My best friend, not an academic but a bloody brilliant writer, once pointed out to me that “it’s all the wrong people who have low self-esteem”. I think back now to every single one of my PhD friends who have said they haven’t felt good enough, when in fact, the very person uttering those words is always beyond capable.
If you’re reading this post, chances are that you muddle your way through every day thinking you’re not good enough too, terrified that ‘they’ are going to find out that liar-liar-pants-on-fire, you’re actually not at all qualified to be here and nothing but a big horrible imposter.
I promise you – if you’re thinking this, then that in itself is an indication that you’re absolutely good enough to be where you are. (It’s the ones with the overinflated sense of self that should think twice about how ‘good’ they think they are – more on that below).
I’m gonna tell you two stories here, each addressing some aspect of imposter syndrome. Maybe you’ll see yourself in one of them; even if you don’t, take heart that you’re definitely not alone in feeling these feelings. But sometimes, those tiny voices of self-doubt can be (turned into) a good thing – and I’ll show you why.
Story #1: The viva where all my nightmares came true
Before literally every meeting with my supervisors, I told myself that this was it, this would be the meeting when one of them would finally say to me, “Look, we’re really concerned. This isn’t the kind of work you should be producing at this stage in the PhD”. This would be the meeting where they found out what a terrible lying, deceptive fake I was.
It never happened, of course. They only ever had good things to say about my progress (along with good, constructive feedback on my work and suggestions for changes/improvements).
For four years, I received consistently reassuring, excellent feedback about my work from supervisors, colleagues, audiences at conferences. I was told that my finished thesis was “really very good” and everyone in my department, even the academics who weren’t my supervisors expected that I’d ace the viva. Even before submission, I’d been invited to guest lecture, speak on conference panels and conduct training for researchers.
Fast forward to the viva, where I was suddenly confronted by two people who told me that my thesis had “major deep flaws”, that my methodology chapter “doesn’t really go anywhere” and that the conclusion “doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know”. The examiners scoffed, mocked and laughed at elements in my thesis and at things I said during the viva. It felt like nothing I said was ‘right’.
After the examiners left and I managed to peel myself off the floor in a teary mess, it hit me that THIS was the moment I’d been dreading all along: I’d been completely exposed for being a fraud. This wasn’t just imposter syndrome – I was an imposter. I wasn’t a good researcher; my work was shit. I’d just played a really good game all along… until now.
I wallowed in this ‘realisation’ for months. I couldn’t bear to begin looking at the revisions I needed to do because it only reaffirmed to me that I wasn’t good enough. I was a shitty, low-grade con who’d been found out, and who now had to ‘make amends’ by doing these corrections.
Then, when I finally let myself calm the fuck down (and honestly, I’m still not totally calm, almost 10 months on), the logical part of my brain kicked in and said, “Well, hang on a minute. If you were that shitty, are you saying that your supervisors, colleagues, literally every single person who has appreciated your work, are ALL shitty and wrong too?”
“How is it that everyone else is wrong, and these just two examiners are right?”
“How is it, that one of the examiners read a very early draft of my work and, at the time, told me that that piece of work, as it stood, was of a higher standard than previous theses she had examined and passed? And then, did a complete 180 at the viva and told me it was deeply flawed?”
“How is it, that so many parts of their report and the recommended revisions were contradictory, unclear and sometimes just didn’t make any sense at all?”
Another little voice started to creep in on the sidelines, one that said:
“Well, heck. Maybe you’re not the one that got it wrong. Maybe … they are.”
It took a long time and it was a hellishly slow process, but slowly, slowly, I flipped the script. I finally started work on the revisions about six months later and remembered why I loved my theses and my research so much. My supervisors were right – it is fucking good.
It’s original, it’s thoughtful, it engages well with both the data and the theory, it’s reflective and considered. Yes, there are definitely blind spots that are a little ragged, and I understand and agree with the examiners’ comments in those areas (which I’ve since amended). But overall, I completely believe now that it was unfair and inaccurate for them to have described it as ‘deeply flawed’.
I just refuse to accept that reading of my work. So, instead, I now think:
Maybe they just didn’t get it.
Maybe the creative risks I took with my work just don’t tick the boxes of a conventional thesis.
Maybe it was a bit too radical for them.
Maybe they’ve assessed the thesis based on how they would have done the research, rather than how I actually did it.
