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Sophie Kernachan explores feelings of inadequacy related to academia, and offers solidarity to students who may be experiencing the same. 

It’s become a strange ritual of mine to open a returned assignment, read the given grade, and storm into a group chat armed with self-deprecating quips, my self-esteem lower than my perception of the English department’s standards for an A.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I do get those fleeting thoughts reminding me: “I’ve made it to third year, I can’t be that bad!”, but they’re usually followed by a swift self-inflicted kick in the teeth; a reminder that my chronic feelings of inadequacy are inescapable. Impostor syndrome has a habit of creeping up on many students like this and has no doubt been worsened by the events of 2020. With poor communication from the University, a lack of both mental health and academic resources, and a barren social landscape, the student experience has been wanting. The shift to online learning has proved difficult for many of us; university isn’t feeling like university anymore. If you struggled with imposter syndrome before, it’s probably gotten a lot worse as the pandemic rages on. 

Imposter syndrome, alongside alcoholism and chronic insomnia, is one of the experiences key to the morbid trinity of student life; the quirks forming the foundation of every post on every university confessions page. While a bit of self-deprecating humour is often harmless, imposter syndrome, like the other two conditions mentioned, often runs a lot deeper than jokes may let on. It can exacerbate depression and anxiety, which understandably puts a wee bit of a dampener on the whole university experience. For some, it can lead to dropping out of university altogether. 

Although most professional research relating to it tends to focus on STEM subjects, imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate based on what degree you’re pursuing. The causes of imposter syndrome are incredibly varied; parental attitudes to education, gender, ethnicity, and social class are but a few things that can cause imposter syndrome in students. Some studies have suggested that a competitive degree is an important factor, but that doesn’t feel completely accurate, especially now. Even in the ever-more isolated world of Covid-19, when government restrictions have brought those study sessions with your seemingly-more-organised friends to a grinding halt and you can supposedly breeze through your work from the comfort of your own home, imposter syndrome still rears its ugly head.    

Feeling as though you’re only getting by academically due to luck or sympathy from others has been connected with a person’s cultural background since imposter syndrome was first identified. Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first identified the “imposter phenomenon” in the 1970s, suggesting women were primarily affected. Recent studies have suggested the lingering feelings of self-doubt are a more universal experience than that, but despite the universality of it, some groups are still more likely to be affected than others. Working class, disabled, and BIPOC populations are some of the most notably affected. Other factors might also come into play, such as what stage in your undergraduate degree you’re in or whether or not you’re doing a master’s degree. The sprawling labyrinth of anxiety that is higher education seems the perfect breeding ground for imposter syndrome, and the lingering feelings of inadequacy have become rather tragically universal to the student experience. 

The distinctly working class variety of imposter syndrome certainly resonated with me, as I encountered research which concluded that first-generation university students are significantly more likely to experience imposter syndrome than those whose parents also attended university. I couldn’t help but recall how disheartened I felt after being told by my teachers that “Glasgow University is a bit of a stretch for you” after receiving my Higher results; but I’m here now, a third year English Literature student. In my biggest moments of self-doubt, I recall the "Widening Participation" scheme that had helped me along the way, on account of living in a deprived area and wonder if I really deserve to be here. In moments like these, it’s easy to think you get by because of sympathy and quotas, and when such feelings of inadequacy are so ingrained in the university experience, it can be a very hard habit to break.

Many of the habits surrounding academic anxiety are difficult to break, and trying to do that in a learning climate like the one we’re amid right now? Struggling is more than understandable. There are many small things you can do to try and boost your self-esteem, from planning and setting achievable goals, rewarding yourself for overcoming moments of doubt, and trying to develop a positive reception and outlook on your feedback. It’s easy to look at your grades and feel as though they’re probably someone else’s, or that you’ll take what you can get - but you deserve to be here just as much as the next person. It is hard, but you’ve got this - no matter what those fleeting thoughts of inadequacy say.        


1 reply on “Beyond the jokes: imposter syndrome in students”

Martin says:

God that comment by your old teacher is disgusting, glad you showed them. A lot of my own IP comes from dropping out of school at 16 due to MH issues, but getting into UoG a few years later anyway without A-levels. Also a lot of my personal statement was all about how I’m poor + gay + have multiple health problems and I kinda assumed they let me in bc they either felt sorry for me or even more cynically to check off a few diversity boxes. Anyway I graduated and now doing my Master’s at Bristol and still tricking all my lecturers into giving me good grades somehow 😉

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