Friday, March 3, 2017

PhD Impostor Syndrome

timeshighereducation.com
by : http://jameshaytonphd.com/phd-impostor-syndrome/

During my PhD, there were times when I felt I shouldn’t be there. Some of the other students in the research group were ridiculously smart, and while I was struggling to get even the roughest of results, they were publishing article after article and presenting their work at international conferences.

Many of them had done their undergraduate degrees at the same university, so their supervisors had known who they were recruiting, but I had moved from Sheffield to Nottingham and always had the slight feeling that I had bluffed my way in and would, eventually, be found out. This is the impostor syndrome, and is a common problem among PhD students.

If you’re working day after day in pursuit of a goal, part of you must believe it’s possible. But the contradiction between the belief and the doubt - the forces pulling in two opposite directions - creates a stress that can stop you working to the best of your ability, which in turn reinforces the doubt.

Because impostor-like feelings are so common, it’s easy to dismiss them as just something that everyone goes through. I don’t think it’s enough to say “everybody goes through this, just believe in yourself, keep going and it will be OK”. I think it’s better to examine the ideas behind the impostor syndrome and how they affect your work, then think about whether there’s a more effective way of approaching it.

Although I present some ideas for dealing with impostor syndrome below, I want to make very clear that persistent feelings of unworthyness (or worthlessness) can be a sign of depression, and it would be deeply irresponsible to pretend that I have a solution to this other than seeking qualified help (speak to your doctor or your university counseling service).

Self-Expectations

If you feel like you aren’t good enough, how good do you think you should be? At a recent talk I gave in Sheffield, one student said that “to get a PhD means you are the world’s leading expert in your topic.” While that’s a kind of almost true, in that nobody else knows your project like you do, if taken literally it’s a near-impossible expectation to live up to.

It’s healthier, and more accurate, to think of a PhD as a beginner’s qualification. It is during your PhD that you develop basic research skills, which you can then develop further should you continue in academia. Maybe you can become the world’s leading expert in something, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and a hell of a lot longer than your PhD to build that experience and reputation.

Even when you graduate you will still be a relative beginner, so what matters is not how good you are now, but how your skills develop over time.

Ability is not fixed - it is almost always possible to improve upon whatever talents you have, but in order to do so you have to consciously work on the uncomfortable boundaries of your skills. This is only possible if you acknowledge where those limits are.

Impostor syndrome vs beginner mindset

Impostors, by definition, hide their identity. In the context of a PhD, this means hiding any insecurity or weakness in knowledge; avoiding asking the “stupid question”, avoiding mistakes, avoiding risk and avoiding difficulty. It is a state motivated by fear, by the avoidance of a negative outcome, but it actually makes the negative outcome more likely.

Sometimes it’s worth embracing the very thing you fear the most. Rather than avoiding being found out, why not be open about what you don’t know?

If you think of yourself as a beginner, the question is no longer whether you are good enough, but how to get better. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being enthusiastically open about your weaknesses, it frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. This is a much more positive outlook.

Really, it’s about identifying problems you can do something about. If you can specify a skill that you need to strengthen, and specific actions to strengthen that skill, this is something you can focus on instead of the vague and destructive sense of unbelonging. 

James Hayton

Author of "PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life"

Does Your Classroom Cultivate Student Resilience?

photo of a proud young womanby Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD, Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-cultivate-student-resilience-marilyn-price-mitchell

Over 100 years ago, the great African American educator Booker T. Washington spoke about resilience:
I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.
Research has since established resilience as essential for human thriving, and an ability necessary for the development of healthy, adaptable young people. It's what enables children to emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures.

Children who develop resilience are better able to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss, and adapt to change. We recognize resilience in children when we observe their determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the emotional challenges of school and life.

The Capacity to Rebuild and Grow From Adversity

Resilience is not a genetic trait. It is derived from the ways that children learn to think and act when faced with obstacles large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children's supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions. When we help young people cultivate an approach to life that views obstacles as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience.

