PhD and then what?

An unwanted companion – the imposter

This conversation is taking longer than I was expecting. At the same time, as I get in touch with myself and scan all my past and present emotions about my PhD, I hope they are resonating with you and your experience and I do hope that you are scanning your emotions as well.

In this series, we have about why I did a PhD, what it meant to do it abroad, what I worked on and what I learned about myself in the process. There is one thing I have purposely left behind.

It was something deeply embedded into myself but that I had never realised before. Never.

It was the imposter.

Constantly there, whispering in my year, undermining my confidence, reminding me I was not enough.

Have you ever experienced this feeling of being in a position of success (which can mean different things to different people) just by mistake?

Have you ever underappreciated your victories and focused on every little mistake?

Have you ever thought you were just lucky to get the job, or maybe someone else was wrong when gave it to you?

Yes, you got it, but what if you were the only one that applied? What if you got the job only because of your gender?

The imposter is something you may or may not have heard of, but it’s probably there, especially if you are part of a community that’s always been undermined or misrepresented.

As a young woman in science, I was bound to feel like an imposter: I was doing a PhD in the UK, where the research quality is one of the best worldwide. I’ve touched on this theme in this interview with WISDOM if you’d like to hear more.

But that was not the only reason I felt an imposter. Being from the South of Italy, that did not help either.

Being from Naples meant occasional aggressions and constant microaggressions from the rest of the country and from friendly fire. Being constantly told that you’re not good enough, you end up believing it. And you may end up perpetuating this lie and pass it on without knowing.

So, the imposter was there but I did not know.

I used to fight my imposter by working long hours, but I had never heard of it. How was I supposed to know it was the reason behind my behaviour?

No, really, when I first heard about it, I felt the pieces of the puzzle getting into place. And for this (as well), I will always be thankful to my department for taking my hand and walking me through it.

Hearing my supervisor, someone I saw like a very successful woman in science (and now head of the department), saying she fought with it as well made me find some oxygen and breathe. My body and my mind could finally relax. That open conversation with the departmental staff was really helpful and healing.

I could talk about why I felt an imposter, I could hear feedback from people that I interviewed with and I could see myself through other people’s eyes.

I could finally start to heal.

The process is long, and the imposter is always in the back of my mind, very wounded but never totally destroyed. Knowing it’s there, though, makes it easier for me to fight it.

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