“I’m not really as smart as everyone else here”, “When my supervisors read this report, they’ll realise I have no idea what I’m doing…”, “My slides are ok, but they will get to me in the Q&A”…

I was born in a country where people love to wear masks. Late February is the time to put on a disguise, make a lot of noise and shoo the winter and evil spirits away. If you find yourself if this part of Europe, do visit the carnival in Rijeka or Fašnik in Samobor, they are great fun! This period of celebration and feasting is followed by Lent, the time when we take the bright costumes off and reflect.

They’ll kick me out and hire a professional

At this point, I was about to write that PhD is like a carnival. But the more I think about it, the more it resembles being cast in a theatre play.

There are days when you are good at it, you know your lines, the dialogues flow, every detail of your costume is in place, and the audience tears up during the grand finale. And there are days when you stutter, sweat under the wig, and trip clumsily over the set. The fear kicks in – That’s it, hardly anyone clapped tonight, they’ll kick me out and hire a professional…

I am the first one to own up to imposter syndrome. I haven’t taken a single module that dealt with discourse analysis, and somehow I ended up doing a whole PhD on it. I convinced two supervisors and a research council to invest time and money in my project. Getting my first piece of feedback on a written assignment made it glaringly obvious I would have never earned a 1st if I did a UK degree. I have published papers and chapter, but nowhere worth mentioning, really. I am making progress with my thesis, but not fast enough…  Should I go on?

Down the spiral

It is so easy to get caught up in this way of thinking. Encountering and interacting with remarkably intelligent people every day, reading and witnessing cutting-edge research… It is extremely hard not to feel overwhelmed and completely out of place, especially when you have just joined a new institution or started and new project.

I remember getting lost on my first day at campus and arriving late to my PhD induction (despite having laboriously studied the map and asking for directions four times). The room was in Social Sciences complex and, knowing what I know today, of course I wouldn’t beat myself about it, but on the day I felt terribly embarrassed and spent good fifteen minutes studying the carpet before I dared to make eye contact with anyone. It was not a particularly nice carpet and I was not feeling particularly confident about the whole thing.

Closer to the end than the beginning of the journey, I still get that “carpet feeling”. I would like to be fantastic at everything, but there are many things I am unsure of, things I am slow or simply bad at. But guess what? The same goes for everyone.

In carnival colours

Everyone fails sometimes, everyone wonders if they are making enough progress, everyone is scared of something… We all feel like frauds sometimes – that is the big PhD secret and one of the things I have personally found helpful in dealing with imposter syndrome. The other one is experience; the more of it you have, the better you get at your playing your role.

And if we have to fake it and wear masks, I think I would actually prefer a carnival!

It is wonderfully colourful and lively, there are doughnuts, there is music and dancing. And your mask need not be perfect, and it doesn’t matter if you are at the end or the beginning of procession – we are all going in the same direction. 🙂

Have you ever encountered imposter syndrome? How did you fight it? Lightsaber, katana, cake? Let us know in the comments section.

(And if you are not into sci-fi, martial arts or baking, Postgrad Realities might be just as helpful, if not more. Check it out!)

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)