Friday Special: How I deal with Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is something that you’ll have probably come across at university. In simple terms, it means that you believe that you’re not as capable as others think you are, leading to feelings of self-doubt. This feeling can really plague you at times, especially if you’re undertaking some difficult work, or have found yourself in a position of responsibility. In this Friday Special, I wanted to talk about my feelings surrounding imposter syndrome, and how I deal with them.
I first started feeling out of place right at the beginning of my undergraduate degree, but that went away once I became settled into my course. At the beginning of my MA however, imposter syndrome came back with full force, and never really went away until I had finished that degree. I blame Covid-19 for the feelings’ ability to linger on, as being at home trying to write essays and a dissertation while trying to navigate a global pandemic threw me completely out of the water. Pre-Covid however, I struggled with the MA feeling similar to my BA but also with seemingly completely different expectations. I knew how to write an essay, but how did I make it a postgraduate level essay? That question never got answered, although a few lovely lecturers did attempt to explain it. Not knowing exactly what I was doing left me feeling like I didn’t belong, and honestly kept me up at night sometimes during my first semester as a postgraduate student.
To combat these feelings, I deliberately chose modules and essay questions where I had some background knowledge, and worked consolidate this knowledge by expanding my reading lists and looking for alternate historiography. I also got involved in Astor100, which eventually turned into a kind of placement, which allowed me to feel confident in women’s history and taught me some practical elements of delivering a public history project in a safe environment. This all helped me to find my feet, and seeking advice from lecturers on essay plans and structure gave me the confidence that I was doing all I could to ensure my success. Taking responsibility for your learning and reaching out for help is useful at all stages of your university journey, and it’s definitely helped me to combat feelings of being out of my depth and incompetent.
During the first lockdown of March 2020, I moved back home and soon felt completely cut off from university. I felt ignored by my university at the beginning of the pandemic, as they failed to put in proper policy for postgraduate taught students, and it was left to our course director to fight for us. Physically, I was separated from the library and from my friends, which made it difficult to get the resources I needed to finish two essays I was writing. I also didn’t feel motivated, and though I never felt scared of catching Covid, I was stressed about how the pandemic would affect my dissertation. Ultimately, I was forced to change my dissertation topic and choose something else, meaning around four months of planning and research had been effectively wasted. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but it made me feel like a failure, and led me to procrastinate my new research as I didn’t believe myself to be capable of doing it all again.
Working through this phase of imposter syndrome was tough, but taking a three-month extension helped me to get everything done to the standard I wanted. I struggled with a lot of motivation issues, poor concentration and procrastination at this time, which led to me feeling really stressed again. The November 2020 lockdown felt like the last straw to me, and it was a drag through the mud to get everything finished. If I hadn’t forced myself to get it done, I’m pretty sure that I’d still be writing it now! My methods aren’t something I’d recommend in hindsight, as the long hours and extreme amounts of caffeine didn’t do me much good in the weeks after, but the push was worth it.
When I finished my MA, it was so nice to feel the imposter syndrome lighten, and then disappear once I knew that I’d passed my degree. Getting a distinction finally seemed to convince me that I had been capable the whole time, and I felt a little sad about not believing in myself more. Coming back for my PhD, I have been making the conscious effort to be productive, set reasonable boundaries and take up opportunities sensibly, and that really seems to have helped me feel more settled. Of course there is a lot of pressure when undertaking a PhD, but I have been careful to remind myself that I am capable, and that I have already proved myself to be worthy of this challenge.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about how I deal with the challenges of academia. If you’re new to my site, Friday Specials are posted twice a month. I discuss more about my personal experience within the world of university, as well as my plans and setbacks. I also have an Instagram, or #studygram, where I post anecdotes of my life as a PhD, so be sure to join in @tibbotttalks_study.