CAKE Network: Tackling Imposter Syndrome in Academia

The Community Advice and Knowledge Exchange (CAKE) Network is an opportunity for students to share concerns and advice on common research student experiences. We meet monthly on MS Teams and after each meeting, we share tips, tricks and ideas that were collated at the meeting for the wider research community to benefit from. For more info on the CAKE Network, check out this blog post.

I’m not sure I belong here

This month, we came together to talk about our experiences of imposter syndrome and share ideas for tackling it. Academia can be an intimidating place. Academic Twitter would have you believe that everyone else is getting papers published, book deals, job offers, successful funding applications – which is both encouraging to see the academic community doing greath things, and can equally create a sense of unease or guilt that we’re not at the same point in our research degree.

This blog post summarises the talking points of the discussion at the CAKE Network meeting, with some anonymised direct quotes from the Chat box and conversation.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the belief that we don’t belong in a space – particularly coupled with ideas of not being good enough, or not having the required skills, knowledge or attributes to fit in. Imposter syndrome tells us that we’re frauds, that we’re on our way out, that our place is not secure and that it’s all our fault.

It appears with challenges, I assume I’m not good – not that the thing is difficult

I’m really out of my depth, not sure what I should be doing, if I’m doing the right things

Everyone’s cleverer than me

One student shared the Project Paralysis Wheel as a great example of how imposter syndrome can feel:

Imposter syndrome relies on insecurities and a lack of confidence, but it’s not just about us as individuals. Imposter syndrome thrives in environments that create unnecessary competition and comparison. Academia is often described as cutthroat – the elitism and fight for finite resources (funding, jobs, tools) to continue our research endeavours creates a hostility that can be impossible to ignore.

We also don’t talk enough in the academic community about imposter syndrome and confidence building. It’s often a taboo subject, relying on individuals to speak out about experiences without creating forums or space for these conversations.

I didn’t know what it was until I experienced it.

Not preparing students for imposter syndrome and brushing it away as ‘part of the process’ diminishes the extent of the stress and anxiety imposter syndrome can evoke. Recognition and preparation should come from other academics (staff and students) continually that imposter syndrome and rocky patches in self-confidence are likely to happen, but that there are steps we can all take to reduce them and help remind us that we do belong in academia and have what it takes to succeed.

It can be isolating and intimidating to see students only present their successes and celebrating milestones. Students discussed the difficulties with benchmarking and feeling unsure about what progress and success look like in research degrees.

You don’t really have an idea of where you’re at and what [the research process] is supposed to look like.

Tackling imposter syndrome

Building in celebration and recognition at every step of the research degree is a great way to tackle imposter syndrome. Academia doesn’t work like primary and secondary education where praise and encouragement are woven into every aspect of the learning experience. Nor is academia like industry or corporate employment, where success is often routinely rewarded. Academia, and research degrees in particular, often feel to students like the emphasis or focus is on what has not been done, instead of what has been achieved. Flipping the script to celebrate what has been done (particularly in spaces like the reflective reports for RD6 meetings) can be impactful for reminding ourselves that we do belong and we have valuable skills and knowledge to contribute.

You can revisit your reflective reports, or create a separate list of successes, achievements, skills you’re developing for days where you feel like a fraud. And ask people you trust to help remind you how capable you are.

We can train ourselves to view “progress” as a marker of development and learning instead of “success”. Much of our research degrees requires personal development – building our confidence in our place within academia is progress, as is making decisions about next steps, or accepting that a current approach is no longer workable and you need to find new ways of learning/doing. This will likely require bringing our supervision teams along with us – it’s important to advocate for receiving support in ways that work for you. Asking for this kind of framing in meetings and progress reviews may help to lessen the pressure and anxiety of having to consistently “do things”, particularly while we’re in the Thinking and Processing stage of idea generation or planning our next steps.

