Day 1 Emotions and the PhD: Introduction and Confidence

Embarking on a PhD marks the beginning of a long journey that inevitably has a series of ups and downs. You are likely to experience a range of emotions that are both positive and negative; sometimes emotions that might feel negative can also act as a positive force. All of these feelings are likely to be heightened just now as HDRs work from home, trying to stay focused on research with all sorts of distractions in the mix. Our purpose in this Pomodoro Break is to learn to recognise and harness those positive and negative feelings so they are less disruptive to your journey.

Photo by Zach Callahan on Unsplash

A high percentage of HDRs report poor mental health, citing stressors such as financial concerns, time pressure and lack of social contact. 40% feel under constant strain; 40% of HDRs at one UK university said that doing a PhD had worsened their health, both physical and mental; and more than 40% of HDRs report symptoms associated with depression, emotion or stress-related problems, or high levels of stress. The disruptions of 2020 add to the existing challenges, and the isolation of working from home can make it all that much harder. The mental health of HDRs has become such a big concern that the First International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers was held last year at the University of Sussex, UK.

Recent figures show that around a quarter of those who do start on the PhD journey in Australia quit before they finish (Higher Degrees by Research, 2007-2017); disturbingly, most of them believe their failure to complete the degree is their own fault (Lovitts, 2001), so they say little about that decision to others. This results in ‘pluralistic ignorance’ – all these people are unaware that their experience is shared by others, and that their experience is often a result of the system itself (Lovitts, 2001).

There are a number of elements playing into your current feelings about your research and your sense of yourself as a researcher. Over the course of this week, we are going to look at 8 of the key emotions HDRs commonly experience during doctoral studies: confidence, frustration, loneliness, fear, curiosity, boredom, passion, and love. We’ll unpack the circumstances in which these emotions often come into play, thereby making it a little easier to manage some of these feelings.

ACTIVITY: To start our week, could you please introduce yourself to the other participants via the Comments at the bottom of this page? Let us know how far into your candidature you are, and why you are interested in joining us on the Pomodoro Break this week (max 200 words). You are welcome to use a pseudonym if you choose, or email your comment direct to me and I can upload it for you without a name attached if you would like to remain anonymous.

CONFIDENCE

First up on our emotions list is Confidence, which often seems to get a bit of a battering during the PhD journey. Of course, having too much confidence can be just as much a problem as having too little confidence. It can be useful to understand where we fit along the spectrum.

Imposter syndrome

Lack of confidence can present itself as ‘imposter syndrome’. Coping with the imposter syndrome can be difficult as it provokes complex, even contradictory, behaviours. Although imposter syndrome sufferers might appear successful, they don’t experience themselves that way. For a research student, the imposter syndrome can be crippling.

Cowman and Ferrari (2002) list the behaviours, beliefs and coping strategies described in the literature; you will note that some of these appear to be in active conflict with each other.

  • A belief that success is the result of chance
  • A belief that hard work is always necessary to get results
  • A tendency to put off working till the last minute
  • A tendency to overwork
  • Self-sabotage
  • Dissatisfaction with success
  • Avoidance behaviours, especially towards negative feedback
  • Constant doubt, worry and anxiety about future tasks
  • Intense feelings of shame

The legal requirements for ethical conduct of research do mean the consequences of mistakes can be severe (e.g., loss of professional credibility, loss of employment). The high-stakes nature of research is likely to feed the anxiety of those suffering from imposter syndrome.

Perversely, more success does not help imposter syndrome sufferers feel better: success can be attributed to ‘luck’ or that circumstances came together by chance rather than effort. In fact, success can magnify the effects of the syndrome as it often brings increased responsibility and visibility with it.

Signs of imposter syndrome

When you think about it, academia is the perfect breeding ground for imposter syndrome; it is a fiercely competitive environment where HDRs and academics are constantly being evaluated by peers. Many of these experiences can knock your confidence. For HDRs, it can feel like you’ve been a ‘student’ for too long; publication processes can be lengthy and convoluted, accompanied by peer review that is not always kind; workload is relatively unbounded, making it difficult to assess when enough is enough; boundaries between work and home are often impossibly blurred (especially at the moment with our campus closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak); and the job market on completion is tight. It is no wonder that so many constantly worry about the quality of their work and then overwork in an effort to compensate.