Maybe they just wanted something different and I didn’t do that.
Maybe it was the day after the union strikes and they were in a bad mood.
Maybe one of them was feeling crap because she was still recovering from a cold.
(Maybe they were just arseholes).
Maybe – just maybe – that doesn’t actually say anything about me as a researcher. It’s just the opinion of two people – and frankly, I don’t quite care for them or their opinions anymore.
Here’s the best part – I don’t need to. (Yeah, I need to do play ball for awhile and do the corrections that they want, but beyond this finite piece of work, what the hell is their opinion to me anymore? Um, nothing.)
Maybe I am good enough and my work is more than adequate – and the problem is them, not me.
Story #2: the guy who never shuts up about his thesis
There’s this guy I know – and look, every one of you will know someone like this – who cannot stop talking about how great he/his PhD/everything he touches is. (Let’s call him Dave, though that’s not really his name).
I went round to his department one day to meet some other people for lunch. He shares n office with one of my friends, so I popped in and sat down for a bit while waiting for everyone else to turn up for lunch.
I asked the usual catch-up questions – you know, how’s it going? How’s the work this week? What are you working on?
That’s all it took.
He told me he was just finishing up the slides for a conference paper he was giving soon. And before I knew it, he’d pulled up the powerpoint and launched into a thorough commentary of every single slide, pretty much rehearsing his entire presentation to me.
(Look, Dave, all I asked was what you’re up to.)
I got my phone out at that point, and feigned looking up some very important messages/emails while he yarned on and on about his research and his presentation. It was clear I have absolutely no interest in what he was talking about and was entirely disengaged – but this didn’t deter him at all.
He was very, very pleased with himself and kept right on at it, perfectly content in taking up all the space and all the time, like he was, in fact, doing me a favour by telling me all about this presentation.
It’s important at this point to note that this is how he is almost every time you ask him about his work. He will hold court and tell you about it, down to the last excruciating detail. It’s been almost four years now, and he still has no idea how tiresome it is for all of us, held hostage every time as an unwitting audience.
Let me tell you though – this dude has zero no imposter syndrome. He absolutely, 100% believes in the validity and value and excellence of his work – whether it actually is any of those things or not.
And while I fully believe that he can do with dialling it down quite a whole lot, I also think of him in every moment that I feel a little less-than.
I try to channel some of that over-confidence, just a tiny drop of that entitled arrogance that will embolden me to walk into a room and tell you why my research is excellent, whether or not you want to listen, agree, or give any fucks at all.
Here’s the moral of both stories:
On the one hand: be a little more like Dave
Reclaim your greatness, take up as much room as you need to right in this moment and own it. I don’t mean this as another one of those cheesy motivational self-help platitudes, but really recognise where and how you are a fucking magical BOSS. Don’t apologise for it, or diminish it as ‘no big deal’, or think that just because you cannot do something else equally well as Joan-Robert-Louise-Gavin over there then you must be a big fucking all-round failure.
You are good enough in this thing and you will take pride in that. Sure, there’s gonna be some other things you could maybe rework or tweak; or things that you just totally suck at (for me, that’s adhering to sociological conventions, singing and boiling rice). But by no means does that mean you’re not good enough or you’re an imposter or a failure. It just means you’re a human being and you can’t be good at everything all the time to please everyone every time.
On the other hand: be a little less like Dave
If you’re second-guessing your work and ability it’s probably because you’re diligent and you care about the quality of work that you’re producing. You want it to be good (or better), substantial, valuable and worthy. You understand that there’s room for improvement. You’re not, like Dave, presumptuous enough to think that you’re already good enough and don’t need to improve.
This is a good thing. Having an openness to improve, to do things differently, to hear honest, constructive feedback makes you a better researcher, or writer, or artist, or whatever it is that you are.
Allow yourself a little self-doubt sometimes, but the healthy kind – the sort that nudges you just that bit more to find a more insightful thought, a bigger a-ha moment, a more interesting word/idea/direction. Let this kind of self-doubt be a chance to be reflexive, mindful and open to change.
If you’ve managed to get this far with reading this, you can already be sure you’ve got perseverance, patience, and the curiosity to find out how to do things a slightly different way (or – hah – maybe you’re just procrastinating from whatever it is you’re meant to be doing; that’s okay too).
You’re doing alright, kid. Now you’ve just got to believe it for yourself.