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Ye Olde Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

Have you ever started a new job, and felt like you're pretending to know what you're doing because you're just not sure enough that you do?

Or, you start at a new school, or graduate to a new year at university; and you feel unsure of your abilities to keep up with the rest of your cohort?

Maybe, like me, you went into a field that required a lot of scientific enquiry and reporting - and being reviewed by your "peers" to have your work published?

I remember those times well, and I remember those feelings when I started my two businesses, too ... If you're going through them now, then know that everyone experiences this "imposter syndrome" at some point. You see, we need to have a learning curve when we start something new. It starts out near zero, and goes uphill the more you learn. But, when you've learned everything, you become an expert, and the curve flattens out - a bit like the learning curve below.

A simple learning curve, showing a slow beginning, followed by steep acceleration, and then a plateau at the end
One version of a "learning curve", credit

Well, that's possibly oversimplifying it! And really, this curve assumes that a person WILL learn the steps they need to know, to accomplish expertise! It doesn't show how hard it can be. And it doesn't show how utterly demoralising it can feel. You either keep quiet, because you're embarrassed that you don't know what you think you're meant to; or you keep asking questions (which is incredibly brave and proactive), but the questions feel like you ask too many too often!

Another learning curve which shows a low start, then  small peak of naive confidence, followed by a dip that shows the realisation of what you still don't know, followed by a rise to the achievement of  mastery.
Another version of a "learning curve", credit

The trick is to see your new situation like a scientist would. We think about previous knowledge and methods used by other researchers to answer similar questions. We then pick the method we think best fits our own question and test it experimentally. Then we describe what we did and what the outcomes were. Finally, we tie it all in with the previous knowledge that we reviewed before starting!

So, how do you apply that to your new situation? First, think about everything that you have already done to get to where you are now. Maybe you have done some courses; maybe you have collected some experiences? Note all of those things down, and then how they relate to your current situation.

Then, think about the processes you used in those previous situations, that could be applied to your current situation.

Before going any further, identify all the people who could help you to learn individual concepts and steps, so you can ask for advice from multiple sources, and not feel like you're harassing just one mentor. Note all these people down in a list, together with sample questions that you can ask. One really good question to ask, when you start a new job, is, "Is there a procedure that I can follow, or a predecessor whom I can ask questions?" This would be helpful when starting an Honours or Masters project, or a PhD! I wish I did!

So now, you have done the equivalent of a literature review for a scientific experiment. You've also considered processes, procedures and predecessors, which would go toward what we call a methodology review. Now, it's time to put it together in a plan and try it out.

One good thing to consider, is the idea of deadlines. Often, in business, we have monthly, quarterly and yearly deadlines. You can ask if there are deadlines, and how to find the information you'll need to meet them. In what format do your reports need to be? To whom do you address them?

I remember one job, very long ago. When I sat for the interview, I clearly said I knew nothing of the type of job I'd be doing and I'd need training. The Group Accountant who interviewed me, said that training would be arranged and added, "Welcome to the company."

I had no training whatsoever for 8 months, and after feeling like a failure (because my supervisor kept turning up once a month wanting one different report each time, without telling me I'd need to produce it), I gave a month's notice of my resignation. I cited the total lack of training, and what do you think happened? I got my training in the last month of my employment there!!

Not helpful!

There have been other jobs that I've just slipped into, and soared. Those have been managerial roles, and promotions. Somebody saw my potential, and gave me opportunities to use my experience and knowledge, and they gave me mentoring. And I loved those roles!! My learning curve was steep and quick, and I felt confident in my abilities to do those jobs extremely well.

But then there was my PhD. Oh, Lordy, it was a trial! First, I was offered a project that I loved, because it meant I'd learn lots of new and exciting skills. I said YES, emphatically. Then, the offer was retracted, and another was offered in it's place. This one was so inferior (in my eyes), because it wouldn't allow me any opportunity to learn anything new.

Finally, I went to a course on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) - a type of brain imaging, that was cutting edge at the time. I listened to speakers talk about their research, and was inspired to come up with my own idea!! My heart pounded with excitement! I was filled to the brim with passion for my new idea. I had to investigate it's feasibility and usefulness, and (most importantly) it's novelty. A PhD has to be new and innovative!

I wrote two literature reviews - one for the inferior project (ho-hum, but complicated and still related to my new idea), and another review for my proposal. The first was about how the brains of people with schizophrenia might differ from the brains of people who are mentally healthy. The second built on this, and investigated one single element of social cognition - how we detect an intention to communicate.

I pitched the idea to my Head of School of Psychology, and he thought it was brilliant. He also gave me a starting point and someone else to talk to (now, known as Professor Sandra Bucci). Sandra had done a research project that would turn out quite similar to mine, and I ended up using stimuli that she developed in my project.

Finally, I sent my two reviews to my supervisor, and we had a chat. They said that if I was going to do my idea, they'd be happy to continue supervising, but we'd need another supervisor. My supervisor (S1) had expertise in fMRI and schizophrenia, but not in social cognition. We agreed on a second supervisor (S2) who covered the gap in social cognition, and went ahead.

