“I am one of the lucky and privileged few to make it to this level; destined to sit amongst the top 1% most educated people in the world. My parents are proud of me, and my research sounds impressive when I describe it at parties.”
“I have no job, no money, no guarantee of a career in my field, and no idea what I’m doing. All my friends have houses, spouses, and kids by now. I’m falling behind in life, and all for the sake of a pointless thesis that no-one will read.”
^I thought both of these things during my Masters and PhD, often simultaneously. How ’bout you?
To be honest, I was never sure how I felt about being a postgraduate research student. Because, really, my identity was a mess of contradictions.
Postgrad research students are technically students, but not just students. It’s kind of a job, but you’re not an employee. You’re sort of an expert, but still somehow junior. To be a postgrad research student is to occupy a liminal space in which there is little certainty, little security, and little validation.
On the face of it, there is a high status to postgraduate research. After all, you have to be smart to get in the door. But because you’re working on a long-term project, there’s no validation of your worth on a day-to-day basis. And so it’s easy for doubt to creep in. To top it all off, research is incredibly isolating. You might go days without speaking to another human being, and you might never get to have honest, personal conversations with other postgrads. No wonder we often feel unsure.
Insofar as there is a ‘postgrad identity’ (and of course there isn’t just one, since we’re all different), perhaps it’s characterised by uncertainty.
What am I doing here?
How the heck am I supposed to finish this research?
Where will I go from here?
Then there’s imposter syndrome: the crippling belief that everyone else is capable, and you are a fraud just waiting to be exposed. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. It is incredibly common among high-achieving people, and especially among postgrad students. This could be because we’re trained to think about our limitations; to be cautious; to downplay our own significance. We are also experienced enough to know how much we don’t know. We’ve glimpsed the vastness of human knowledge, and we understand how tiny our own knowledge is in comparison.
Incidentally – the inverse of imposter syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with little experience think they know a great deal (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). This explains why, for instance, hard-working medical researchers are crippled with self-doubt; while unqualified peers who’ve read a few posts in a dodgy Facebook group swear they can cure cancer with a turmeric juice cleanse.
With true expertise comes great humility; and unfortunately for us, postgrad students often sit right at the bottom of the valley of self-doubt that precedes (we hope) a slowly growing confidence.
It’s no wonder that mental health problems affect postgrad students at far higher rates than they do the general population. One recent study found that postgrad students are 6 times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression (Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, & Vanderford, 2018). The Depressed Academics blog is a window into the depths of the mental illnesses that often afflict talented thinkers.
And yet, despite the uncertainty, the imposter syndrome, and the tendency toward depression and anxiety, the postgrad identity is also one of promise. Because we are the people who, in ten or twenty or thirty years, will be the intellectual leaders of our communities; with the power and influence to make positive changes.
So when we think about our collective and individual identities as budding scholars, should we be optimists or pessimists? I have no idea. But I do know that behind the impressive-sounding ring of ‘Masters student’ or ‘PhD candidate’ lies a shared vulnerability. We don’t all know what we’re doing. But we’re problem-solvers. We’ll figure it out.
Note: If you’re an AUT postgrad and you have mental health concerns, you can visit our Counselling and Mental Health page for info on resources available to you. There are AUT counsellors available on all campuses. There is also a nationwide phone service whereby you can free-call or text 1737 to talk or text with a counsellor anytime.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.