With exam season in full flow, it’s easy to fall into a slump and start doubting your ability. Here are a few words of encouragement to help shake away feelings of being an ‘imposter’ whilst dealing with the stress of the next few weeks…
Exam season will always be a tough time of year. I’ve only recently re-discovered the pleasure of enjoying Easter, having spent the previous eight years frantically revising. Whilst the effort always seemed to pay off, I would always find myself thinking exactly the same thing each time a set of exams loomed: ‘What if this is the year I’m finally caught out?’. A quick trawl of the internet was enough to convince me that I’m certainly not alone. Known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, this psychological phenomenon is thought to affect over 70% of people from all walks of life at some point in their education or career!
The way in which the syndrome can take hold is entirely dependent on the individual, something that is explored in great detail by Valerie Young in ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women…’. Young establishes different types of ‘imposter’, from the ‘perfectionist’ who sets themselves excessively high goals and consequently experiences self-doubt upon failing to reach them, to the ‘rugged individualist’ who feels as though a request for help is an admission of failure. Personally, I think I fit into the ‘expert’ category (excellent labelling by Young there), since I sometimes feel as though I’ve tricked my way to where I am today, in constant danger of being ‘found out’.
This isn’t surprising, given my background. As is the case for many students in this day and age, I’m the first generation in my family to go to university, let alone attempt a PhD. Many students, particularly at Warwick, will have spent the majority of their school life in the top few percent of their class. Suddenly, they find themselves at a university, where seemingly everyone will have met the incredibly high entry standards to get onto their course. It is easy to see how such a shock to the system can lead to twinges of self-doubt creeping their way into daily life. This is something I really struggled to deal with in my first year of undergraduate studies. Indeed, feelings of being an imposter or fraud resurrected themselves as I began my PhD; I guess they’ll always be there to some extent, one way or another.
Whilst that may seem a daunting prospect, there are plenty of ways in which you can tackle self-doubt and, in some cases, turn it into a strength. First of all, it’s important to figure out your personal definition of success, making sure that the goals you set yourself are realistic and achievable. Whilst it may seem a good idea to compare accomplishments with friends, be careful! Remember that you can only do the best you can do. The setting of goals needs to be a personal decision. That’s not to say friends can’t help, simply beware that some will be able to do twice the work in half the time, whilst others will do half the work in double the time. You need to aim to push yourself, but not to a point where the goals you set are completely out of reach. For me, something as simple as writing a list of targets for the day and ticking them off as I completed them helped a lot with this.
One other piece of advice that has served me well in my continuing attempts to stave off imposter-like feelings is to treat success and failure in the same vein. Sure, it’s great to succeed at something, whether it be getting a good grade in an exam, running a marathon or completing an internship. In many ways, however, we learn more from our mistakes. With this in mind, don’t let a ‘failure’ diminish your self-esteem, use it to work out ways to improve in future. We all learn from experience and treating mistakes in this way can actually turn self-doubt on its head.
Finally, remember that pretty much everyone is in the same boat. There will be some who are excellent at retaining information and go into the exam period brimming with confidence. But, as the earlier statistic implies, the likelihood is that the people sitting around you waiting for the invigilator to say “You may begin.” are just as nervous as you are. They probably have precisely the same doubts in their minds and are worrying that their ‘luck’ is about to end. The main hurdle is convincing yourself that it’s not luck, you’ve gotten where you are because you’re able. Hopefully these snippets of advice can help you tackle this and (even just a little bit) relieve some of the pressure that goes hand in hand with this time of year. Best of luck for the coming weeks!