Last week I felt something that I’ve felt building for some time: a sense that I was incapable of completing my PhD. It was that nauseating feeling that there was something wrong with me. Overthinker or obsessive? Perfectionist or slow? Surely, the grass is greener somewhere else.
I know I’m not alone. Imposter anxieties are common among research students. There’s a lot of self-help out there – from blogs to workshops. However, much of the focus is on what individuals can do to help themselves, and that’s a problem. By taking ownership for the solution, students risk ignoring the systemic failures which eat away at their self-efficacy.
For one thing, a sense of inadequacy is sure to prevail when institutions measure people not in terms of their personal growth or development but in terms of output. In universities, we equate inquiry with ‘producing research’. Curiously, in a sector which prides itself on the pursuit of knowledge and learning, there seems to be little time or appetite for intellectual endeavour which can’t be published or presented in some way.
By accepting this corporate logic as just the ‘way it is’, the system socialises us to see ourselves through what we produce. Our identity becomes intertwined with our writing. A sense of alienation and self-criticism ensues. We obsess about details. Stylistic, structural or logical errors become internalised as personal flaws. Failure to publish leads to crippling self-doubt and a sense that we don’t belong in the academic community.
Exacerbating this situation are simple practical issues which can plague a student’s ability to just do their work. Academics are often overworked, and so important emails can remain unanswered for extended periods of time. Moreover, in terms of physically being able to study, graduates in many universities often have to battle with other students for a desk in ‘shared’ study spaces.
Added to this there are wider cultural issues in higher education which can have the effect of turning students unfairly in on themselves for answers. Universities are deeply hierarchical and networked organisations. People talk. They have friends in high places. So, protesting about supervisory arrangements can mean risking further opportunities after graduation. Some students come to feel that if they want to get ahead, they had best keep quiet and accept a bad situation. It’s up to them to change, not the institution.
To cap it off, at the end of it all, we seem to want to celebrate the fact that we ‘made it through.’ Think about it – what are we actually celebrating? Our hard work or something else? Where it is the case, we have to stop treating the trauma of experiencing a bad culture as a badge of honour. This isn’t to say doing research is or should be easy. It’s hard work, demands immense individual effort and always will.
What it does mean though is that we shouldn’t be taking the blame for all of the anxieties we experience. This is not by any means to downplay the important role of professional mental health advice and support. However, it is a call to be fairer to ourselves and recognise that a person’s mental health is connected to their environment too. While it might be unfashionable to link politics with mental health, ultimately we cannot disconnect institutional reform from wellbeing.
In the long term, we may never get rid of imposter anxieties, but we can try to reduce them. There are plenty of good people out there trying to help in a less-than-perfect system, including caring supervisors and research friends. Right now, we can try to manage – not just by reaching out to others and caring for ourselves, but also by imagining and fighting for a better culture of higher education.
If this is something you’re worried about, please try and reach out to someone. Warwick’s Wellbeing Support Services have a range of help available, and the SU’s Advice Centre offers impartial advice from outside the university.
If you want to read some more about experiences of imposter syndrome, why not check out Ana Kedves’ post ‘All the academia’s a stage…’ or if you’re looking for support with supervisors, take a look at Ellie King’s blog on Supervising Your Supervisors.
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