‘Incredibly ill-equipped hulk anxiety’ | Sarah


Sarah (@postlesbian) is a first-year PhD student based at Queen Mary, Univerisity of London. Her research aims to explore the influence of queer theory on lesbian performance. Outside of the PhD…wait, there’s life beyong the PhD? For more information on her research and other problems, visit Feminist Inspector

This semester I began my PhD journey and I have discovered a new and previously unidentified phenomena. Despite my numerous hours in the library and attendance at various research seminars, my original idea is not one for my thesis but a diagnosis of another aspect of PhD Life. Not far removed from the much suffered Imposter Syndrome, I have identified Incredibly Ill-equipped Hulk Anxiety (IIHA).

Similar to: Imposter Syndrome; Inferiority Complex


At this point the findings indicate the root cause of IIHA is a change of Higher Education Institution.

Having completed my BA and MA at the same university my first move was at PhD level. Although my former institution was a highly regarded red brick Russell Group university, theatre was not the biggest jewel in its crown. Although, being fairly aware of how the PhD program works at my former university I am certain that I would not suffer IIHA if I had stayed. This is not to say that my current university is better but it is on the cutting edge of theatre research, the drama department is its crown jewel.

My undergraduate program was traditional, offering a historical overview, working through Aristotle to Postmodern theatre. It was only in the final year of undergraduate study, when studying contemporary theatre that was I able to find my niche. My MA study took a more global stance introducing me to some work beyond Oedipus and Ireland but the dissertation was my real opportunity to focus on the kind of theatre I found fascinating.  Given my research interests, I was drawn towards undertaking a PhD at a more modern department. I hadn’t for a moment considered that there might be a gap in my knowledge.


The prominent symptom is anger. Irrational, incessant ire that is difficult to overcome. This is often directed towards previous education establishments; it can often be followed by petulant feelings of unfairness, culminating with a sense of being let down.

It took me a long time to work out what was wrong. I was religiously attending weekly research training classes and fortnightly research seminars and feeling like I was drowning with nothing to grab onto. At this point it’s important to mention that although many of those undertaking a PhDs in my department have also moved intuitions, most have come from other large theatre departments with similar forward thinking curriculums. At first I wondered if I’d been out of the game too long after taking a year out between my MA and PhD or if I was just dumb and wouldn’t ever be able to make sense of anything. Some concepts I’d heard of but didn’t really know the ins and outs, others I was encountering for the first time, but everything was assumed as a given. Nobody was taking about the Greeks and I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

With this realization there was anger. I felt completely betrayed by my previous years of study. If an undergraduate was supposed to instil the foundations of knowledge, I had foundations for a shack; everyone else had a foundation strong enough for a three-story mansion. My knowledge was archaic in comparison and I was fretting about how I would possibly be able to continue with a PhD if I was already so behind.

Should I see my supervisor?

An important part of overcoming IIHA is starting to defuse the symptoms by working towards a level playing field.

Im going to preface this by saying my supervisor is awesome. When they asked me to sum up my first semester and I began a diatribe about how I couldnt possibly continue any further because I didnt know anything, they didn’t even flinch. Which was a really good thing as I was already kicking myself mid-ramble for unveiling my major flaw but by that point it was too late. They immediately diagnosed imposter syndrome (IS) and began to smooth those ruffled feathers with soothing tales of how everyone feels that way. It was difficult to articulate the differences between IS and IIHA but I persisted eventually confessing the rage that was boiling within me. I realise now that it was important, for me, to tell my supervisor how I was really feeling rather than just except the soothing because it did something quite unexpected it began to level the playing field. Suddenly I wasn’t alone with my darkest secret, my burden was shared, my supervisor began to offer manageable strategies to help work to increase my knowledge base and most importantly began to make sure I knew about the theories or ideas she was suggesting I look at, suggesting helpful starting point materials. I wasn’t joking when I said awesome. 

Self Help:

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

It gets slightly easier once you admit that you have a got a gap in your knowledge. Or at least it starts to put an end to the vicious cycle of how dumb am I? Honestly, there is something about this lack of knowledge that already makes me feel like a failure, I know I will never be an authority on everything but everyone else seems to know so much more, perhaps a sentiment I am not alone in feeling? Until then I’m checking on the biggest anthologies on the topics that terrify me from the library and using them to find my way in.


This post was originally published in 2013.

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