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Doing a PhD Gives You Imposter Syndrome on Steroids

This blog post will teach you about a very common feeling you’ll experience as a PhD student, which is the imposter syndrome.

This is a feeling of unworthiness of your current situation.

The conversation in your head goes along “I’ll be found out soon” or “I’m not X enough to be in this programme”, where X can be “good”, “smart”, “creative”, etc.

Basically, you feel like a fraud. It’s only a matter of time until they know it too.

What is the Imposter Syndrome?

A sociology professor from New Jersey describes what the imposter syndrome is in this Quartz article:

Imposter syndrome is a frequent problem among high-achieving students who find themselves surrounded with others like them. […] “It’s very common to feel an incompetent fraud, and usually to assume you’re the only one who feels that way.”

Most likely you’ll experience similar feelings whenever you undertake a new challenging project.

The difference with a PhD is that this feeling is way more intense, as the academic environment incessantly scrutinises your work.

The imposter syndrome can further drag down your psychological state with effects such as low self-esteem, a lot of doubt about yourself, and almost no motivation to carry on your tasks.

Ignored, these issues can develop into mental illnesses such as depression.

It’s important to realise that such feelings of low self-worth are normal during graduate school and that PhD students are particularly susceptible to them just by the nature of the academic environment in which they’re in.

The key mindset shift to make is to put aside the negative thought loops and objectively look back at how things developed since you started.

Are you in a better place than when you began your PhD? Are you content with how far you’ve come?

How to Fix Imposter Syndrome

Many of the articles on the web about imposter syndrome in academia describe how it’s normal and give you tactics on how you can overcome these feelings.

You should believe in yourself, be more confident, accept that many people feel the same thing.

Just “stick it out” until you finish your PhD, you’ve invested so much time already. Visualise how proud your parents will be when you finally get your degree, doesn’t matter if the journey is killing you day-by-day, it will be worth it!

What I want to propose is simply the possibility that you don’t need to play the game at all.

If you’ve been “grinding it out” at your PhD for a few years or so, it’s time to detach yourself from your emotions and look at the situation objectively.

First, before you can work on the external world, you first need to take care of your internal self-image issues.

One of the books I highly recommend is Psycho-Cybernetics.

This book will give you both principles and tactics on improving your self-image and will definitely increase your confidence.

Secondly, you need to make an objective and honest assessment of your circumstances.

Are you making progress or are you working in a dead-end project?

If the latter, then the project is not worth your time and it’s time to move on.

I see so many articles that just instruct you to keep hanging on until the magical point in time when you get handed a piece of paper that says people need to address you with “Dr” from now on.

You are encouraged not to drop out as the resources you’ve invested so far would be “wasted”.

In industry, we know businesses fail all the time. One tries out an idea, it doesn’t pan out, one moves on.

If you think about it, a PhD is very similar to testing out a business idea. There is a high degree of uncertainty, there’s no clear plan ahead, it’s very likely it will not be groundbreaking, but let’s take a leap of faith and give it a shot.

The weird thing is that because of all the ego-investments and fear of disappointment involved, one can’t let go of a dead-end project in graduate school.

The glorified image of academia must not be tarnished.

Hold on, stick it out, it will be worth it!

There’s a Turkish proverb that goes something like:

No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.

Why continue to put yourself through the torment of the PhD?

The academic game is basically rigged to make you question every piece of work you do.

So, I invite you to take an honest look at your project and decide if you should call it quits and move on to more promising ventures.

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