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.
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.
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.
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
- 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!
Bothello, J., & Roulet, T. J. (2018). The imposter syndrome, or the mis-representation of self in academic life. Journal of Management Studies, 56(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: