DISCLAIMER: This post is based upon what I’ve learned from attending workshops run by the iThinkWell team (whom I’m not affiliated with) and my own experiences. It was not written with my psychologist in training “hat” on. So in other words, take it all with a pinch of salt! : D
If the number of Google hits for ‘impostor syndrome and PhD’ are anything to go by, this phenomenon is rife among postgraduate students, but can affect anyone. Put simply, impostor syndrome is the belief you’re not good enough and that your ineptitude will be “found out.” I don’t feel I know exactly what I’m doing as a PhD student by any means, but at the same time I don’t feel like an impostor because I appreciate my ignorance for what it is, an opportunity to learn. I (usually) take this mindset because I’ve read “the importance of stupidity in scientific research,” enough times to know that not knowing is a good thing and because of the iThinkWell workshops I’ve attended.
Essentially what I’ve learned from these workshops is that everyone feels like an impostor sometimes and this feeling never goes away entirely. Depressing? Not really, because this also means that even the ‘superstars’ in any given field feel incompetent. So, feeling like an impostor is both normal and probably a bad indicator of whether you actually are an “impostor.” Don’t believe me? Ask someone whose work you respect if they always feel like they know what they’re doing. Chances are they’ll say no. Also, to paraphrase the iThinkWell team again, if you were good enough to gain your role, PhD student or otherwise, you’re obviously good enough at “faking it” to keep succeeding! So, when I find myself doubting my ability to do research, I try to remember these ideas and that a bit of self-doubt comes with the territory when trying something new.
However, if I were to say that I’ve never had a bad case of impostor syndrome, I’d be leading you astray. For me, there’s nothing quite like an upcoming assessment of my clinical skills to trigger self-doubt. I’ve had no practice! I don’t know what I’m doing. These were the thoughts running through my head during the lead up to a counselling role-play about a month ago. Quite frankly, this inner monologue was ridiculous, I’d go so far as to say stupid, because my job, life experience and undergrad placements, never mind my current degree, have given me practice. And, if I truly had had no idea about what I was doing, it would definitely have been brought to my attention before this latest assignment! But like anyone, I’m human, and pushed out of my comfort zone, I was feeling like an impostor. When I recognised these thoughts for what they were though: the symptoms of “impostor syndrome,” I focused on practising. Consequently, I earned both a non-graded pass and greater faith in my counselling skills!
I’ve learned a lot of clinical skills this year and though there’s much more to learn and work on as always, I can appreciate how far I’ve come. Administering and scoring psychological tests is no longer as mentally draining and challenging as it was when I first started. Likewise, case conceptualisation and core beliefs are now familiar and not foreign terms. However, perhaps the biggest change is that I feel ready (read: as ready as you really can be) to start placement. I know that this particular learning curve will be steep and challenging (so I”ll need to exercise some self-compassion!) but I also know that despite the nerves this is what I need, to just get stuck into it and learn. Wish me luck.