An Imposter Story

Academia is rife with imposter syndrome. Lots of talented people, wondering about whether or not they are really talented, worried that they will be found it. For researchers at postgraduate level, I don’t think imposter syndrome starts with the viva, but the viva can certainly increase worries about being “good enough” or being revealed.

Working against imposter syndrome takes time, but perhaps a starting point is understanding that even the most high-achieving people in the world can feel it. Author Neil Gaiman describes meeting an older gentleman at an event who had the same first name as him:

…I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

Neil Armstrong worried that he was an imposter. Neil Armstrong!

If you worry about doing enough, chances are your examiners do. Perhaps your supervisor does. Some of your colleagues certainly will. And knowing that is not enough to banish your own feelings, but if you realise that lots of people struggle, that you’re not alone, perhaps you can start to work against it.

Seek help. Ask questions. Share with your community. Find out what people do to realise that they are good enough.

Because if you’ve submitted your thesis and your viva is coming up, you MUST be good enough. You’ve earned this. You are good enough. You might not banish imposter syndrome with ease, but you can work through some of the worries that come with it. You can start to feel better.

Take one small step to begin with.

Beginner and Expert

You’ve been a beginner with your research. How well do you remember that?

  • What was it like to know a lot less than now?
  • What did you struggle with?
  • What were the breakthrough moments for you?

It’s important to think back to being a beginner – by contrast you will see the progress you have made since then.

Now you’re an expert. You’ll know that means you don’t know everything – perhaps at times you’re awkwardly, painfully aware of that.

That’s fine for your viva: expert as you are, you’re not expected to know everything.

You’ve been a beginner, you are an expert. You don’t know everything, but you know enough.

And you’re good enough.

What’s On Your Mind?

Probably a lot.

101 questions, about life, the state of the world, what you’ll be doing in six months, what you’ll be doing next year…

What’s for dinner, what will happen in that show I like, should I call so-and-so, what am I forgetting…

And then you think about your viva.

Now 1001 questions.

What will happen? What will they ask? What do I do? What can I say? What do I say if they ask about that question or topic or thing I don’t like? What should I do? What could I do? Will they like it? When will I know?

And at the root of it all: Am I ready? Am I good enough?

Don’t drown in questions. Get them out. Write them down. Tell someone. Ask someone to help. Ask someone for information or advice.

But at the root of it all: Are you ready? You can be. Are you good enough? You will be.