Many teachers are familiar with Stanford professor Carol Dweck's important work with growth mindsets, a way of thinking that helps children connect growth with hard work and perseverance. Educator David Hochheiser wisely reminds us that developing growth mindsets is a paradigm for children's life success rather than a pedagogical tool to improve grades or short-term goals. Simply put, it's a way of helping children believe in themselves - often the greatest gift teachers give to their students.

Resilience is part of The Compass Advantage™ (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because the capacity to rebuild and grow from adversity is a key factor in achieving optimal mental and physical health. Linked by research to happiness and the other abilities on the compass, resilience is one of the 8 Pathways to Every Student's Success.

Compass with Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Sociability as compass points
Image Credit: Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD

The ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being plays an essential role in how students learn to achieve academic and personal goals. Resilient young people feel a sense of control over their own destinies. They know that they can reach out to others for support when needed, and they readily take initiative to solve problems. Teachers facilitate resilience by helping children think about and consider various paths through adversity. They also help by being resources, encouraging student decision-making, and modeling resilient competencies.

Five Ways to Cultivate Resilience

1. Promote self-reflection through literary essays or small-group discussions

Short written essays or small-group discussion exercises that focus on heroic literary characters are an excellent way, particularly for younger students, to reflect on resilience and the role it plays in life success. After children have read a book or heard a story that features a heroic character, encourage them to reflect by answering the following questions (see the Heroic Imagination Project for additional resources and videos).
  • Who was the hero in this story? Why?
  • What challenge or dilemma did the hero overcome?
  • What personal strengths did the hero possess? What choices did he or she have to make?
  • How did other people support the hero?
  • What did the hero learn?
  • How do we use the same personal strengths when we overcome obstacles in our own lives? Can you share some examples?

2. Encourage reflection through personal essays

Written exercises that focus on sources of personal strength can help middle and high school students learn resilience-building strategies that work best for them. For example, by exploring answers to the following questions, students can become more aware of their strengths and what they look for in supportive relationships with others.
  • Write about a person who supported you during a particularly stressful or traumatic time. How did they help you overcome this challenge? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a friend that you supported as he or she went through a stressful event. What did you do that most helped your friend? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a time in your life when you had to cope with a difficult situation. What helped and hindered you as you overcame this challenge? What learning did you take away that will help you in the future?

3. Help children (and their parents) learn from student failures

In her insightful article Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, published in The Atlantic, middle school teacher Jessica Lahey touched on a topic near and dear to every teacher's heart: How do I teach students to learn and grow through failure and setbacks when their parents are so intent on making them a shining star? The truth is that learning from failure is paramount to becoming a resilient young person. Teachers help when they:
  • Create a classroom culture where failure, setbacks, and disappointment are an expected and honored part of learning.
  • Establish and reinforce an atmosphere where students are praised for their hard work, perseverance, and grit, not just for grades and easy successes.
  • Hold students accountable for producing their own work, efforts from which they feel ownership and internal reward.
  • Educate and assure parents that supporting kids through failure builds resilience - one of the best developmental outcomes that they can give their children.

4. Bring discussions about human resilience into the classroom

Opportunities abound to connect resilience with personal success, achievement, and positive social change. Expand discussions about political leaders, scientists, literary figures, innovators, and inventors beyond what they accomplished to the personal strengths they possessed and the hardships they endured and overcame to reach their goals. Help students learn to see themselves and their own strengths through these success stories.

5. Build supportive relationships with students

Good student-teacher relationships are those where students feel seen, felt, and understood by teachers. This happens when teachers are attuned to students, when they notice children's needs for academic and emotional support. These kinds of relationships strengthen resilience. When adults reflect back on teachers who changed their lives, they remember and cherish the teachers who encouraged and supported them through difficult times.

Do you have a teacher who played this role in your own life? What do you remember about him or her?