Some signs a research student might be suffering from imposter syndrome are:

  • Reluctance to present their work for evaluation.
  • Unwillingness to challenge supervisor opinion or ideas.
  • A constant state of uncertainty about what they really think and believe in relation to their research.
  • An ever-expanding article collection but corresponding lack of progress on a literature review.
  • Overworking, particularly if coupled with signs of anxiety and stress.
  • Reluctance to try new techniques and procedures.
  • Lack of satisfaction with success with corresponding fixation on possible failure in the future.
  • Extended candidature time and/or reluctance to finish because the work is ‘not ready’.

Does any of this sound familiar? Displaying some of these behaviours does not necessarily mean you have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but it might alert you to some of the self-sabotaging behaviours that contribute to feeling this lack of confidence.

Watch this video by Lucy fromPhDiaries – she speaks from firsthand experience as a PhD candidate.

 

ACTIVITY: Have a look at the Thinkwell Questionnaire here for a short self-assessment of your feelings of confidence. The score interpretations below the questionnaire will help you understand your responses.

What can you do about feelings of imposter syndrome?

  • Acknowledge your feelings as legitimate, but not reasonable.
  • Identify an area where you think you are weak; then work through it in order to notice how much you already know.
  • Identify strengths by looking back at examples of successful work, positive reviews, and other accomplishments.
  • Accept that it is ok that some tasks may not be done perfectly.
  • Challenge your language choices. If you find yourself using the word ‘lucky’ in relation to achievement, such as getting grant or publishing a paper, remember what you did to earn it: ‘luck’ can be the collision of determination and opportunity.

Practice on the people around you – it is likely that other HDRs are experiencing very similar feelings of being an imposter. When you see them exhibit the behaviours listed above, remind them of their strengths and offer alternative interpretations when they attribute their success to luck.

ACTIVITY: Do you recognise any of these unconfident behaviours in yourself? Share a brief description of the moment when you were aware of it, and then tell us what you might say to a friend who found themselves doing/feeling the same way. How can you counteract these feelings to help someone build a solid foundation for more appropriate assessment of their abilities?

Please note: the topics we explore this week can stir up some uncomfortable responses. You are more than welcome to email me off-site to arrange a chat. I’m posting from Adelaide – where we have phones and video link-up for conversations!

References:

Bothello, J., & Roulet, T. J. (2018). The imposter syndrome, or the mis-representation of self in academic life. Journal of Management Studies56(4), 854-861.

Cowman, S. E. & Ferrari, J.R. (2002). ‘Am I for Real?’ Predicting imposter tendencies from self-handicapping and affective components. Social Behaviour and Personality, 30(2), 119-126.

Lovitts, B.E. (2001) Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Plus some further information:

Escape the Ivory Tower

Imposter syndrome & academic writing

Academic conferences & imposter syndrome

16 Comments

  1. Morning everyone. My name is Catherine and I am about one month into my candidature (sociology). I joined this week’s group as I have lots of history dealing with difficult emotions and in particular, impostor syndrome! I’m feeling it right now as I have lost all confidence in my proposed subject area and I’m just waiting for someone to tell me I don’t know enough to be here!

    1. Hi Catherine – I think it’s even harder than usual to feel confident when there’s so little uni life to engage with at present! We start the discussion with imposter syndrome because it is such a familiar feeling for many of us (I count myself in this category). Most people start their PhD with the opportunity to find a few like-minded buddies in the office or at the seminar, people who help you feel that you fit in okay. Since that is not so readily available at the moment, it leaves even more room for self doubt. Have you had a go at the exercise of thinking through what you would say to a friend in a similar position?

  2. Good Morning People, I am Chitresh Saraswat, I am almost 9-10 months in my PhD. I sometime feels very excited and motivated to write papers and continue research but sometime its just scare me that others are smarter and better in research skills (almost everything in life). Mostly, I feel that I am not bringing anything new to the table and sometime I stop myself to submit my work to supervisor that it is not good enough and I need more time to make it better.

    1. Hi Chitresh – welcome to the conversation! You are describing the same feelings that so many of us experience. I think that letting go of perfection is really important, since the goal posts keep shifting at this advanced level (as soon as you do one thing well or achieve a certain level, reviewers/supervisors then want more and even better!). It can be really useful to talk to supervisors about what they expect from you – often they want see what you are doing/writing even when it still needs lots of work. Seeing incomplete work means that they can offer feedback before you’ve spent a whole lot of time heading off in the wrong direction, or they can say ‘Great, keep going!’. And it is often easier to receive feedback on something that you know needs work, rather than submitting something that you think is fabulous and then getting lots of advice on how to change it.

