Facing impostor syndrome as an interdisciplinary PhD student

I can’t tell you how many of my fellow PhD students, at one time or another, have mentioned recognising that moment when someone describes impostor syndrome to them for the first time.

‘Hang on, you mean that feeling that you are about to be discovered as a fraud who hasn’t worked hard enough, isn’t smart enough and is about to be publicly shamed and cast out of your research institution, is an actual thing? And I’m not the only one who feels this way?!’

The grad school spiral of doubt – often followed by ‘I’m a fraud!’

Yes impostor syndrome, the crushing fear of being found out, seems to be a pretty universal PhD experience, much like sleepless nights and having moments of extreme hatred for your computer. But there an interesting aspect of this that I recently realised – and that is the experience of impostor syndrome for the interdisciplinary student. The reason that it’s different for interdisciplinary students is because, in a way, you actually ARE an impostor in your new subject. In my field I know that I can hold my own with geology, and am confident defending my position, but I only started studying psychology as a PhD student – my contemporary psychology PhDs have a depth of knowledge from their undergraduate and masters degrees that I just don’t have. 

How I feel when presenting to psychologists…

This lack of background knowledge makes it very difficult for me to argue my position, as I automatically assume that the person who has an opposing view knows better than I do, so they must be right. I get extremely stressed when I have to present my work for an audience that has a psychologist in it, and immediately loose confidence in my work – just waiting for someone to stand up and yell ‘that’s rubbish!’ from the back of the room.

Of course I know that this reaction is illogical. I have worked hard to study my adopted subject, and read as widely around my area as possible. My research is interesting and has been successfully peer reviewed. I know that it is extremely unlikely that anyone will stand up during a presentation and yell at me and in fact any time I have presented to psychologists they have been amazingly supportive, helpful and encouraging, with great suggestions. 

But that doesn’t stop the fear.

What I have gradually learned to do during my PhD is grab that fear by the neck and march myself over to people with interesting, alternative, challenging or more advanced knowledge and ask them to talk about my studies. I frequently feel my inadequacy during these conversations, but ALWAYS come away understanding my research better. It’s uncomfortable, but rewarding and I wish that I had done it more often during my PhD. Forcing yourself to examine the weakest area of your studies is one of the things I think makes a great scientist – if your work won’t stand up to criticism then it’s not worth as much, in my opinion. None of us wants to be told that years of work are irrelevant or unsubstantiated, but I would rather find that out as part of a dialogue, than be presented with it at a later stage. I hope that as I progress as a researcher I won’t let fear of being a subject impostor hold me back from questioning my research and continuing to learn.

So that one day I won’t be an impostor any more, in either of my subjects.

Ubiquitous motivating statement, but you can, in fact, do this.

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3 thoughts on “Facing impostor syndrome as an interdisciplinary PhD student

  1. While not as gloriously interdisciplinary as you (atmospheric/ocean science is not as far of a stretch from geology as psychology), I can totally relate to this. I’ve spent most of my first year playing “catch up” in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and I often find myself feeling totally inadequate. But I think this is where all us interdisciplinary crazies really thrive in the long-run–we’re forced out of our comfort zone so often that it becomes the norm, and eventually walking into another science doesn’t sound so scary.

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    • Hi Brigitta,

      I absolutely agree with you, it does become one of our strengths, or at least I hope it does! And I think every interdisciplinary combination has its challenges – sometimes I think it’s harder when your host subject and your adopted subject are closer, as people underestimate the work you have to do to grow into your new subject. Thanks for your comment and good luck with your PhD!

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  2. Thanks for writing this! I’m not a PhD student and I’m still currently working on my masters degree. Even though I am vertically aligned academically, that somewhat feeling of inferiority in graduate school never goes away. My friends in grad school have different undergrad backgrounds and they always tell me how they’re having a difficult time in specific subjects, like in projective techniques, where they basically have zero knowledge. But the point is, they do adapt. They nail their case studies and presentations. They participate in class discussions with a clinical tongue and judgment. Sometimes, I even feel inferior to them thinking I should’ve known better. But the point is that we all have to strive and climb on each ladder from the bottom like everyone else. Goodluck on your PhD studies!

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