Spot the impostor

I first came across the term “impostor syndrome” about a year or two ago while skimming through my Twitter feed. A fellow #WomanInSTEM had posted about a personal experience and I read on in amazement. She was a senior in my field and someone I greatly admired and here she was, sharing her story and I could relate to it in every way.

Academics, look away, I am about to quote Wikipedia. According to this valuable resource, impostor syndrome is defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubt their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”. This essentially means that for some, their accomplishments seem too great to have been their own, and instead, they attribute it to various factors such as luck or deception. There is a short Ted-Ed video by Elizabeth Cox which explains the phenomenon in greater detail.


The New York Times published an article by Kristin Wong which details experiences of people in different fields, such as entertainment and journalism, showing how prevalent impostor syndrome is in every industry. There are many successful individuals who have shared their experience with impostor syndrome including Ms Maya Angelou who once said “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

In recent years, many scientific publications have also focused on this topic as it is prevalent in academic communities all over the world. Another article worth reading was published in Science in 2008, appropriately titled “No, you are not an impostor”.  Although impostor syndrome has a universal impact, research has shown that minority groups are particularly vulnerable. A study published by the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, suggests that the impostor phenomenon is an additional factor that compounds pre-existing stresses in minority students. Of 332 undergraduate students questioned, who represented Black, Latinx, and Asian students, many cited impostor syndrome as something they deal with often. For Black students, this was often coupled with high levels of anxiety. This is a very nuanced topic but demonstrates the need for change and discussion in university settings.

This type of study has yet to be conducted in a South African setting where minority students face many challenges including self-doubt as they are often referred to as “quota” selections. In truth, when trying to understand impostor syndrome we must acknowledge that there are many contributors. Snide comments and microaggressions have long-lasting effects on the psyche of individuals, for instance, being told that you have only achieved something because of transformation efforts is dismissive of hard work and talent.  Academic challenges, even at a postgraduate level, are daunting when you do not have adequate support.

My experience with constant impostor syndrome

My first real experience with impostor syndrome happened during my honours year. I had made a switch from biology to palaeontology and as an aspiring palaeontologist, I had to have a basic understanding of geology in order to contextualize the fossils I so adored. When it came time to writing exams I thought “they’ll never take me seriously” because no matter how hard I tried, I could only achieve so much in terms of understanding in a short space of time. I passed my courses, through a lot of hard work and dedication but at the end of it I thought “that was a lucky break”.


My worst experience with impostor syndrome has ties to my greatest achievement as a young academic, getting my Masters degree. I completed my Master’s degree in a year and when my examiners’ reports came back, my supervisor and I were both so overwhelmed by the positive feedback that we cried a little. I had achieved it, with distinction and no corrections, this is truly rare in academia. However, if I am asked about my Masters, I tend to try and play it down: “I had to edit my page numbers” or “My supervisors were really great” or “It’s because I had 8465365 drafts before submitting” are some of my typical responses. And although all of this is true (the page numbers haunted me for weeks), I never acknowledged my own role in my success. I had the drive, I put in the work and endless hours, I wrote the drafts and even if they came back red with corrections, I would read through each point, question what I did not understand, correct it and try again.

As I mentioned earlier, microaggressions are a devastating tool that can dismantle the self-confidence of students. This is something I have dealt with, comments such as “You should be staying later if you want to finish”- when I already felt guilty for leaving at a reasonable hour so that I could catch public transport- do not help. Neither do comments like “Is this sound methodology?” when many researchers before me have tested it but when I try, suddenly, it is questionable. These are expressions I will probably never forget but now realise that they are not a reflection of me, because I am not an impostor.

It is a constant learning and unlearning process, especially as a young woman. Girls are often told to be ‘humble’, that it is ‘unladylike’ to assert yourself and that when you do, you are labelled ‘angry’ or ‘hostile’ or (the worst one for me) ‘EMOTIONAL’. When you use your voice and demonstrate confidence it is met with shock and fear. There are many posts which detail tips for dealing with impostor syndrome (check out the article by Kristin Wong) and I’ve prepared a handy little infographic that helps me cope. I use the word ‘cope’ because I am not over my impostor syndrome, I still struggle with it when I have to speak to seniors, when I go to conferences, when I am asked about my research work and even now as a PhD Candidate, I still feel like I know nothing some days. It is not a quick fix, it is a constant battle, but you will become better at checking yourself when you feel it coming on!

In the iconic words of spiritual activist and author Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

The dreaded F-word

FUNDING. What else did you think I meant?

Finances are possibly one of the biggest concerns for a student, whether undergraduate or postgraduate.  Fees must be paid, research costs have to be met and often times we are unable to do it on our personal account (I get anxious just thinking about it). The #FeesMustFall movement has sparked many debates surrounding the cost of tertiary education, there are many opposing views but there is something we can, and should all agree on, there is a funding crisis – amidst a national and local financial crisis.

