Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Ellie Newman (2019, MSt Classical Archaeology)

My pre-university education was unexceptional. I attended a state secondary school and a local sixth-form college and, although I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, it’s fair to say that attending Oxford wasn’t even a consideration for most of us (myself included). So, when I found myself with a place for postgraduate study at Oxford, I was extremely proud. I knew I had worked hard at my previous university and felt I deserved this wonderful opportunity to continue my studies. Upon arrival in Oxford, though, I felt like I was walking in a dream that I would wake up from at any moment. I was living a lie and I was going to get caught. Was my application really accepted, or was it a mistake? Am I as smart as everyone else here? Can they see that I don’t belong?

This feeling is often called Imposter Syndrome, which can manifest itself in response to many different aspects of a person’s identity, all of which are valid. For instance, I feel academic Imposter Syndrome as a result of my schooling experience, but it can be sparked in response to a person’s class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical and mental wellbeing, and more. It can be smothering, but it’s important to know that you’re not alone. The reality is that this feeling of being an outsider is so very common at Oxford. And while it can be overwhelming, there are ways to manage it. So, with hopes that they may be helpful to others, here are 5 tips that have helped my own feelings of Imposter Syndrome.

1. Try not to compare yourself to others.
This is much easier said than done. You’re bound to come across people who like to brag about themselves, which can spark feelings of inferiority. In these situations, it’s important to remember that you’ve both made it to Oxford, you both deserve to be here, and that you aren’t in competition with each other. It’s also important to remember that Oxford students come from all kinds of backgrounds, and not everyone has had the same life experiences or privileges. Yet we’ve all made it here, and that’s something to celebrate.

2. Remember that no one can know everything.
My supervisor recently asked me an unexpected question about my research. Much to my horror, I didn’t have an answer. I expected for him to tell me that I’m useless and to question why I had been accepted in the first place. Instead, his response was “I don’t know either, I was hoping you would tell me.” No one comes into the academic world knowing everything. Even the top professor in your department will have areas of expertise and areas of unfamiliarity. We come to university to learn and so there’s no shame in doing so, even if you’re starting from scratch.

3. Find a balance.
Whether in your department, in college, or in societies, get as involved as you like. All these places are great for meeting like-minded people, and you can really make friends for life in Oxford. However, don’t feel pressure to get involved if you don’t want to. It can be easy to get carried away, which can result in you neglecting your personal welfare or your studies. This can exacerbate feelings of Imposter Syndrome, and so it’s important to find a balance.

4. For every person that you don’t like, there are 10 that you will.
This may be a bit pessimistic, but in a place like Oxford it’s unlikely that you will be friends with everyone you meet. And that’s okay. Just remember that the beauty of a place so diverse is that there are going to be people who think similarly to yourself. Some of the best friendships you make might even be with people completely different to yourself. So, if you come across someone you don’t like, remember that they are just one person and for every person that you don’t like, there are 10 that you will.

5. Look after yourself.
This is the most important. If you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, reach out to someone. Your tutor/supervisor, your friends, the University/College welfare teams, all these people are here to listen and provide different forms of support. There’s no shame in speaking up and admitting that you need help. Prioritise your own wellbeing above anything else. And always remember, you aren’t alone.

Where Next?