Coping with impostor syndrome as a postgraduate student

Every student gets nervous before they begin something new. It could be a new subject, a new university, or a completely new country. The anxiety of knowing you have got your place to study but not knowing if you are good enough is very common. Here are some tips for coping with impostor syndrome as a postgraduate student.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a common thought process that leaves individuals doubting their own skills and abilities. Often coping with imposter syndrome makes people feel like they are incompetent, or a fraud, or they are not worthy.

Our masters scholarship winner Marjana recently shared her honest assessment of the change from undergraduate study to a masters degree at a top UK university. Her previous qualifications were all in science, so adjusting to studying a master’s in business gave her additional stress.

‘.......As it got closer to the course start date in September 2021, I also remember feeling as if everyone would have finance and business backgrounds apart from me’.

The familiar is no longer reliable

Most of us recognise that starting something new in unfamiliar surroundings is bound to be stressful. Starting a new job is probably the clearest example of this. Not only do you have to deal with different surroundings and colleagues you actually have to prove that you can do the job that you have been hired to do.

Universities acknowledge this issue and many of them offer support. Universities that attract the most competition for study places, or substantial investment in research funding are aware that the environment can be very intimidating.

It’s not unusual for students at masters level to feel that a PhD may be a step too far

The worry of whether you will be taken seriously applies whether you are finishing your postgraduate degree, or you are returning back to study. Suddenly you are mixing with research supervisors and renowned academic professors.

And the feeling applies whether it’s only been a few years since you left school or you have left behind an established career in business.

Talking to professors and faculty staff, participating in conferences and high-level networking with likeminded researchers, producing original insight that contributes to new knowledge are all components of your time as a PhD researcher.

A research-led university is shaped by the people within it

In the UK the research-intensive universities are at the forefront of the UK knowledge economy. The leadership of these institutions recognise that the status that they have earned is built on the knowledge and expertise of the teams of people who have enable these achievements.

This activity is not driven my robots. Universities are acutely aware that they have an obligation to help students and researchers receive the support and guidance they need to reach their full potential. Otherwise, they are wasting their time and investment.

Techniques for dealing with impostor syndrome

  • Listen to yourself and recognise the feelings
  • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes
  • Failure is a necessary part of the route to success
  • Know your strengths
  • Embrace opportunities

Listen to yourself and recognise the feelings

Everyone experiences occasional feelings of impostor syndrome throughout their academic journey.

Where it starts to get so that you are finding everyday activities a struggle then don’t put it to the back of your mind and ignore it. All UK universities have student support services in place that are set up to provide listening and mentoring support.

Remember that coping with impostor syndrome as a postgraduate student does not exempt academic staff and researchers. You may assume that if you are already well down the road on your academic or professional journey. You may reason that such concerns should have left you long ago when you were starting out.

There is no shame in expressing how you feel. Breaking the silence is the first step towards recognising what you are experiencing and finding ways to work through it.

You are far from alone in feeling this way and people you assume to be immune to these feelings can experience them just as strongly.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

The anxiety we experience when we make a mistake can be pretty intense. These feelings arise through pressure from family and peers, and they can be toxic. If you are already feeling as a masters or PhD student that ‘you don’t’ belong’ or ‘should not be there’ then something which is trivial can appear magnified.

In a learning situation this can make the student lose their voice or willingness to share their opinions. Being silenced by thinking that what you want to contribute will be wrong or not good enough means everyone will miss out on your contribution. And in most cases, you will be surprised how many of your peers agree with your view.

Failure is a necessary part of the route to success

The scientific method is built on experimentation, and therefore failure is built into the process. Failing is one of the oldest human traits but it has become linked with embarrassment. We put enormous pressure on ourselves to succeed, and none more so than in academic situations.

Its not easy to let go of your inner perfectionist. Academic study naturally attracts people who are high achievers, and it is understandable to expect everything you turn your hand to, to come out well. But that’s not realistic, and remember that in any field of research you will probably be collaborating within a team.

Building strategies for working with others will help you to strengthen your sense of self-worth.

The key thing about coping with impostor syndrome is not to be afraid of failure, because it is part of the learning process, and through failing you can reframe your experience as a learning opportunity.

Know your strengths

No one can be fully confident in an academic situation from the get-go. Reflection on the steps that led you to that university place or research project can really help make sense of your situation, and you can draw comfort from the achievements you have made.

There will be moments in the future when others will look to you and your knowledge to solve problems or improve situations. Remember to accept praise from your colleagues as they are a recognition of your contribution.

Embrace opportunities

University life is not 100% study. There are many opportunities open to masters and PhD researchers to take on new challenges or participate in activities that are nothing to do with your subject. These will help to build a sense of inclusion within the university environment.

Coping with impostor syndrome should not dominate your life as a postgraduate student, so recognise the signs and share the ways that work for you.