Do you really have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as it was called when it was first identified, is described as an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities. It seems like everyone is talking about it in academia these days, and perhaps because of this, the term is becoming diluted and in many ways, no longer meaningful.

Photo credit: wolfgangfoto

I have heard imposter syndrome used to describe emotions from perfectly normal nerves before an important presentation, to recurring panic attacks and sleeplessness, and everything in between. Every PGR experiences nerves, uncertainty and doubt. This is completely normal, and in many ways, to be encouraged – postgraduate research is all about getting out of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring new ideas. It’s not easy, and if you’re sailing through without feeling challenged, you’re probably doing it wrong. We should absolutely be talking about the difficulties and doubts associated with a postgraduate research programme, but we should stop calling it “imposter syndrome”. It’s normal.

Some people experience an imposter phenomenon more severely, and their symptoms (panic attacks, sleeplessness) actually affect their ability to carry out their research. It’s actively unhelpful for these people to be told they “only” have imposter syndrome, that everyone is experiencing the same feelings and that if only they would “believe in themselves”, everything would be OK.

Feelings of not belonging are not always purely internal to the individual. There are often societal, structural, and environmental factors which have influenced these feelings. Women and ethnic minorities are more likely to experience severe imposter phenomenon, and it’s not a coincidence that these are also groups on the sharp end of systemic sexism and racism. If the structures in which you are working are (both overtly and covertly) telling you that you don’t belong, then it’s not surprising when you eventually start to feel like you shouldn’t be here. It isn’t possible to “fix” the individual so their imposter phenomenon goes away – the culture which gave rise to that individual feeling othered must first be fixed. Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome.

If you feel that you may be susceptible to the imposter phenomenon, have a look at the resources on our PGR Wellbeing ResourceList on this topic. One of the most effective ways to combat it is to talk honestly with others, particularly those outside your discipline, about your experiences, so expand your support networks through, for example, the University Graduate School events and Westmere. However, if your experience of the imposter phenomenon is seriously impacting your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek support from the University’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Service. But there is only so far that individuals can and should be responsible for managing their own imposter phenomenon – we all must fight for the University of Birmingham, and academia more widely, to be genuinely inclusive to all.

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Helen Kara

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