Experiencing impostor syndrome: walking up the down escalator

I shouldn’t really be here. But since I am, let me introduce myself.

I am the impostor – the researcher who thinks that he isn’t good enough, that your work is better, that everyone is looking at him thinking, “what’s he doing here?”, that he doesn’t fit in, and that he’s about to be found out for being a fraud. Sound familiar? Does it sound like you, perhaps?

In my case, I convinced myself I was an impostor from the start of my PhD research.

I embarked on my PhD in my mid-40s, more than twenty years after graduating. I had a family, I had a business, and the only way I could attempt to do research was as a self-funded, part-time graduate student.

I remembered back to my own undergraduate days – studying physics at Southampton, should you ask – recalling that strange, older mature student who occasionally came into the department and seminars, and who didn’t seem to ‘fit in’. That’s me.

However, I’m convinced that everyone thinks they are not ‘worthy’ – though not all are willing to admit to it. The nature of research, perhaps science research in particular, is about delving into areas where we don’t know things for sure. You’re always working on the boundary between knowledge and not-knowing, and that all plays into the angst of feeling like the ‘impostor’, but ultimately that’s how the field progresses.

The first couple of years were like trying to walk up the down escalator.

What age gives you in terms of wisdom, it takes away with being unable to remember things. I began to feel less impostor-like when I gave my first departmental short talk about my work to a friendly crowd lobbing nice, simple questions about my research.

As the rooms got bigger, the talks longer, the crowd less familiar and the questions slightly more technical, the better I felt about being able to call myself a legitimate researcher and less of an ‘impostor’.

And the day that I argued successfully over a very particular technical point with my supervisor, I realized that I could take off the ‘impostor’ mask at last.

As I approach the final months of writing up my thesis, the impostor mask occasionally slips back on (surely the external examiners will spot some elementary error on page 1?). But I think that impostor syndrome isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it keeps you grounded, and as someone recently admitted to me, they have made friends with their impostor syndrome.

Anyway – must go now, but if anyone asks… you didn’t see me.

Julian Mayers is a part-time PhD researcher at the University of Sussex, and is currently studying X-ray emissions associated with astrophysical phenomena which help us to estimate the masses of Supermassive Black Holes.

When he takes his X-ray specs off, he runs Yada-Yada Productions, an online video and audio production company, and occasionally makes radio documentaries for the BBC.