Managing and accepting self-doubt as a Doctoral Researcher
As I enter into my second year of my PhD, I share these reflections with you, the reader, with the intentions of encouraging a sense of professional vulnerability.
As I sit here in my make-shift home office, I write some of my experiences and then I backspace. I open myself up and then I retreat into the safe confinement of my own mind. Showing vulnerability is not an easy endeavour. It can be muddy, uncomfortable, and sometimes misinterpreted. However, it has its own place in the workplace setting and I write this inspired by a TED talk, which is now 10-years old, which spoke of this very topic. My aims in writing this blog are not only to unload my own professional vulnerability into the public domain, but also to engage in an act of mutual disclosure; where hopefully, the sharing of a fragment of my story invites others to the conversation. Where hopefully, my thoughts are helpful and insightful to students and researchers alike; and where hopefully, some lessons can be learned, recognized, and addressed in our professional journeys. One of the most effective ways in enabling students, doctoral researchers, and academics alike to feel comfortable in experiencing professional vulnerability is through the critical mechanism of a mentor. Thus, in this blog I outline how such mentoring has afforded me to effectively manage and accept my self-doubt and fears as a doctoral researcher, while also seeking to offer some meaningful and useful considerations for others in disclosing and sharing professional vulnerability.
Doctoral students often fulfil many roles within the University and my journey has been no different. Alongside reading for my PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology, I also teach and support students, and collaborate on research projects within the school. These have been fantastic opportunities that the school of sport have supported me with and go a long way to developing me professionally and personally to fulfil my long-term career objectives in academia. Through engaging within all of these academic roles and domains, a recurring theme for me has indeed been my own self-doubt, as I try to balance between my own fears (e.g., I am afraid of getting it wrong) and confidence (e.g., am I good enough?). I am sure, from speaking with others (from students to senior members of staff), that I am not alone in this experience. In the world of academia, whether you are a student, staff member, or applied practitioner, you often hear words such as “imposter syndrome” thrown around. I must admit, I used it as a label myself, and I would often ponder my own perceived flaws as I face my own fears and confidence levels. Why am I not achieving what this academic did? Why am I not working at the level I would like? Where really the question I should have asked myself is: Why can I not accept myself as I am? Why do I need to compare my own progress with others? In essence, the self-doubts, fears, and low confidence was what I came to describe and label as ‘imposter syndrome’, and implied that these were issues rather than feelings that were misunderstood. Naturally, I was not comfortable with these feelings. I would walk away from them, avoid them, and deny their role in my own professional development. I wrongly used them as tools to undermine all the work I had done, especially during the pandemic. Always thinking that I was not where I wanted to be, despite others (e.g., my own PhD supervisors) being satisfied with my progress. I felt shy in sharing my ambitions about what I wanted to do post-PhD and what I aspire to become, because I was scared that this would manifest as a ‘raging fire of fear and self-doubt’. As a result of how I initially appraised these feelings, consequences ensued: affording little time away from work, imbalances between procrastination and over-working; frequent changes in emotions, tiredness and headaches; and changes in my lifestyle habits (e.g., sleep quality, inconsistent eating times). These consequences are merely examples but exemplify how such changes in well-being are very threatening realities for doctoral students.
The pathways to a solution for me, that was indeed not a linear or easy one, came through identifying ways in which I could befriend my self-doubt, and ‘dance’ between my fears and my confidence. One of these solutions, became apparent to me through my PhD research, where I am fascinated by the areas of interpersonal stress, well-being, and emotions. In particular, the active role of relationships (e.g., turning to multiple mentors) between people that can foster a sense of purpose, happiness, sense of growth, and self-acceptance. The latter feature of self-acceptance that contributes to the dimension of what psychologists have coined “eudaimonic well-being” was what piqued my interest. How could I bolster my sense of self-acceptance as a doctoral researcher? How could I effectively befriend my self-doubt, pivot between fear and confidence, and foster a greater sense of well-being as a doctoral researcher? These are questions and discussions that I strongly encourage among doctoral students and academics, as there will be many perspectives and pathways to solutions that can be taken. For me, this came in the form of identifying critical friends and mentors that I could speak to openly and transparently on my feelings of self-doubt; feeding me ways in which I could learn to accept, befriend, and be kinder to myself as a doctoral researcher.
