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  • CAREER COLUMN

How I tackled post-PhD imposter syndrome

A graduate in a white robe walks by rows of empty chairs.

Credit: Keystone/Zuma/Shutterstock

As a PhD student, my research involved doctoral education as well as postdoctoral careers.

In the literature and in interviews with PhD holders, I learnt about the precarity of academic-research careers, the often-toxic culture and the lack of work–life balance. I was also aware of the low salaries and high rates of anxiety and depression among early-career researchers. But I hoped that having this bird’s-eye view would prepare me for the inevitable challenges I would face as I pursued an academic career of my own. I did all of the right things, based on my research: I began applying for jobs six months before my thesis defence. I scoured websites such as higheredjobs.com and jobs.ac.uk every week, and approached my thesis supervisors and my university’s careers-services office for feedback on cover letters. I studied blog posts on academic-career planning and drafted possible research proposals for fellowship applications.

When I completed my PhD at the University of Oxford, UK, in November 2020, my job search became a daily ritual. I had a part-time, casual research-assistant contract at Oxford, which needed to be renewed every 12 weeks, and picked up temporary work where I could. Meanwhile, conversations with colleagues and professors inevitably turned to my career plans. I logged on to Twitter every morning to find colleagues publishing in high-impact journals, presenting at international conferences and securing grants and new jobs. Rejections filled my inbox.

I had managed to maintain a sense of purpose during my PhD programme — but in the months following its conclusion, I no longer felt as if I belonged in the academic world. Despite having interviewed others about these same feelings, I questioned the value of my research and second-guessed my skills. I had panic attacks in the middle of the night. I avoided using the ‘Dr’ title in presentations, on social media or over e-mail because I felt like a sham — someone who had bluffed her way to a PhD and could not perform on the test that mattered most, getting a job.

Although I knew that rejections were inevitable — and that many PhD holders submit dozens of applications before even one success — each one was devastating. No amount of reading or academic knowledge could have prepared me for the sense of failure I felt. My PhD research exacerbated my anxiety as I reviewed the daunting statistics and many reasons why academic careers often do not work out.

Although I considered non-academic positions, I wanted to make every effort to secure a postdoc position. I knew that many PhD holders choose alternative and equally rewarding careers. But I, like many others, could not help but feel that my ability to secure an academic position was a measure of my worth as a researcher, and I was terrified by the prospect of explaining to friends and family that, after all my degrees and years spent studying rather than working, I could not ‘make it’ in academia.

For me, the most challenging part of the transition out of my PhD programme was the uncertainty: as someone who maps her day by the hour, the lack of a steady income and a future plan terrified me, and at times I questioned my decision to pursue a PhD in the first place.

What helped most was learning to separate my sense of identity from academic success and remembering who I am outside my career. I began by taking weekends off from job hunting and picked up hobbies that I’d sidelined during my doctoral programme. I wandered in the local park and reflected on what I wanted most from life in terms of family, career and travel — reminding myself that a postdoc was just one of many possible chapters.

In May 2021, 7 months after graduating, and after 15 job applications and 4 job interviews, I accepted a postdoc position in research and innovation at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland in Delémont, where I will continue to examine PhD career trajectories.

The following evidence-based strategies helped me to manage my post-PhD imposter syndrome:

Take time to do activities you enjoy

Sometimes, to achieve your goals, you need to take a step back. This means putting distance between yourself and the stress of job hunting. For me, daily running and losing myself in fiction were central in helping my mental health to recover. Physical activity, in particular, has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and improve mental well-being1.

Take each rejection in your stride

Rejections are to be expected, particularly in academia. Evidence indicates that cognitive reframing — recognizing, challenging and changing the way you think about something — could be an important part of building resilience in academia2. However, such resilience often comes with experience, which means that failure and rejection might be especially difficult for early-career researchers. Disappointment is natural, and a rejection is not a personal reflection on you or your abilities. If you were shortlisted for a position but didn’t get it, ask for feedback — I’ve found that people are very willing to provide this. And understanding why you did not get a position can help you to identify your strengths and challenges.

Take breaks from social media

These platforms can be helpful for networking and finding relevant research, but they can also be overwhelming and often foster unhelpful social comparisons3. Deleting Twitter from my phone and avoiding other platforms such as ResearchGate helped me to focus on myself, rather than on the accomplishments of others.

Build a community early

Research suggests that seeking support from colleagues can be effective in managing imposter syndrome4. Reach out to other late-stage or post-PhD researchers with whom you can provide feedback on CVs and cover letters and share information on positions. Looking for work can be isolating, particularly once you’ve left your institution. I kept in touch — online over WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams — with a small group of classmates who were often experiencing similar challenges. Exchanging tips with them was helpful, both practically and emotionally: it reminded me that others were experiencing similar challenges despite their considerable achievements. Furthermore, offering feedback on others’ applications helped me to critically review my own applications as well.

As you navigate your own post-PhD journey, remember that finding a position, particularly in academia, is hard. Struggle is normal, and it is okay to feel frustrated or disappointed or sad.

For now, I have chosen to pursue academia, knowing there may come a time when the lifestyle no longer aligns with my goals. At times, I still suffer from imposter syndrome, but making this decision, and learning to accept that things might change, has finally given me a sense of control.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02215-0

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

References

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    Cahusac de Caux, B. in Wellbeing in Doctoral Education (eds Pretorius, L., Macaulay, L. & Cahusac de Caux, B.) 127–139 (Springer, 2019).

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    Chan, H., Mazzucchelli, T. G. & Rees, C. S. Higher Educ. Res. Dev. 40, 446–460 (2021).

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Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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