This article is about overcoming imposter syndrome as an older PhD student and how to take hold of your own experiences and journey.
Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon that we all experience at one time or another. Imposter syndrome is characterized by persistent feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite having the necessary qualifications and accomplishments to complete the task at hand.
If you are in an environment where you feel a little out of place, like being older in a younger crowd, or vice versa, imposter syndrome could be exacerbated. It could also be experienced with gender, race-related concerns or feeling out of touch with technological advancements.
These feelings are especially real in a PhD program if you are over 40, feeling like you’re starting too late.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that your journey is unique and that being an older student pursuing a STEM-based PhD degree has its advantages. This article explores strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome as an older PhD student, especially if you’re over 40 years old.
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
The first step in overcoming imposter syndrome as an older PhD student is to acknowledge your feelings and understand that they are not uncommon. Many successful professionals, including accomplished researchers and academics, have admitted to experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Remember that these feelings do not define your abilities or diminish your accomplishments.
2. Leverage Your Life Experience
As an older PhD student, you have a wealth of life experience that younger students may not have. Your background may include years of work experience, industry knowledge, or valuable personal experiences that come with having lived longer.
Therefore, embrace your unique perspective and use it to improve your research and academic pursuits. Your life experiences can offer valuable insights that can contribute to your field in ways that may not be possible for students who are younger.
You can turn impostor syndrome into building your confidence.
3. Focus on Your Strengths
Instead of dwelling on your perceived shortcomings, focus on your strengths and the skills you bring to the table. Identify areas where you excel and emphasize them in your relationships, work, and research. Are you a strong communicator, a creative problem solver, or adept at managing projects and time?
Emphasize these qualities in your academic and research pursuits. By focusing on your strengths, you can build confidence in your abilities and lessen the impact of imposter syndrome.
In my case, I applied my experience in managing different projects to my PhD coursework. I used the work breakdown structure (WBS) to break down my tasks into 15mins, 30mins, 1hr, and 2 hrs., 3 hrs. intervals, and so on. This allowed me to complete 15-minute tasks when all I had was 30 minutes. I did not have to wait till I had blocks of 2 hours in order to complete tasks and accomplish daily goals.
4. Stay Current with Technology
Overcoming imposter syndrome as an older PhD student can also be linked to technology. If you’re feeling out of touch with recent technological advancements, you can mitigate that by consciously trying to stay current.
For example, with the new AI tools available like ChatGPT, try to learn something new about it each week. Join a ChatGPT forum/channel like Discord to learn how ChatGPT is used.
Time permitting, attend conferences in your PhD domain and engage in online forums and social media groups. Being proactive in staying up to date will help you feel more confident.
5. Develop a Support Network
A strong support network can be instrumental in overcoming imposter syndrome. Surround yourself with peers, mentors, and colleagues who can provide encouragement, feedback, and guidance. Share your feelings and experiences with them and listen to their stories as well. Learning that others face similar challenges can help normalize your feelings and provide reassurance that you are not alone.
6. Embrace a Growth Mindset
Adopting a growth mindset means embracing challenges and viewing them as opportunities to learn and grow. Accept that you may not have all the answers or skills right away and that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. By maintaining a growth mindset, you can focus on the journey rather than the destination and reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth and self-improvement.
7. Practice Self-Compassion
Practice self-compassion by acknowledging your emotions and being gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that nobody is perfect, treat yourself the way you would treat others experiencing similar doubts, and remember it’s okay to feel vulnerable. Use positive affirmations to counter negative thoughts, and don’t hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist when needed.
Final Thoughts: Navigating Imposter Syndrome
Feelings of imposter syndrome are common in many other aspects of life. Remember that you are not the only one experiencing it. Many successful people have experienced these feelings. It’s a normal part of getting out of your comfort zone and expanding your horizons. Try practicing some of the tips we mentioned here to manage your feelings of imposter syndrome, so they don’t interfere with your PhD education pursuits.