I never realised that neither supervisor was especially interested in the combination of their fields. Separately, fine; but all together, not. They never said that they weren't interested; instead, they kept on reading and commenting on my drafts. I would send a draft to S1, who would cut 25% of my word count, then I'd send that (with track changes) to S2, who would increase my original word count by 35%. Both were right, but I could not summarise and synthesise the long and wordy sentences that S2 would insert. Often, those sentences would be 4-5 lines long; and they'd be completely correct, but challenging!!

We went around in circles for years. When I started my PhD, I wanted to submit it "by publication", because that would mean I'd have a demonstrable track record when I finished (making me more employable). The other option was to submit "by thesis", which means just writing a very long book, that other researchers will never use in their research. This method was how PhDs had historically been submitted, while "by publication" was becoming the new norm, because other researchers would cite the scholarly articles from your PhD.

Research is a tricky, complicated, and incredibly competitive game!!

Once I started to collect data, I also started to write the "Methods" sections of my thesis, and set up the templates for the other parts. I started submitting draft manuscripts to my supervisors, and S1 said they wanted chapters (not article manuscripts). So, I had to go back and re-write my drafts. You see, chapters in a book don't need so much literature review because the book starts with an overall literature review and ends with an overall discussion of the project in light of that literature review. Articles start and end with a complete literature review that is succinct and helps the article to stand alone. A re-write requires immense attention to details.

So, the first year, I re-wrote manuscripts into chapters, and they went on the merry-go-round with the supervisors. After a year of that, S1 said they thought I should do a PhD by publication! I went to my office and danced around happily! I not only re-wrote all my chapters into article manuscripts; I re-ran all the analyses (which involved updating software, learning the changes to the software, re-writing the code for the software, re-running analyses, post-processing some results ....). It was laborious!

After this, you would think that someone would tell me when I could submit one of those manuscripts to a journal for peer review and publication. Well, I thought that was a reasonable expectation. It never happened, and I felt incredibly inadequate because it never happened.

Instead, after another year of that merry-go-round with supervisors commenting on my new drafts, S1 again, changed course on me. This time, I was instructed to "just write the book", and I had to go through the process all over again.

No-one ever told me that I could stand up to my supervisors. No-one ever said I could change who my thesis was supervised by. No-one said that I could take on the leadership role and decide for myself that, "No, I will submit my thesis by publication". It would have saved so much time.

Instead, S1 was my employer, and I felt that I couldn't say anything. I needed an income! I didn't recognise then (like I do now) that this was a conflict of interests, and should never have happened. In the end, S1 was no longer my employer; but they could have made my post-doctoral life much easier ...

So what happened?

I finally submitted my thesis - by thesis - during my marriage breakdown; between my mother's death in 2011 and my father's death in 2012, and my PhD was awarded to me in 2013. It was bittersweet ...

S1 had told me once, that it was impossible to get a review published. One day, after I was awarded my doctorate, S1 suggested we try to get the review published. I was pleasantly surprised! They read the draft, and said that it just needed "salesmanship" (whatever that meant), and that they would be happy to do it, with my permission. I said to go ahead!

A month passed, and I checked in, to find out that this person was not going to help me, with this or any other publication from my thesis. I was disappointed, but not surprised. S1 had a history of changing course, so this was nothing new. S2 had been very unwell, and pulled out of helping then too. So I was left all alone.

Because neither supervisor wanted to help me turn my thesis into a series of published articles, I felt like none of it was good enough. I felt like I wasn't good enough.

I felt so bereft.

You have no idea; I felt cheated, and left to flounder. I was traumatised, and I felt this way for the next 5 years.

Despite my feelings of inadequacy and the total lack of support, I kept trying.

Last week, I started to look at a couple of chapters again, that I could possibly turn into article manuscripts - with just my name as the sole author. Because the studies used fMRI, the literature reviews were complicated, so they needed synthesising. It occurred to me to see if the review that I did subsequently publish would help to whittle down the wordy word count. When I had submitted it, the reviewer was so generous with some new article citations, that I suggested to the journal editor that the reviewer deserved co-authorship (and that's how it got it's second author).

I was amazed at what I read.

All those years, I had such a low self image. This review, which was published in the same year as 3 other scholarly articles that I co-wrote, was downright phenomenal.

We all have trouble tooting our own horns. But, it's such a relief to know when you really are an expert at something. In reading that review, 3 years after publication when I'd forgotten everything in it, I realised without anyone else's approval, that I WAS GOOD ENOUGH.

The truth is, that we are all our own greatest critics. I listened to that negative voice inside my head, when I should have been recognising this other woman who was strong, smart, and invincible (and who was me)!

So, if you are feeling small because of similar conditions, just keep trying. Keep asking questions. Keep on celebrating every tiny milestone, and you'll get there!


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Here's that review, if you like scholarly articles!

Detecting an Intention to Communicate Fr
Download • 184KB


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