An Antidote to Imposter Syndrome: Finding your Niche

It’s approaching a year since I started my PhD back in October 2019, and having undergone my first year review, its given me an opportunity to reflect on where I started out and where I am now. In a macro sense this year has flown by, with changes aplenty ensuring that weeks have collapsed onto themselves as we all try to adapt to a new lifestyle. Whereas upon reflection in a micro sense, October 2019 seems like an absolute age ago when considering my personal growth/development. One major factor in this is imposter syndrome.

At some point, I am sure everyone under the sun has experienced a feeling of being way out of their depth and not able to surmount the tasks in front of them. A quick search of the PhD subreddit reveals countless references to this phenomenon among postgrad students, which I initially took as warm relief that I was in good company when beginning my postgrad studies.

The depths of despair on the PhD subreddit

However, as I began to find out, this feeling of inadequacy can begin to cripple personal development as opportunities are turned down, or at the very least the maximum benefit is not achieved from them.

My personal doubts arose as a result of woeful prior academic performance compared when compared to other academics. For context, the entirety of my supervisory panel won the Schofield Award for best in Geotechnics at the University of Cambridge, whilst my average performance in Geotechnics across four years of undergraduate study results in a lofty 58%… When presented with these facts many would wonder, myself included, why on earth I elected to turn down a gig ripping down bridges over the M4 from the comfort of a company car, and subject myself to three and a half years of toil to drag myself to the level of those which I was (and still am!) so far apart from. I suppose that decision makes me a bit of a sadist in some sense, but for what its worth, I think my two cents on overcoming imposter syndrome may help someone out there.

Finding your Niche

As I have only recently come to realise, imposter syndrome does not bother me in any where near as great a scale as it did 10 months ago or even before that. When I considered why that was, I imagined the successes of any scale (which I’m told all healthy individuals do…), that I had achieved this past year. Objectively compared in stature to other academics, they probably dwarf in comparison, but the key aspect that I think is rarely considered by those combating imposter syndrome is the diversity between those successes. This brings me back to the title of this post, Finding your Niche.

Imposter syndrome, I believe, comes from an unfair comparison with your peers, co-workers, competitors, that your abilities do not match up sufficiently to theirs. I say unfair as each individual has their own specific strengths and experiences that would make them the optimal person for some undefined job. There’s no good in me trying to live up to the reputation of some academic who took a wildly different path to get to their destination, when my strengths are better suited elsewhere.

Realise that no ones strengths and experiences in life are precisely the same as your own, and leaning into this fact, completely removes the root cause of imposter syndrome.

Now, I hear you cry at your screen, what the hell does Finding your Niche actually look like? Well, I will gladly answer by way of a few examples. When I did my first internship at Crossrail Whitechapel back in the heady days of 2016, I was unquestionably green around the gills. Quiet, diligent and electronically proficient, I began to pick up jobs making weekly work schedules and productivity trackers in Excel, all the while being absolutely intimidated by the scale of the £600 million project. Eventually I earnt a bit of a rep for formulas, conditional formatting and the like, that I lent into by the end of my placement. It would be easy to dismiss this by saying, “ah yeah but you’re just the office Excel nerd! Nobody wants to be the Excel nerd!”, but I used far more of those skills over the remainder of my degree than some of the rubbish I learnt in my first year of study! It just so happened that when I had the opportunity to return to Whitechapel as a placeholder graduate engineer in summer 2018, I found myself asked by my earlier line manager to do some Excel wizardry again, except this time with macros! Cool, right?! Right? These days I find myself using MATLAB and Python to carry out statistical and experimental analysis that definitely would have intimidated me back in 2016. The point is, leveraging your interests and skills to pick up specific experience is invaluable, and you can use this experience to combat imposter syndrome.

More generally, focus on the skills and tasks you’re good at, and work on those until they’re best in class. You can’t be an imposter if you’re the one everyone looks to when some task needs doing.

To draw on another one of my experiences in my postgraduate life, I’ve used the real world application I gained from working on huge construction projects in conjunction with the understanding of theoretical engineering I have developed over the last year, to better deliver teaching to undergraduate students when assisting with those modules. As such, I have earnt somewhat of a reputation for being a “reliable and engaging student demonstrator” (supervisors’ words, not mine…). I think it is key to try and give students a different perspective on the material they’re trying to learn, evidently from the average mark of 58% I didn’t understand Geotechnics on the first pass and I doubt I’ll be the last to miss it first time round.

So what have I got there, some data analysis skills and I can engage with students, not exactly award worthy, but those niches have made all the difference when comparing myself to others.

To summarise, once you’ve found one niche use what you’ve learnt in conjunction with another interest or skill of yours, and go and refine that until it becomes best in class. Before you know it, your proficiency will have gone through the roof, providing a perfect hole for your confidence in your own abilities to rise through too.

Be confident in that one initial niche you found, expand it gradually and become that intimidating figure your past self would have felt and imposter to.