Practical advice on how to overcome the Impostor Syndrome

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A couple of factors make my Ph.D. experience unique.

One, I am doing a Ph.D. on something I never practised before in the field — not without considering marketing is actually applied microeconomics or treating communications as a signalling device. After 14 years of working in marketing and communications, diving straight into a Ph.D. in Economics is deemed by many a crazy move. In the first place, it is also a shift from full-time work to full-time studies.

Two, I often find myself in the company of classmates who are mostly way younger than I am. As some classes are shared by masters and doctoral students, the diversity in age and personalities is very pronounced. These heterogeneous classes would have, in some cases, a 20-year gap between the youngest and oldest students in class (I happen to have a 15-year gap with the youngest; so even then, there’s still someone older than me most of the time). This diversity has mostly positive effects that I appreciate; one of which is that young guns and the old ones seem to share complementary roles in understanding issues where the old ones provide some wisdom, the young ones would easily and confidently assemble in mathematically superior arguments. What the older students like me lack in mathematical tools is compensated by real-world experience. Conversely, what the young ones lack in real-world experience is compensated by their strong mathematical dexterity.

These two factors contribute to a unique learning experience for me. I personally find it enriching most of the time. But the experience also often leaves me open to The Impostor Syndrome.  It is that nagging feeling that you are in the wrong place or that you are constantly insufficient or that the work you produce would never be adequate relative to the degree of intensity a doctorate requires.

As my first time back in school ends as the term ends (final grades are out!), I look back at those moments in which I found myself vulnerable, weak, insufficient, inadequate or simply suffering from the Impostor Syndrome.

Because I joined the programme on the third term of the year, I have had to go straight into specialised graduate courses (specifically, Labour Economics and Economics of Regional Integration) without learning the language (largely mathematical economics, econometrics and mathematical statistics for economists) and its core economic theories (microeconomics and macroeconomics). In other words, I went straight into its applications and have had to deal with it at a graduate-level intensity.

The Impostor Syndrome is real, and it has an unsettling way of creating a setback (mentally, emotionally and maybe even physically) if left unchecked.

Spotting it

It’s not always easy to spot it. Sometimes you think you are a-OK, but you start writing that paper and you realise that, it turns out, you don’t believe in what you have written so far and have no idea why you are doing, thinking, and writing that way. You find that it simply isn’t you or that it isn’t how you want to do it. In this scenario, you feel that the work is inadequate because you are not in the work. That, it might be the case if you were given a choice to do something else, you would not think twice about it. A sense that might lead to quitting because you feel that, ultimately, you are not in the right place.

This syndrome also manifests in more overt ways. Moments of arguably quite destructive self-doubt leaving you wondering all the time if you are even cut out for the job. That, maybe you are not cut out to be a doctor because you look around and all you see is how far along your new peers have progressed towards becoming one and all you have in the bag is some seemingly irrelevant experience and stock knowledge. You start to wonder if doing something else would yield you more gains without having to go through the pangs of self-doubt.

Fortunately, I think knowing that you are experiencing these things indicates you have a high degree of self-awareness which the job requires. Self-awareness is the potent antidote self-loathing.

Some practical advice

It has just been one term of potentially eight terms for me, so I cannot claim to have earned a Ph.D. in managing The Impostor Syndrome. Who knows, the Impostor Syndrome, knock on wood, might eventually take me out of the game. I sure hope not!

But what I have learnt this term is that The Impostor Syndrome is something you can address and manage. Life as a Ph.D. student is already difficult even without considering other external factors like peer pressure, quality of professors, the volume and velocity at which even more work is created. You, edit, WE do not need to make it even harder by giving into the desperate whirlpool of The Impostor Syndrome. It would only make our lives unnecessarily even harder than it already is!

The first step to managing The Impostor Syndrome, IMHO, is to have that intellectual honesty to accept that you know nothing. We are all Jon Snows in this regard. To accept that we are all doing what we are doing in the pursuit of highest possible learning is to let yourself be absolutely open to it tabula rasa. That way, everything that comes to you is fresh and exciting. It could be hard, indeed, but you would still find the difficulty in which you find yourself nourishing and exciting. To a certain degree, it allows you to find pleasure even as you scale the pain. Be honest enough to say “I don’t know it” when you really don’t. Assuming you know everything only to find yourself disappointed because you don’t will make the syndrome emerge and persist.

The second step is equally important: maintain a high degree of openness to failure. Sometimes the pressure of being a graduate student forces us to think that the only way to learn is to excel at everything. Sure, we want that. Who wouldn’t? But the reality of learning experiences is that we learn best and appreciate such learning if we are open enough to fail at it. Success is not always the only way to know that you have learnt; sometimes it takes a major failure to catapult you to an optimal level of performance. A setback does not have to be permanent either. You can set treat that setback as a reminder that you are, after all, human and, thus, prone to make mistakes. In the end, it is not so much the failure itself that defines you as a Ph.D. student, it is how you react to such failure that will characterise what kind of Ph.D. you would be in the long run. Knowing and accepting that one can fail — and how one might fail — is as great as seeing where not to go ahead of time. Or, in the scenario where one heads that direction, knowing that one failed and how is also great in knowing how much harder one must push to spin out of that state.

The third step is to be constantly supportive of others in your group. Indeed, the pursuit of that Ph.D. is a choice an individual makes, but it seems to me that, in most cases, it is not created individually. Rather, it is created by a community. Eventually the outcomes you gain are not solely yours, which is not bad. It makes the work more efficient and the nuance provided by being in a community working towards the same goal more textured and nuanced. The gains are much greater this way. The more we realise we are in a community, the more we can contribute to the community and the less we would feel inadequate or insufficient. The support we give and receive allows us to be better. It hits the very core of destructive existential moments of self-doubt. Our communities — including our familial support systems — not only help validate what we are here for; it also leverages on each other’s strength to address what we might think are our incompetence or inadequacy.

Generality

It seems to me that The Impostor Syndrome is not exclusive to graduate students. It is also something that I experienced when shifting career paths or categories of corporate work. One is easy to fall into the trap of doubting oneself even after being successfully hired. Questions like “would I ever be enough?” and “would I ever win this thing?” arise when one is either entirely new or when facing daunting challenges at work. It is not always easy; as anything that is worth fighting for anyway should be, in the first place, hard, daunting, and overwhelming. But we should live for those moments and enjoy the process of being new, edit, always being new. That way, our learning never stops no matter the challenges that belie the situation. And that way, too, we never cease to find simple joys even in the midst of difficulty.

 

 

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers

– Kobayashi Issa

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