Does it feel as if there was a mistake?

Dear all

This week the group discussion will take place on Thursday 19 December,
at 11:00-12:00,
room G12, at the Graduate School.

Best wishes for the holidays!

It is common for doctoral researchers to have a sense that they were admitted to a doctoral programme partly through luck, and not because of ability.

They refer to having a nagging feeling that someone will find out that they are not doctoral material. Some may feel that, despite having met the criteria to join a doctoral programme, they doubt they can produce original research.
In 1978 the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ames identified this feeling as “impostor phenomenon or syndrome”. In their research, the authors identified that participants described experiencing an internal sense of intellectual phoniness despite being highly successful women.

However, since then research has identified that both men and women can experience it. For example, participants could not accept having succeeded despite seeing positive results. They attributed these good results to luck not to hard work.

Perfectionistic tendencies may lead to developing impostor syndrome. For example, setting impossibly high standards makes it highly unlikely that we will be able to meet our goals.

Having the tendency to interpret this as a failure, and not recognising that the goal was unachievable makes it more likely to experience this feeling.

Having a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2012) is another factor that may contribute to developing impostor syndrome. If we have the belief that if one is intelligent enough working for a doctorate should not be hard work. Therefore, if we feel it is hard work then it must be because we are not intelligent enough.

Another common trigger is having a very narrow interpretation of expertise. For example, believing that to be an expert we need to know everything about the subject, that we should attend many conferences and training opportunities to develop our knowledge and skills.

It refers to having the feeling that we do not know enough or that the work we do is not good enough. These thoughts can produce a sense of feeling unprepared, which can then lead to working harder to compensate.

In general, having doubts does not mean that you are experiencing impostor syndrome. Sometimes we may have doubts about our work, which might be due to a lack of specific knowledge (e.g. use of software, or statistical programmes), or not understanding the different ways of working.

It is best to consult with supervisors and others to learn what you can do to make progress with your research.

Strategies to overcome the “impostor syndrome”

Acknowledge feelings:  allow time for your thoughts and feelings. Observe them and recognise that as human beings we can experience self-doubt. Acknowledge that it is normal to make mistakes and feel frustrated when things do not work out as hoped.

Once you identify these thoughts, ask yourself “is this thought helpful?”.  Then look for alternative ways of interpreting the situation. This will enable you to focus on what you can do to make progress.

Reframe mistakes: view mistakes as part of the learning process. Then, identify what you can do differently next time so that you can apply what you learned to improve your work.

Do not compare with others: If you notice thoughts about what other people are thinking of you or your work, take a moment to think about what is important to you. Keep in mind that most people are focused on what is important to them.

Discuss with your supervisor: Reach out to your supervisor and ask for feedback to clarify your doubts, and for guidance about what to expect at any given stage of your research. Having a different opinion will help to gain perspective.

If you have any ideas or concerns about your project, or if you are unclear about who makes decisions relating to your research, discuss with your supervisor; they are there to advise and help you. And remember, your supervisor may well experience impostor syndrome at times in relation to their own work and achievements.

View feedback as part of the learning process: sometimes we view feedback as criticism, which makes it difficult to make the most of it. Instead, view feedback as information that is intended to help you make progress with your research.

Instead of making generalisations, be specific and identify concrete actions you can take to move forward. For example, if you are having thoughts such as “I’m not good or not clever enough” ask yourself: “how would you know what is good or clever?” “What specific things could you do to improve your work?”

Maintain healthy habits: for example, having a healthy and balanced diet, keeping hydrated and having a regular sleep pattern. Exercising regularly helps to improve and regulate mood, it reduces muscle tension and it supports our health.

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… We must do that which we think we cannot.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)


Clance, P.R. & Imes, S.A. “The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic interventions.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, Vol.15, #3, Fall, 1978.

Curran, T. & Hill, A. “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016” Psychological Bulletin, published Dec. 28, 2017.

Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.