Imposter syndrome in academia and how I beat it

Sabiha opens up about struggling with impostor syndrome during her PhD
By | Published on May 30, 2020

Why academia? What is its appeal? For me the answer was straightforward: I genuinely enjoyed the process of making discoveries and the luxury of working whenever and wherever I liked. This makes academia one of the best career choices for one’s personal and professional happiness, right? Well, not so fast….What may sound like a straight road to success, was paved with many setbacks – it made me question whether I am fit for research. But I am not the only one feeling this way, many findings speak of a mental health crisis in academia.

I was a really good student. I scored good grades, and was appreciated by my teachers throughout my school years and undergraduate studies. Consequently, academia seemed like the best career choice for me. I joined a PhD position with enthusiasm.

This is where it all started.

In a matter of weeks, I was doubting myself. I struggled with understanding ‘basic concepts’, while everyone else around me seemed to be excelling. All these years of doing great in academics and now I was failing along the same lines. It had a tremendous negative impact on my motivation and excitement for science; making me question whether I was smart enough to be pursuing research.

What started with confusion, quickly led to low self-esteem – paired with the pressure in academia to constantly prove oneself, I soon began to suffer from mental health issues. Falling deeper into what I perceived to be a dark pit each day.

Sabiha’s labmates (from Center for Ecological Sciences) at coffee in IISc campus

Here comes the tricky bit: objectively, I had no reason to feel like this. I was part of a great lab, with amazing colleagues and a supportive supervisor. I felt guilty for feeling depressed. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I ultimately decided to quit. The constant struggle with my inner self was impeding any progress, and the idea of completing my PhD project seemed impossible.

Before I could tell my supervisor that I was throwing in the towel, he approached me to talk about my struggles. In this discussion, I learnt how common this was in academia. When we involved my colleagues into this discussion, I was surprised to hear how even happy-seeming people were fighting the same issue on a daily basis. From then on, I became more open about my feelings. We started defining shorter goals in the lab. Instead of a bigger project spanning a year, I started defining small tasks for each day or week, and finishing them one by one made me more and more confident. Before I realised, I had submitted my dissertation! Thus, I struggled with and overcame impostor syndrome.

Academia is set out to train experts, but the more I learnt about a topic, the more I drew into its vastness. The feeling of not knowing enough, not being enough, arose in this manner. This is the catch 22 of being a researcher: You learn more and more, but feel like you know less and less, ultimately lead to me feeling unworthy of an expert position, being a fraud – an impostor. 

After a PhD and two years of postdoc, I now work for a financial institution. While many look at this transition as quitting, it was not so for me. This career path is a development in continuation with my PhD. Apart from the skills I learnt, the most important thing is the confidence it gave me. Having survived those struggles and gaining support, I came out of it as a stronger optimist. 

While I had a positive experience, I understand not everyone does. There are many resolutions needed to improve grad students’ experience. A turning point for me was being open about my feelings. I believe as scientists we must be open about our feelings of self-doubt and our struggles. It is so easy to get lost in the universe of details. Talking to colleagues and supervisors helps to stay focused and moreover, knowing that you are not alone can reduce the burden.

My two cents: It is ok to NOT know everything. This does not make you less of an expert. It is ok to still struggle from time to time. Science is not a smooth sail, it is a quest for knowledge and there are a lot of kind people around you. So, talk to your colleagues, your mentors, but most importantly, know that you are not alone in this.


Author bio: Sabiha did her PhD at IISc Bangalore and two years of postdoctoral research at ETH Zurich. She is now working for ING bank, Amsterdam as a Risk Analyst.

Note: This article first appeared on Crowther lab’s website here.

Acknowledgements: Images sourced from the author. Featured image from Flickr.

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