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Understanding Imposter Syndrome and How to Cope

Many candidates earning their Ph.D. or professional doctorate are no stranger to imposter syndrome, the common belief resulting in an individual doubting their worth or validity of accomplishments. Imposter syndrome is not limited to those going through their doctoral process, but can also touch upon those in professional and everyday life. According to Zach Reeves-Burton in his article, Grad15: Talking about imposter syndrome, “By some estimates, over 70% of graduate students will face imposter syndrome at some point in their academic career, yet many of these students suffer in silence.”

Although imposter syndrome can feel isolating, it is important to remember the phenomenon affects many candidates in all different stages of their doctoral process. Imposter syndrome can make one feel as though even though they are putting in hard-work, they do not deserve to be in the position they are or deserve what rewards they have coming towards them. James Hayton, Ph.D., describes his relationship with imposter syndrome. Hayton(2017) states, “During my PhD, there were times when I felt I shouldn't be there. Some of the other students in the research group were ridiculously smart, and while I was struggling to get even the roughest of results, they were publishing article after article and presenting their work at international conferences. Many of them had done their undergraduate degrees at the same university, so their supervisors had known who they were recruiting, but I had moved from Sheffield to Nottingham and always had the slight feeling that I had bluffed my way in and would, eventually, be found out.”

A common theme within imposter syndrome is the idea of being “found out,” due to the feeling that a candidate is not qualified to be in their position, even if he or she is putting in the necessary work and research. In order to cope with this mindset, it is possible to switch to a more positive mindset that allows empathy towards oneself instead of fear and resentment within. Hayton(2017) states, “If you think of yourself as a beginner, the question is no longer whether you are good enough, but how to get better. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being enthusiastically open about your weaknesses, it frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. This is a much more positive outlook.”

Switching from the “imposter mindset” to a “beginner mindset” allows room for growth and expansion, rather than the idea that a candidate should know all and is a fraud if they do not. This mindset allows the candidate to be kinder to themselves, and in turn complete their doctoral journey with an overall healthier mindset. By using this method to cope with imposter syndrome, the candidate opens up more doors that allow them to welcome the expansion of growth and knowledge without shame.

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