  3. Hi everyone, my name is Dori, I’m 3 years into my PhD and currently I’m working on writing up my dissertation. I don’t think I have major issues with confidence, but I have been experiencing a lot of frustration and anger in the last months, primarily directed towards my supervisors. I’m losing trust in them, considering finding someone who has more time to support me, and if I was less stubborn to finish what I started, this would be the time when I throw away the entire thing and just get a proper job… Which I won’t do, because I know this will be over, I just need to work hard and hope for the best. Nevertheless, this course comes at the best time and I’m looking forward to the activities and discussions.

    1. Hi Dori – that does sound like a very tricky stage to be in! Relationships with supervisors can be very challenging and often do change over time; added to that, the first few months of 2020 have had even more distractions and demands on us all than usual. Use that stubbornness to help yourself stick with it and prove to everyone (including yourself) that your project is important and worthwhile.

  4. Hi everyone. My name is Katie. I am in the second month of my PhD (Museum and Heritage Studies). I have anxiety, which is definitely exacerbated by expectations, set both by myself and by external stakeholders. I used to suffer from imposter syndrome quite badly, but have been dealing with it for long enough that I’ve developed strategies! Positive self-talk is very helpful, as are affirmations that I write down. Maintaining my social and familial relationships keeps me grounded and keeping firm boundaries between work and life stops those feelings from creeping into my everyday life as much!

    1. Hi Katie – it sounds like you have built up some really useful experience for dealing with the feelings that often seem to plague HDRs. I like the idea of writing down some affirmations as valuable reminders of the other ways you can see yourself and your achievements. And, as you say, other people who are close to you can also play a very helpful part in keeping those doubts in check. I look forward to hearing more about your strategies for managing these feelings.

  5. Hi everyone, I’m Jess and I’m about 3 months into my PhD (Psychology). As I’m fairly new to HDR I thought it would be good to take this course and see what sort of emotions might come up as I progress throughout my PhD and get some ideas on how to manage them early!

    1. Hello Jess – welcome to the discussion! Your background in Psychology will be very helpful to us all – I think your understanding of what’s going on for HDRs will be much more sophisticated than my starting points for our reflections (and then that makes me wonder which bit of my own imposter syndrome is kicking in…!). Looking forward to your contributions 🙂

  6. Hi all, I’m Cara and I’m just starting my third month in my PhD in ecology. I wanted to join in this discussion to try and help set good habits and precedents for myself now so I can have a sustainable and healthy candidature.

    1. Welcome to the conversation, Cara! It’s great to establish good habits of thinking, too, at this early stage of condidature. I look forward to hearing more about your insights into what seems to be working well.

  7. Hi everyone, great to hear where you are all coming from and reasons for taking this course. I’m Emma and I’m two years into my phd and am taking a further 3 months off after 6 months of maternity leave. I can definitely relate to a lot of the “signs” of imposter syndrome and would usually overwork to compensate for perceived lack of skill. But! I started my phd when my first son was 10months old so this has actually ensured more of a balance and less perfectionism by necessity 🙂

    1. Hi Emma – welcome! The sense of pressure to work harder and harder is hard to resist. Identifying the behaviours is a good start, and then reflecting on how you want to manage them is the next step. Sounds like the other parts of your life help to keep the feelings in check – to some extent at least!

  8. Hello everyone! I am in my third year of my PhD. Today’s article really resonated with me – I feel like I constantly struggle with imposter syndrome and it can be difficult to move past the crippling feelings it brings. That was one of my main reasons for joining this course. When these feelings develop, I have to tried to remind myself of my strengths and to do some mindfulness exercises. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When friends share similar experiences or feelings of imposter syndrome, I remind them how hard working they are and that it wasn’t just random or luck that they got to the place they are in today. It’s funny how it can be so difficult to listen to your own advice though.

    1. Welcome to the discussions, T! Imposter syndrome is endlessly challenging, and doesn’t seem to dissolve with more experience and more success, unfortunately. The university system sometimes feels like it is set up to ensure that this lack of confidence is constantly brought into the foreground.
      I like the idea of doing mindfulness exercises to stop the negative thinking that can spiral round and round. Do listen to the good advice you offer your friends – I’m sure it is actually very wise and sensible 🙂
      I’m not sure that the job is to eradicate signs of imposter syndrome all together (and there is certainly a place for humility in our lives and our work). Rather, I think it’s helpful to notice when you feel overly discouraged by those feelings, acknowledge it and then decide on appropriate ways to respond. For me this is a life-long exercise – deep breaths before plunging forward can help too…

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