How to Manage Impostor Syndrome as an Academic

Impostor syndrome is the inaccurate sense that you have achieved your position or been given an opportunity because of a series of errors as, as opposed to you actually being deserving and capable. Many academics experience it in their early career and beyond as a vaguely nagging feeling that they aren’t as good as their colleagues, that they have fluked their way into their post. It may not be a physical obstacle but impostor syndrome can be debilitating.

The first step to managing your impostor syndrome is recognizing some of the circumstances that help to bring it about. We are all naturally slightly nervous around tests and interviews and having made it on to the academic career path at all is a sign that normally you might be a person who breezes through them, confident and well prepared. The fact that you were probably a top-class student at school and college, at least in your area, means that you are used to being at the top of the pile and you have high expectations for yourself. Now that you’re swimming in a much bigger pond, competing on the world academic stage it’s normal to find that it’s harder to live up to your own standards. 

Impostor syndrome can also be fostered by the fact that academic careers naturally involve juggling several different tasks. Often you are a researcher and a teacher at the same time. This means that you need to divide your efforts and split your focus.  You need to do well in both areas and different mentors will place different levels of value on each skill. Some mentors want to see young academics who are responsive to their students and others want a pure research focus. Without clarity on which parts of your role are the key parts and which are the secondary parts, it is hard to measure yourself clearly against your aims. Ask for feedback regularly from your supervisor and remember that you’re serving a diverse set of aims.

The last major problem is that in an academic career you are constantly tested and required to prove yourself. There are grant applications, short term post-doctoral posts and the constant need to publish. The pressure to prove yourself could cause doubt in anyone but try to remember that this is just a symptom of the challenging environment, not your personal capacity. 

To keep impostor syndrome from slowing down your progress, remember that you are working to provide completely novel, groundbreaking work. It is absolutely the case that such a big task will feel daunting but that is an indication that original academic work is an attempt to break new ground in human understanding in a structure that can be fickle. You have made it this far and that alone makes you capable. Probabilistically, the chances that you are the one person who has fooled the system are very low and even in that case, you owe it to yourself and your research to give yourself the best chance by believing in yourself. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *