The pressure experienced through a PhD

I am almost a year into this very important phase of my life, my doctorate. Although I never underestimated the process, I also didn’t anticipate it to be quite as mentally taxing as it has been. A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with my friend who is at the University of Johannesburg about her Ph.D. journey. Besides the usual struggles of lab experiments not going as planned and the piles of desk work, she expressed how pressured she has felt throughout the entire two years of her degree. I thought it was humorous because I’m going through the same situation. I feel a range of unspoken pressures among my colleagues: the pressure of excellence; the pressure of knowledge; the pressure of keeping it together; the pressure of the workload; the pressure of feeling like you know nothing but are expected to know a lot; the pressures from the feeling of imposter syndrome, and the exhaustion.

This is one of the things experienced by most Ph.D. candidates, if not all,  and can lead to serious mental breakdowns, or even dropping out. During a chat with another friend in the Free State last year, I asked him casually ‘how work has been?’. I was taken aback by his answer as he told me he decided to take a break for a year. I was surprised because I knew him to be a resilient person. He told me that he could not cope anymore and that he had spoken to his supervisor who understood and let him have the break he asked for.

While we may all be facing different difficulties and are often told we have to fight through the journey, the truth is the ending is more fulfilling than the process. I would like to give just a few coping mechanisms to use when one goes through this, these are things that have helped me so far;

Try therapy

One of my colleagues here at UKZN spoke about therapy to me and I am pleased to say I have started my sessions. Most universities offer free counseling sessions to the students and we really should make use of it. The journey can be extremely stressful, and we all need help. Going to therapy does not mean that you are weak or less of who you are. It means you recognize that you need to speak to someone, and the person might even help you cope with your stress and any mental health problems you have. People studying in the UKZN in the faculty of science can use this link https://caes-ukzn.bookem.com/?lid=https://caes-ukzn.bookem.com/?lid=.

Plan your work

I have found planning my work to be very important in being productive. When I do not plan my work, I see no progress in anything that I do. Planning helps us narrow down the goal and give it a higher chance of being executed.

Understand that you may not know everything

We sometimes put ourselves under so much pressure of being a library of knowledge and not allowing ourselves not to know. Pause, slow down, and be teachable. You do not know everything, that is the reason you are doing research. There will always be some researcher somewhere through a paper that teaches you something new with your research. That is the beauty of research, if you know everything then, there is no need to research more because then what you are doing is exhausted.

Create networks and remain teachable

We have research groups and colleagues to speak to and help us navigate our research. Yes, we should not be spoon-fed but we should sometimes put our ego aside and just ask. What may seem difficult to you might be a hurdle someone crossed and conquered. Create a network of people, ranging from those you met at conferences to those found in the corridors of your institution for such and build relationships with these people. Some people even form collaborations through this network while others even find co-supervisors. We just have to be open and receptive to be teachable.

Have an outlet

A visiting professor from the USA recently gave a talk to postgraduates in our department and spoke about having an outlet for themselves. I found it profound especially coming from a professor. We all have different interests besides our academics. Maybe during the weekend pursue those, write if you can, paint, sing, start a podcast or even join a cooking class. Find something creative and who knows, it might help you become more creative in your research.

In the end, the diamond became a valuable stone after all the high temperature and pressure otherwise it would have been a ball of carbon atoms. The journey is worth it in the end, focus on the goal but treat the process with delicacy and respect.

WHO ARE WE TRYING TO FOOL, ANYWAY?

Over recent months, the not-so-new, yet highly popular buzzword, “imposter syndrome” seemed to be popping up everywhere. A search on BuzzSumo revealed that 5041 articles related to this theme were posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit from 1 April 2022 – 20 July 2022.  Via Brand24, a hashtag analysis indicated 34 billion hits on YouTube and 1.7 billion posts on Tiktok during the same period. These statistics don’t strike me as the least bit strange, especially considering the modern workplace with its intense competition and quest for excellence. In fact, as I reflect on my own academic career, I can pinpoint several of these experiences of feeling imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe a persistent internal feeling of personal incompetence regardless of your accomplishments, education, and experience. Despite not being a medical condition or an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others affirm it as an “experience” that causes individuals to doubt their achievements, to consider themselves as being underperformers, and to have unsettling fears of being revealed as a fraud. Do I truly have a purpose here? Am I deserving of this praise?  Do I really do good work? Will I get fired? These are only a few examples of the thoughts that individuals with imposter syndrome frequently deal with.

