We’ve all experienced feelings of not being good enough at some point in our lives; maybe we don’t think we’ve earned the praise we’ve received for a job well done, or we don’t think we’re qualified enough to go for that promotion at work. Whatever the reason, chances are your worries and self-doubt are unfounded. This is impostor syndrome and it’s something that Aoife Taylor, a PhD student at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, suffers from on a regular basis.
Impostor syndrome can start as early as school, and develops from fear of negative evaluation and feelings of anxiety. It often leads people to question their capabilities and this can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing.
“I’ve struggled a lot with low self-esteem and impostor syndrome in the past, and usually put it down to stress. However, during my PhD I have been affected more than ever, resulting in a general feeling of not being good enough for the position,” Aoife says.
There has been much research carried out into impostor syndrome and and the factors that contribute to it, and while both men and women suffer from it, it often has the largest impact on women.
“Although gender equality is improving, the ratio of male to female STEM research group leaders is still significantly unbalanced.”
Lack of representation
One of the reasons suggested for this is a lack of female representation in a given industry. This is something that Aoife has noticed in her discipline: “science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) is and always has been male dominated. Although gender equality is improving, the ratio of male to female research group leaders is still significantly unbalanced, with few female role models high up in academic STEM roles. I feel that this lack of female representation significantly contributes to my impostor syndrome.”
Addressing this imbalance is a conversation that is happening across the University, with many initiatives in place to help encourage women into STEM. Additional support for mental wellbeing is also at the front of everyone’s minds, especially in light of the impact of the pandemic.
“I hope to inspire girls to go for their goals, have confidence in themselves and not let their gender hold them back from anything.”
The pandemic and mental health
Uncertainty around how labs would function after COVID-19 hit in March 2020 affected many PhD students, inducing worry about whether lost time could be made up or whether extensions would be granted. While labs were allowed to re-open, they operate under careful COVID-19 guidelines which can restrict the amount of time PhD students have access to the labs.
“Since the pandemic there has been a lot of extra pressure on lab time, and I have struggled with anxious thoughts such as 'I’m wasting lab time that would be better given to someone else'," explains Aoife. "I tend to work extra hard to fit more tasks into less time, although this is often not achievable therefore fuels my anxiety even more. I find that during particularly anxious times when physical symptoms kick in, even small tasks become overwhelming.”
The pandemic has highlighted the need to offer better support for mental health issues and to show that people are not alone in how they feel. Simply talking about issues such as the ones Aoife faces, can help people to recognise where they too may be struggling and where to look for help if they need it. Aoife says that having support at work has really helped her to push through: “my colleagues and supervisors have been amazingly supportive during this time and are helping me to overcome these issues by discussing the triggers of my anxiety in order to try and avoid it happening or to be able to control it better when it does happen.
“I am also using CBT and mindfulness exercises; the University has a great wellbeing department which gives good advice.”
Aoife says that talking to University counsellors and the Disability Advisory and Support Service (DASS) has helped her to cope with working through the pandemic: “I have been going to counselling sessions and I’m registered with DASS. I’m focusing on setting myself achievable goals and not taking bad results personally. Bad results don’t mean I’m a failure, it’s just part and parcel of ‘doing science’”.
It takes someone strong to power through a PhD while dealing with anxiety and feelings of not belonging, but it takes someone stronger to talk about them and share their experiences so that everyone can learn and realise that they are not in this alone.
“While I am still working out how to tackle my gender-related lack of self-esteem, by finishing my PhD and through outreach activities I hope to inspire girls to go for their goals, have confidence in themselves and not let their gender hold them back from anything.”