Student-Dept_t580When I was an undergraduate, I was ill-prepared for university, not in the sense of my academic skills but the associated administrative skills that accompanied it. I did not know about funding calls and applications, how to fill them out, what they meant and if I qualified. When preparing our matriculants for university we have to ensure that we prepare them for the full ride, warts and all. Part of this preparation includes bridging the knowledge gap and ensuring that students are aware of all possible funding sources and other vital support systems.

Before you even begin grant searching and writing, it is important to ask yourself what type of support you are looking for, you do not want to spend hours of your time writing a grant application for a program that does not fit your needs. You can think of it as one of those flow chart quizzes in your favourite magazine, someone asks you a question and based on your answer, you can proceed to the next relevant question.

Some important questions to ask yourself before searching for funding are:

  • What type of degree do I intend on pursuing (if you are starting/ completing an undergraduate degree)?
  • Do I intend on studying full time or part time?
  • Do I require research support or financial support for living expenses while completing my degree?
  • Do I want to apply for a more generalised grant? Or one that is specifically tailored to my field?
  • When would I need the funding? This one is important, grant calls open and close months in advance, you need to know when you would ideally like to be funded so that you can start applications in a timely fashion.

Once you have an idea of what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start searching for appropriate grants! Here are a few links to local and international grant opportunities.

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF): Funding calls are posted regularly, the NRF funds a variety of research programs and grants for students at different stages of their careers. Be sure to check the NRF deadlines as well as the internal deadlines for various institutions (these could differ). In my experience, calls close quite early in the year so go check out the page after reading this! (Also, your funding flow chart will really come in handy here!)
    • The National Research Foundation Centres of Excellence: Under the DST-NRF banner there are also 15 Centres of Excellence that span a variety of fields and offer financial support among other things! The link to each Centre is provided on the NRF website and you can learn more about the Centre that best suits your academic trajectory
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS):  NSFAS offers financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, applications typically open in the second half of the year.
  • Bursaries South Africa: This website is AMAZING and provides a comprehensive list of government and private bursaries. These are applicable for undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Scholarship Positions: Another great website for finding local and international funding, search “South Africa” or browse the extensive collection of international opportunities.
  • University Financial Aid: Most South African universities have a page on their website dedicated to keeping students informed about available funding. Check out your university page for more information or Google their financial aid. Don’t be shy to call enrolment and ask for guidance.

Now that you’ve found a grant that fits your needs, get cracking on the writing! If you’re tired of reading at this point, check out the Nature Careers podcast, “The Working Scientist” by Julie Gould which is packed with a ton of grant information. If you’re still with me then read on for a few of my personal tips!

  • Keep track of your deadlines. Make notes and reminders and schedule them so that you are not panicked the day before submission. I find that I work better if I can see the deadline, so it’s written on calendars and in diaries and on my phone. Here is a great (free) online short course on Udemy to teach you how to manage your time!  These are important applications and often take a while to compose.
  • Read the funding guidelines thoroughly. I am guilty of this, in a rush to start writing I often start without reading through this very important document. Please do not do this to yourself, most times it creates more work for you as you must go back and revise or reformat! It is important to abide by the guidelines, who would review an application if the applicant hasn’t even bothered to do it correctly?
  • Don’t procrastinate! I know, again I am guilty of this, and all it ever gave me was anxiety and a loss of sleep. Try to finish your application in a timely manner! If you need a few tips on procrastination cures, check out an earlier post by my fellow blogger Joyful Mdhluli.
  • Be concise– adding a ton of jargon or trying to meet the word limit by waffling on is not a good idea. Get to the point, summarise and be clear. This requires some thinking and a lot of reworking. Sometimes it is difficult to pen down all your thoughts and plans on the first go, this is why multiple drafts help. It is always good to look at it with fresh eyes when possible!
  • Ask someone to review it, someone you trust or who you think could provide good feedback. I find that it is even better when it is someone from outside of your field of research, this is a true test of how understandable and clear your application is. This feedback can help refine before you hit submit!
  • Apply again, even if you are rejected. Rejection is difficult, knowing you invested so much time and effort in an application only to have it turned down is crushing. Do not be discouraged though, apply again even if it means changing your approach or formatting the application. You won’t get every grant you apply for, but you also won’t get any grants you don’t apply for!
  • Apply to multiple sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Apply to as many potential funders as possible (if you fit the criteria!).

imagesThis is by no means an answer to the crisis facing tertiary education but can provide a few people with an opportunity. We must continue to communicate and engage with policymakers in order to ensure that students get a chance to pursue their dreams without a cap and gown that come attached to a lifetime of debt.