Impostor syndrome in postgraduate research: The guilt isn’t your fault

A man in thought against a multi-coloured background

Many early career researchers have experiences with impostor syndrome, feeling out of place or unworthy of their position. Photo credit: Gift Habeshaw via Unsplash

This Opinion piece is part of a series on mental health among scientific researchers. Read our introduction to the series here.

Recent years have brought more attention to the mental health challenges that many early-career researchers (ECRs) face, with high impact scientific journals such as Nature releasing articles on this topic. Unfortunately, this awareness online has not yet carried over into the real world and brought about tangible changes within research departments. Instead, there is an ongoing expectation that research and the factors surrounding it are independent endeavours, and any issues faced should be resolved by the student themselves. This extends to matters concerning mental health.

A 2021 study highlighted that 42% of PhD students claimed that developing a mental health issue over the course of their research was considered “normal”. If mental health problems are so largely expected during a PhD, students may feel ashamed when they encounter issues they find hard to overcome alone. Mental health issues are almost seen as part of the PhD, thus any struggles against them feeds into the feeling of not being able to do the PhD itself.

One leading cause of mental health struggles in academia is “impostor syndrome” (IS), or the “impostor phenomenon”. Someone experiencing impostor syndrome feels unworthy of their position or role and carries a persistent fear of being exposed at any given moment as a fraud, lacking key knowledge and skills. The individual may feel this despite externally presenting a high aptitude for their subject. This is particularly prevalent among ECRs, especially in the key initial stages of a research project.

IS varies in its manifestation and severity. For some, prolonged feelings of inadequacy lead to anxiety and guilt, which can escalate to depressive or suicidal thoughts. Since so much self-worth is tied to research when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, students may perceive these failures as world-shattering and feel trapped, equally ashamed by the prospect of quitting. Lacking self-confidence is wearing, and can make the research process less efficient, leading to a vicious cycle of self-doubt and inefficient research.

Another element of IS is that sufferers also typically feel anxiety when presenting their research. Public speaking is nerve-racking at the best of times and can be worsened by the dread of exposure when in the spotlight.

So much self-worth is tied to research that when things go wrong, students may perceive these failures as world-shattering.

Often, ECRs have performed well academically throughout their lives, which may explain these feelings when confronted with the complexities of a research project. While insecurities may contribute to IS, external stressors may also play a factor. Entering a new environment, one where the ‘publish or perish’ culture is rife, is bound to induce a competitive atmosphere, and academic peers may intentionally bring others down to promote their own research. Competition feeds on comparisons with peers, who may be further along in their research career.

As opposed to undergraduate education, where grades and test scores offer an unambiguous metric of how well you are doing, measuring research progress is much more nuanced and cannot be summarised by a single number. The shift to being surrounded by scientists at the top of their game can be a challenging one and even evoke feelings of not deserving a seat at their table.

The nature of research is that the problems faced on the journey (experiments not working for whatever reason, chemical reactions failing, etc.) will not exactly mirror those that others face. Despite the hard work that goes into science, sometimes experiments simply do not work, and have a certain an element of luck. Every researcher’s path is unique.

Besides competition, there are other factors that may exacerbate these feelings. In her book Managing your Mental Health during your PhD, Zoë Ayres uses the term “discriminatory gaslighting” to describe how the feeling of not belonging could be the result of purposeful discrimination and underrepresentation of certain social groups. This term was first coined by Christy Pichichero to describe her experiences of being “othered” throughout her time at university due to being a Black woman. Among such undermining comments were those from other students claiming that she only earned her place at Princeton due to her race.

One issue with discrimination is that it doesn’t always take the form of blatant abuse but can manifest itself more surreptitiously. Not only is this behaviour more difficult to detect and call out, but can in turn trigger feelings of disconnect or that you are overreacting or being sensitive: a common stereotype women across various industries face.

For women in science, discriminatory gaslighting is a recurring issue. A leading factor is the deficit of women not only in higher academic roles (only 9% of chemistry professors are women), but also across research groups more generally. Women are notoriously mistreated in STEM, however it is important to note that IS affects men and women equally, and that this complex issue is derived from a variety of sources, underrepresentation just being one of them.

Overcoming IS should not rest solely on the shoulders of those experiencing it. It is vital that universities and research institutions take measures to address this issue prevalent among ECRs. They might begin by acknowledging openly that these feelings can arise, and students are not alone in experiencing them. Although many have heard of IS, if PhD supervisors directly addressed this issue, this would validate  students in their research group experiencing it.

In general, supervisors should be approachable, listen to concerns and direct students to helpful resources such as university counselling when necessary. Furthermore, positive feedback from supervisors can also go a long way, and can motivate students to work confidently and consistently. The obsession with the next project can be destructive and undermine the progress a researcher has already made.

Preventive measures should be made paramount, however there are some key reminders and actions that may help impostor-type thoughts:

1.     Reignite your passion for research. It can be easy to get lost in the details of a research project, so reconnect with your passion for science and remind yourself why your project is worth doing. Going to talks, conferences, and reading papers can excite you about science in general and be a source of inspiration.

2.     Remember your supervisor chose you for a reason. Landing a PhD position is highly competitive, and your supervisor saw something in you that put you above others. You may feel you tricked your professor into choosing you, but remember that they have interviewed many students, and know what they are looking for.

3.     Avoid making your research your entire life. There are so many other elements of your identity that need nurturing, and time at university presents the perfect opportunity to develop new or old hobbies and interests. Spending time outside the lab or office with your group can also give you a much needed mental break.

4.     Engage less with those that are neither constructive nor supportive. Seek out group members you can trust and relate to. If there is no one in your research group directly, try to connect with others from across departments and disciplines. Also remember that arrogant group members are often over-compensating due to their own insecurities.

5. Seek professional help when needed. Don’t be ashamed to speak to a professional when things get tough. Remind yourself that impostor syndrome is a real problem, and you deserve the same help as those going through other mental health struggles.