Writing 101: Day 3 – Impostor Syndrome and Uncertainty

I had several posts in mind for today: a short post on Statistical Uncertainty for today’s ‘Writing 101’ single word prompt challenge, a discussion about Imposter Syndrome inspired by this week’s #survivephd15, and maybe a piece on thesis writing inspired by a conversation with a colleague.

Well, that’s not going to happen, it’s late, the Bake-off’s on and work and dishes are stacking up around my ears.  So, in the spirit of today’s word prompt, ‘Uncertainty’, I’m going to wing it.

The first year of my DPhil can be described in two words:  ‘Impostor Syndrome’.  For those unfamiliar with the term Impostor Syndrome describes an inability to internalise accomplishments, the feeling that you’re a fraud, and the fear that one day soon the fraud police are going to find you.  Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Neil Gaiman and scores and scores of graduate students have all spoken about feeling this.

I’ve never been one to walk the path well trodden, but starting a doctorate in a completely unfamiliar subject at a time when I wasn’t exactly mentally or physically healthy wasn’t one of my brightest ideas.  I turned up for day 1 terrified and twitching and didn’t stop for the next 10 months.

The world was full of perfect colleagues and the stories of massive unforeseen consequences of grad student incompetence (oh god I thought…was I incompetent?); and innumerable other fantasy horrors, which, given that I have insomnia, ran round my head 20 hours a day…over and over and over.  I wasn’t certain that this feeling would ever stop, I wasn’t entirely certain I should stay, I loved my job but someone as shit as me was surely a waste of funding right?

Except, one day, things clicked.

My course started with rotations, short 3 month projects in different labs.  I loved these projects, the work from my first rotation ended up in my PI’s latest paper and I found the work in my second rotation eye-opening and exciting.  This didn’t however make the impostor feeling go away, and when these rotations ended I hit the wall.  For the first time in my academic career I didn’t know what to do for the next step, I was too far down in the mind pit to fall in love with ‘the next thing’ and in unfamiliar territory I was convinced all my ideas were stupid and not worth pursuing.  I chose to start with things that I thought might be useful, I didn’t want to turn up to work, I didn’t want other people to see me and I especially didn’t want them to see me struggling.

And then one day I started talking to my colleagues, we talked about papers, about exciting ideas, about what they were working on and, what they weren’t.  I found a niche, I fell in love with it, I started working more effectively and, at some point, I’d become more certain I was doing the right thing, without realising.

Everyone tells you that to pursue a PhD you have to be dedicated to your thesis topic.  I think what’s less apparent is the different paths people take to get to that point.  It might seem like your colleagues’ dedication to ‘The Habitat of the Adelie Penguin’ or ‘Dietary Habits of Doctoral Candidates’ arose by magic sometime around the age 5, but the truth is probably more complex and more coincidental than that.

The only thing I’m certain of, is that the uncertainty will be back, Impostor Syndrome sticks, but at least next time I might be more prepared.

Two excellent videos on this subject:

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art:

Sally Le Page: We Need to Talk About Impostor Syndrome:


3 thoughts on “Writing 101: Day 3 – Impostor Syndrome and Uncertainty

  1. What a great post about something I have never heard much about! It’s given me food for thought…
    I suppose Imposter Syndrome could easily be mistaken for low self-esteem, but it’s not the same thing, although it would go alongside it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jane, thanks for the comment (:

    I think low self esteem can definitely play a part for some people. Impostor Syndrome, rather than being a defined disorder, is an experience that is common to many people finding themselves in similar situations, often shared anecdotally. Some people seem more susceptible to these feelings than others and maybe their more general feelings play a part in that.


  3. Interesting article which shows the difference between different phases of the stress level.. I popped over from the class of writing 101 to say: Hello from Ireland 🙂


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