Imposter Syndrome

Do I even belong here?

Posted by Danny Schnitzler on January 09, 2021 · 4 mins read

At the beginning of August I had my first year PhD review – I had to write a report on my work and then present it to my thesis committee. I was so nervous before my presentation because this meeting would decide whether I was allowed to continue doing my PhD. This sounds pretty normal, right?

After my meeting, which included a discussion about what my results mean and how to proceed, it was clear that I would be allowed to continue. The committee was happy with the amount of work I had done and the progress I have been making. However, I felt like a complete fraud.

When my chair and my advisor asked me at the end of the meeting how things were going for me and if there was anything I was having trouble with, I obviously told them about the problems I have been having with my knee, my surgery, and the frustration I have been feeling at not being able to do lab work. I explained that the data I presented was only collected at the beginning of the year and I haven’t been able to do anything since March. I told them how frustrating it has been for me to not be able to do everything I wanted to do in my first year. And of course, my thesis chair and my advisor were incredibly kind and understanding, but it was like I was trying to convince them that I haven’t been doing enough and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to continue (not in those words of course, but that was the sentiment). It was a whole ten minutes of them convincing me that I’m fine and that I have had a good reason to not have not as much as I set out to, but that really I have so much data already, so not to worry. And me trying so incredibly hard to be gracious and accept what they were saying, but at the same time feeling like I needed to come clean and explain to them that I have deceived them and that they were wrong in thinking I deserved their praise and sympathy. In the end I just smiled and nodded, before I talked my way out of a PhD.

I know that I experience imposter syndrome. Most PhD students I know experience it to some degree, as do a lot of women in academia. But when you combine feeling like I have tricked people in my life into thinking that I am clever, capable, and competent with the fact that I actually HAVEN’T been doing the work, regardless of the reasons why, it feels a whole lot worse.

The voice of my imposter syndrome demon is pretty damn loud, and it successfully shouts down any logical arguments I might present. However, instead of arguing with it, I have learned over the years to just let it wash over me. Why? Because it makes me work harder. I mostly need to prove to myself that I am not a fraud and having hard evidence to hold on to when the demon starts shouting helps a lot. Then at least I know that I am right, and the demon is wrong.