As you can imagine, the dilemma with imposter syndrome is that it can quickly develop into a vicious cycle with detrimental effects. One is inclined to continuously work harder and have higher expectations of oneself to combat these thoughts and feelings. Although this could appear to be a positive initially, the increasing strain will undoubtedly have an impact on your emotional health. The worst aspect of this cycle is that your thoughts and emotions don’t shift when you do accomplish more.

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed this concept in 1978, stating that it often affects high achievers who believe they are less competent than others perceive them to be.  These feelings are highly prevalent and experienced by up to 82% of individuals in any profession, at all career phases, from graduate students to tenured professors. It presents in many forms, a graduate student may believe their marks are not high enough, while a post-doctoral researcher may conclude that the findings of their research do not justify their funding. 

I love the way that Charlesworth Author Services describe this as having a complex relationship with success: you want success, but are terrified of achieving it. When you finally achieve success, you experience shame and guilt and attempt to conceal it by downplaying your accomplishments. This seems spot on, and has been true since the earliest of times –  Charles Darwin reportedly admitted the same: “But I am very poorly today & very stupid & I hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders”.

Imposter syndrome is frequently discussed in relation to perceptions of personal deficiency. However, I think it is crucial to consider the origins of these experiences as well as the forces that uphold them. One hypothesis holds that it is rooted in biological and developmental aspects during childhood experiences with families that prioritized achievement above all, while another contends that families with high levels of conflict and inadequate support may be the root. Imposter syndrome has also been connected to internal elements including personality traits, particularly perfectionistic impulses, low self-confidence, and fear of taking on new responsibilities. Furthermore, underlying mental health challenges, such as social anxiety or depression, have been known to exacerbate perceptions of imposter syndrome. Another link that we are all too familiar with, is when imposter syndrome appears in times of transitions. Think about the COVID-19 pandemic which brought significant changes in teaching and learning.  Or, when we start a new role, new course, embrace a new technology, these are the times when imposterism may rear its ugly head. 

Then, of course the external forces that cannot be disregarded. Studies have shown impostor experiences to be linked to societal factors; it is generally known that women and racialized groups have a greater likelihood of imposter feelings due to the widespread use of stereotypes and the resulting prejudice they encounter. In this sense, the unpleasant feeling of inadequacy originates from macro-level circumstances and is sustained by institutional policies and workplace norms.

There isn’t a simple, universal strategy to overcome imposter syndrome. Like the millions of searches, there are also millions of recommendations, which range from attending conferences to practicing in front of a mirror. It will probably need consistent mindfulness practice and cognitive behaviour techniques to get past such pervasive emotions of inadequacy.

For me, it would make sense to start by becoming conscious of one’s own self-imposed accomplishment criteria and being more aware of what success means to you.  Whenever these feelings do pop up, carefully analyse them in terms of facts to back them up. In recent years I’ve learned that it can be beneficial to stop exaggerating isolated events and inflating the number of perceived mistakes you believe you have made. Instead, learn to celebrate all opportunities for growth and learning (not just those that resulted in flawless execution). Finally, finding meaning outside of work to avoid turning professional challenges into personal failures, is a good way to build confidence that will withstand the relentless pressures of academia. It also helps develop compassionate, positive ways of relating to yourself.

Everyone wants to feel validated when they succeed but imposter syndrome can make this feel impossible. While we continue fighting these uncertainties and fail to acknowledge our accomplishments, we are sacrificing potentially fulfilling moments of your lives. In the end, the only person we are truly fooling, is ourselves.