Focus on process over end results – break down goals into manageable chunks that can be ticked off. It provides a sense of completion, series of steps and giving myself rewards when I achieved them makes it less daunting.

Remember you’re developing your expertise. Your supervisors don’t always have the expertise in your process/project/research. Recognise that the people you’re working with might be well-informed researchers or academics, but not the most well-informed with regards to your specific work.

It’s hard to stand up for your proposals and have confidence to push back and stand your ground. Supervisors give advice and guidance, but ultimately it’s your research and you’re best placed with the information you have to know how to go about it. When you have good reasoning for your approach, have confidence to defend your process.

We can also decide to treat failure as an opportunity instead of a marker of ability. We can approach intimidating steps as opportunities to learn and experiment, rather than as potential situations of failure. We can get playful and creative in instances of failure to create new ideas and opportunities.

failure as play! failure as experiment! failure as praxis!!!

There’s too much seriousness, we’re constantly stuck in our heads, questioning everything – we need to make it easier! We need to soften, not suffer

It’s also important to take time out when you’re feeling the pressure, and remember that constantly pushing for progress is not a sustainable way of working in the long-term.

If you’re too busy to take time out, you’re too busy.

Focusing on making progress was detrimental for my mental health. If you don’t take time for wellness, illness will make time for you.

Push through procrastination by reducing big tasks into smaller steps.

Focus on process over end results – break down goals into manageable chunks that can be ticked off. This provides a sense of completion, a series of steps and I give myself rewards when I achieve them, it makes it less daunting.

Focus of process over end results – break down goals into manageable chunks that can be ticked off, provides sense of completion, series of steps and giving myself rewards when I achieved them, makes it less daunting

We can also recognise that we’re not alone in our experiences of imposter syndrome. Make opportunities for students to come together and share their experiences of the research process can help to reduce anxiety and reinforce the fact that there’s not a singular path to completing a research degree. The discussion at the CAKE Network meeting was a great example of how sharing experiences and advice work wonders for building students’ confidence in their ability and place within academia. For first generation academics, having people who ‘get it’, who understand the pressures and processes of research degrees is even more vital. Creating and joining communities of researchers can help to validate our experiences, reassure us that things will be okay, and encourage us to take chances with our research projects that we feel too nervous to do without that support.

If your imposter syndrome is around writing or presenting your research – create peer review and editing opportunities with other students. Swap abstracts, chapter sections, or critique each other’s presentation practice. Getting experience of being on the giving side of feedback can teach us about how we want feedback delivered to us, and also how to reject the idea that constructive criticism is a personal critique.

One student shared that they accept imposter syndrome is part of the process, but it doesn’t define their experience. They think of imposter syndrome as a “temporary visitor, not a constant companion”, help to reduce its influence and pressure. Another student reflected:

You learn that everyone is figuring it out the same as you, we’re all just figuring out the best way to proceed… I can be more objective about the physical manifestations (stomach churning, procrastination) – acknowledging it’s going to be uncomfortable but this is a feeling I have to become accustomed to. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the discomfort over time. I’ve found better ways of managing it, but I don’t think it ever entirely goes away.

That imposter syndrome never entirely goes away is likely because the work we do is challenging – the challenge brings anxiety.

If it was easy, you’d suffer no discomfort.

You’re as capable as anyone else.

Research degrees are not easy – nor are they supposed to be. They’re training programmes, spaces for personal growth, professional development, honing skills, and building expertise in a specific area. Research degrees offer us opportunities to network with people interested in similar things to us, and they expose us to new ways of working and thinking. We’re not doing research degrees because they’re easy, but because they’re interesting, we’re passionate about our research topics, we want to add to the existing knowledge and contribute to our disciplines. That means we need to accept the ups and downs of the research process:

Get comfortable with discomfort – it’s a skill!


Next time with the CAKE Network we’re inviting students to share experiences and tips for Academic Publishing. Join us on Friday 27th May at 12.30pm-1.30pm on Microsoft Teams.

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