Understanding imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome may sound like a medical condition, but is more of an experience of your work and workplace, which can leave you feeling insecure and unhappy. The experience is often described as a distinct feeling of being a fraud or feeling as though your achievements are illegitimate. It is a common occurrence and affects many in academia, mainly due to the high-pressure environment academics operate in. (To get an idea of what a professional belonging to the field has got to say on imposter syndrome, read A clinical psychologist explains: Imposter Syndrome in academia)

Here, we discuss how to identify imposter syndrome, how to handle it and where to find help.


Determining if you are experiencing imposter syndrome
A deep-seated feeling of unease can manifest itself in anyone – from early career PhD students all the way to established academics who may feel that they don’t belong in their position. This is usually an irrational feeling, often attributable to specific events that may have dampened their self-confidence, such as a failed grant application, which causes them to compare themselves to others.

It may seem to you that everyone else is receiving grants, that they have their work under better control than you or that they are generally more successful.

If you are thinking or have experienced any of these thoughts, you are probably dealing with what many describe as imposter syndrome.


Tackling imposter syndrome (based on type)
A helpful way to go about it is by first identifying the type of imposter syndrome you are experiencing. There are commonly considered to be five types of imposter syndrome (as also detailed here):

·         Perfectionist

·         Natural Genius

·         Expert

·         Rugged Individualist

·         Superwoman/man

Once you have identified the type of imposter syndrome you are experiencing, you should next take appropriate steps to address it. For instance, reframe your thoughts around your abilities, or speak to someone about how you are feeling.

For example…

The Perfectionist type describes many researchers, who strive to be 100% successful at everything they do and/or to never make any mistakes. When this impossibly high standard is not achieved, it can lead to bouts of imposter syndrome. Here, a consistent practice of reminding yourself of your achievements and celebrating them instead of ruminating over your failures is a helpful strategy to battle any feelings of self-doubt.


Seeking qualified help
Most advice you receive from friends, colleagues and family will be based on personal experiences. Personal experiences and circumstances differ from person to person, era to era. This means that if the advice you are initially given does not resonate with you, or you act on it and you feel that your situation worsens, it is imperative that you reach out for help from qualified professionals or organisations that have been set up specifically to support the mental health of researchers. Most universities have resources for their researchers to access should you feel overwhelmed or if you are struggling to keep up with your research.


Researchers, no matter how brilliant, are often faced with feelings of self-doubt, which is understandable given the pressures of the job and the nature of research being repetitive and seldom 100% successful. Know that:

·         It is perfectly normal to feel down every now and then, and you don’t have to feel completely confident all of the time in order to still do good work.

·         You shouldn’t let these dips in self-confidence and motivation run you down completely.

·         You should seek advice and help as soon as you start to feel consumed by deep-seated feelings of a declining self-esteem which you cannot lift yourself out from, and avoid letting these feelings fester or spiral further downwards. 

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