. The symptoms of imposter syndrome include self-doubt, the fear of failure, perfectionism and a never-ending comparison with peers.
When I was a doctoral student, I experienced my share of this struggle, and let me tell you, it is not a great feeling. It was particularly hard in the early years of my doctoral journey. Although I was driven to the verge of giving up, I am thankful that I didn’t and went on to get my degree. In this article, I’ll present practical strategies for doctoral students to overcome imposter syndrome, some of which I successfully used in my own journey.
Recognize imposter feelings and understand that you are not alone. When you frequently find yourself discounting your achievements, attributing them to luck or external factors, comparing yourself with others, or having a persistent feeling that you are deceiving others, it is time to self-reflect and take control. One thing you can do is to journal your thoughts and emotions. That can increase your self-awareness, help identify any irrational beliefs or unrealistic expectations that you may have about yourself, and allow you to track progress to see changes and growth over time. Journaling can also offer emotional release, making it easier to manage your feelings and enabling you to brainstorm solutions to work through those feelings.
It’s also crucial to understand that you’re not alone in experiencing this self-doubt. Many successful individuals have battled imposter syndrome and have come out stronger. Within academe, a high percentage of postsecondary students suffers from imposter feelings. Talking with trusted peers or mentors can help you in this regard, a point that I’ll examine in more detail in a coming section. By acknowledging imposter feelings and realizing that this is a common experience, you can begin to take control of your mind-set, which will in turn put you on a path to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Challenge negative self-talk and beliefs. Those negative voices in your head? It’s time to challenge them head-on. When negative thoughts such as, “I am never going to be able to finish this program,” arise in your head, be conscious of them and think about your capabilities and accomplishments thus far. Then use those positive thoughts to try and quell your self-critical ones. Remind yourself also of positive feedback that you have received from mentors or peers and all the major milestones you have reached. By changing your inner dialogue, you can build self-confidence and break free from the chains of imposter syndrome.
Create and tackle short-term goals. When you look at what you need to do as “getting my Ph.D. in five years,” it appears to be an insurmountable, gigantic undertaking. All those self-doubts and insecurities will only add to your misery. One effective way to handle that is to break your goal down into smaller, doable tasks—such as “Finish literature review of topic X in six weeks,” or “Get my questionnaire survey ready in two months,” or “Write the first five pages of a chapter in a week.” Getting those smaller tasks done is much easier, and can do wonders to help you overcome those negative thoughts and self-doubt.
That’s exactly what I did. When I sat down to write that first sentence of my thesis, it felt like I would never be able to finish writing something that could be hundreds of pages long and that would contribute to my field of study. I then forced myself to not think about that, but to just focus on finishing one page, then two pages, half a chapter, a chapter and so on. I credit a lot of my success in getting my writing done to this one strategy. Setting smaller, more doable goals did wonders in my case, and I am sure it will, in yours too. Remember that you do not have to do everything perfectly all the time. Sometimes you just do well enough, and that is OK.
Cultivate a supportive network. Surround yourself with friends, mentors and trusted individuals who understand the challenges of academe. Share your experiences and vulnerabilities with them and listen to their stories in return. By reaching out, you will find the encouragement and guidance you need to combat imposter syndrome. In case you don’t have supportive mentors, or you don’t feel comfortable sharing your insecurities with your friends, look for graduate student support groups or counseling options on campus.
This is another strategy that really helped me in tackling my own insecurities. Throughout the doctoral program, my husband and parents were my constant cheerleaders, and supported me in every way they could. I had a great adviser whom I could lean on for discussing any issues I had. I had a small but wonderful network of friends, and we supported each other when needed. Always remember that you don’t have to face this battle alone.
Celebrate accomplishments, and embrace feedback. Doctoral students often downplay their achievements, believing they are simply not good enough. However, I urge you to take the time to celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. Keep a journal of achievements, big or small, and reflect on them regularly. Practice positive self-talk by reminding yourself of your strengths and contributions.
Additionally, embrace constructive feedback as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Rather than viewing it as a sign of failure, see it as a valuable tool to refine your skills and reach new heights. Actively seek feedback from mentors and peers and use it to fuel your personal and academic growth.
Develop a growth mind-set. Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, and view failures as stepping stones toward success. Instead of fixating on outcomes, focus on the learning process and the joy of discovery. Seek out new experiences and challenges, even if they seem daunting at first.
Also, whenever you come across a time when you think you do not have enough knowledge about a particular topic, take it as an opportunity to deepen your expertise. By adopting a growth mind-set, you’ll empower yourself to overcome imposter syndrome and reach new levels of achievement. Remember that you need not be an expert in anything just yet. A Ph.D. is just the beginning of your career journey. You will have plenty of time to learn, grow and build expertise.
When I started my doctoral program, I can tell you that I did not have a growth mind-set. I was just cruising along and did not have as much passion for what I was doing as I should have. After completing my coursework and passing the qualifying examinations, I worked on my dissertation proposal, but it was not satisfactory, my committee told me—adding fuel to my feeling that I am not good enough to be in the program. I even seriously thought of quitting the program.
After self-reflection and conversations with my family, peers and mentors, I shifted my mind-set to look at this situation as an incredible opportunity to do something new in the field—as opposed to just doing something to finish the program. Consequently, I was able to change my topic and work with passion on the new topic, which I loved. And within a span of a few months, those shifts brought me much closer to my goal.
Imposter syndrome can be a formidable obstacle for doctoral students, blocking their progress and stifling their true potential. But remember that you are not alone in this struggle. By understanding the nature of imposter syndrome and following these suggestions, you can be well on your way to conquer it—embracing your expertise, banishing self-doubts and paving the way for academic success. The journey toward a Ph.D. may be challenging, but with determination and the right strategies, you can rise above imposter syndrome and thrive.