Imposter syndrome


By Courtney Seiter at

The diagram above is commonplace when beginning a new job. Before you’ve settled in and learned the ropes, everyone around you seems to know more than you and it’s incredibly daunting to catch up. Over the past few weeks, I have discovered that some amazing postdocs at Edinburgh university still feel like this, even after they have been in their job for years!

One staff member I spoke to said that each stage you go through feels more unusual, more like you don’t fit in – suggesting that imposter syndrome is not constrained to the first few months of a researcher’s job, but can pose a challenge throughout their whole career. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia, due to peer review, rejections and the hierarchical structure of our universities. As postdocs are the newest research staff at the university, it’s likely that imposter syndrome is going to have a large effect on them. For these reasons, imposter syndrome needs to be confronted and discussed.

Have you had imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect assessment of ones’ abilities compared to peers” (Liu, 2014). This means that someone may have imposter syndrome without realising it.

A common thought when suffering from imposter syndrome is that you’re a “fraud” and worried that you’re going to be “caught out”. These thoughts are often amplified when doing something challenging, such as collaborating with a distinguished researcher on a new topic.

Imposter syndrome can have large effect on your resilience and your research. To feel more prepared, you might feel like you need to spend more and more time working and reading. This will affect your work-home life balance and might leave you feeling drained and less able to cope with challenges in your job. Furthermore, since imposter syndrome can feel more acute when undertaking challenging or risky project, you may be less likely to take risks and pursue great ideas, which could have a negative effect on your research.

My advice to researchers (mainly from other researchers):

  1. You are not alone: the vast majority of researchers have imposter syndrome at some point. If you don’t believe me, ask somebody in your department!
  2. Talk to other researchers about their experiences: social media has made it more acceptable to talk about problems and online networks aimed specifically at researchers facilitate this. Hearing how other people deal with imposter syndrome may help you too.
  3. Confidence is not competence: some people in your department may act confidently, but this does not mean they are any more competent than you.
  4. Don’t take criticism personally: everyone in research receives criticism. Criticism is not aimed at you, but it’s important that you use any feedback you get to improve your research.
  5. Make small goals and evaluate them regularly: Once you see that you are achieving your goals, you’ll build a sense of satisfaction and confidence in your capability.
  6. Take time to look after yourself: the people who I’ve spoken to have a wide variety of mechanisms to look after themselves – whether it’s going for long cycle rides or classes on mindfulness – find something that works for you and fit it in to your routine.

Sara’s lovely blog post about how imposter syndrome is a badge of honour includes further insights and advice:

Thank you to everyone around the university who has talked to me this week about their experiences! I hope to meet lots more researchers at the university in the next 6 weeks. If you would like to get involved by sharing your thoughts or experiences about resilience in your research position please get in touch.

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