Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 2 of 2
Opening up about my own experiences of mental health through talks had a surprising side effect. People started to message me about their experiences and problems, some I go on to meet. I have found these conversations fertile ground for new ideas involving mental health. An important one of the many reasons why discussing mental health is beneficial. In one such conversation, an individual came to me about imposter syndrome. During our conversation, I realised that seeing imposter syndrome from the point of view of the PhD supervisor may help those feeling afraid of asking for help.
From my experience, and of those I’ve talked to, the primary symptom of imposter syndrome is fear of being kicked off the PhD. The individual is scared that they will be ‘found out’ and told they can no longer do the PhD. This can be apparent from the very first day and last 6 months or longer, but I think there is a lot of variation depending on the individual.
To counteract this fear I think it is helpful to see the situation from the perspective of the supervisor.
A PhD student is right at the beginning of their career regardless of whether it is academic or not. This is not the same for the supervisor. Generally, a PhD supervisor tends to be around 40-60 years old with a stable academic position. I would be very surprised if an individual in this age bracket and position hadn’t given a thought on their retirement, and how much research they want to finish before they do. Time is something they are probably being more and more careful with.
When a supervisor chooses a PhD student for their research project, they are making a major commitment. Let us say a supervisor decides to remove you from your PhD on the very first day. If through government grants they likely have to wait an entire year (maybe two) to get another PhD student who can start the research project. The likelihood of them managing to find a student who is self-funded, willing to start outside the normal intake period and has more experience is vanishingly small and highly risky. If they fire you on the first day – they are essentially deciding to lose one whole year of their remaining time till retirement.
Past the first year of the PhD, they now have to wait a year in addition to the amount of time you have spent in the PhD, for your ‘replacement’ to learn what you have and reach the same stage. If the PhD supervisor decides to fire you they are essentially shooting themselves in the foot. A student-supervisor relationship would likely have reached breaking point for them to make this decision. Career wise, it likely only harms the supervisor. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself describes how quitting his first PhD helped his career, rather than hindering it.
For a supervisor to replace a PhD student is in most cases immediately year closer to retirement without progress. A supervisor does not select a PhD student, they invest in one. It is within their interest to try to help with any problems and/or feelings you have as a student. The better you feel as a PhD student, the more productive you are, the faster research gets done. I myself was pleasantly surprised the lengths my supervisor went to keep me on my PhD – even when I had to take a year out due to illness.
If you feel like you are struggling, I believe it is helpful to reach out to your supervisor and colleagues around you. Imposter syndrome does not have to last any longer than you decide. I think most PhD students have had some form of imposter syndrome along the line. And even if you find out the community you find yourself in is not very nice, then at least you would have found out that particular group is not the place you wish to spend your PhD – or even if you want to do a PhD. The most profound lesson I have learned from my PhD experience is that it is rather overrated. I was no different the day after my viva than the day before.