These next steps of reaching out to mentors and critical friends, were what I really could only metaphorize as treating my self-doubt as my ‘own child’ that I was taking to an open day or to their first day of school. This ‘first day of school’ involved reaching out to mentors, colleagues, family, and those who had completed the PhD process, and asking them how they managed their inner ‘imposter’, self-doubt, fears, or as I had re-phrased: their inner ‘child’. A break-through moment for me was opening up to my PhD supervisors and another mentor of mine within the school, who were willing to listen and hear me, and make me feel truly understood. Beforehand, I was pessimistic about opening up, I was not pivoting effectively between my own doubts, fears, and confidence, nor challenging my initial appraisals to what they might have thought. I was afraid that my concerns would not be understood, but the simple act of reaching out to them, and giving them the opportunity to hear me, was what changed my thinking. Subsequently, I received advice from my PhD supervisors and mentors that while specific to my own journey, was hugely valuable and meaningful to me, especially when they went out of their way to effectively say “Richard, I hear your concerns, I feel your concerns, and I just want you to know that we are here for you and are in this together”. This really reinforced my decision to reach out to them and my wider network of people that I deemed role models and mentors, and furthermore, emphasized the importance to me of building trusting relationships.
As another example, I confided in a family member, who worked in the NHS as a GP and I asked them “Do you experience this ‘imposter syndrome’? This self-doubt and fear?’. Their immediate response was “Sure, why do you think the phrase ‘fake it till you make it’ exists? You never think it at first, but other people are sitting in their beds at night, thinking about the same things that you do too”. Engaging in conversations such as these, with those I held in high esteem and who would happily share their professional vulnerability candidly with me was heart-warming and reassuring. Hearing that those I looked up to, inside and outside of academia, experienced these feelings and wrestled with similar issues that I did was incredibly valuable. Their self-doubts and fears existed too, and it is so easy to forget that. They would have sleepless nights thinking about what they could have done or worrying about what their future would look like. From simply listening and consuming these shared experiences, my own self-doubts, fears, or ‘inner child’ could then see its own usefulness, purpose, and ways in which it could mature. It was there as a protective instinct, not as one intended to make me feel like a fraud or imposter. In essence, my self-doubts, perhaps in conjunction with my own fears, has its own place. My fears and doubts could well and truly ‘dance’ and interplay between my own confidence, and the people (or ‘instructors’) who could teach them how to dance were the mentors and critical friends that I reached out to.
Since this critical learning moment, over the last few months, I have felt my well-being accelerate upwards knowing that people either personally or professionally would listen and jump on your wavelength. Beforehand, I felt shy in reaching out to people. I ‘assumed’ that they would think my thoughts were abnormal or irrational or over-ambitious, and that they would not take the time to help me scaffold a personal inner infrastructure: whereby my self-doubt, fears, and confidence could dance and dance comfortably knowing they serve a purpose in my own professional development. I benefitted hugely from speaking to colleagues within the Carnegie School of Sport; whether that is through supervision meetings, sending meeting invitations, or speaking with people after sessions, or during shut-up and write sessions. Knowing that these infrastructures are in place and feeling more comfortable in being ‘professional vulnerable’ has allowed me to progress onwards to achieve my long-term objectives with the confidence that I have the support available to facilitate these goals. With this in mind, and based off of my own experiences, I recommend the following tips for fellow postgraduate researchers and academics:
- Identify and build an academic support circle or ‘team’ of people (e.g., PhD supervisors, line managers, colleagues within your discipline or team, other postgraduate students) that you feel you could share your professional vulnerability with.
- Be proactive in taking the step to reach out to these people. Send e-mails, start conversations, dip your toe in the water.
- Share your self-doubts/professional vulnerability with people: invite people to challenge, comment, or offer their experience on topics meaningful to you.
- Join communities and networks where you can meet and speak to like-minded people. The benefits can extend beyond the initial aims of many of these groups, so be open-minded.
- Attend the internal events run by your school, such as knowledge exchange events, or any CPD events where you could meet, get to know, and relate to others.
- Reach out to mentors external to academia: this may be friends or family or colleagues (e.g., met through national conferences) who you could perhaps relate to cross-disciplines.
While these tips are by no means exhaustive or definitive, these intend to emphasize the idea that there are those (e.g., mentors and colleagues) you can share your professional vulnerability and self-doubt with, regardless of what stage of your career you are at. Before, I would shy away from sharing my personal career ambitions and my concerns about my professional journey for a fear it would be judged or doubted. However, ‘reaching out’ to someone, who can help you engage in that interplay between ‘dancing/pivoting’ between your fears, doubts and confidence, no matter how trivial, is one of the best decisions you could make for your own well-being, management of self-doubt, and self-acceptance in academia.
Richard is a PhD candidate, associate lecturer, and research assistant in sport and exercise psychology within the Carnegie School of Sport. Richard's doctoral research is centred around optimising environments which maintain, protect, and bolster psychological well-being in sport organisations.