Building Confidence & Tackling Imposter Syndrome
with Alyssa Holt (she/her), Fifth-Year Social Work Student.
My research journey began at the very beginning of 2020 when I received an email from two of my professors offering me a position as a research assistant. Dr. West and Dr. Murphy were working in affiliation with the Kamloops Elizabeth Fry Society to conduct a literature review of the needs of women recently released from prison. Before accepting their offer, I hesitated; I felt that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. At this point in my education, I had no research experience and no interest in or understanding of the criminal justice system. It felt crazy to agree to this project.
However, after careful thought and encouragement from friends and family, I hesitantly agreed to the research position. When I began the process of a literature review, I felt so overwhelmed. I came into my research with hardly any knowledge of the criminal justice system, and so the learning curve was steep.
I also experienced a lot of imposter syndrome in my research journey. Imposter syndrome can be defined as a “perception of fraudulence that can be experienced when individuals doubt their ability to fulfill a particular role or struggle to feel they belong in a particular group” (Gardner et al., 2019, p. 2). Imposter syndrome can be incredibly debilitating and can result in people denying themselves opportunities for fear that they are not adequate to take them on (Abdelaal, 2020).
I struggled with these feelings of self-doubt a lot at the beginning of my research. As someone who does not possess the lived experience of incarceration, I felt I was inherently removed from my research topic and an outsider to my research participants. Because of this, I doubted my ability to accurately research this topic and synthesize meaningful solutions. I felt like I was a fraud.
To try and mitigate some of these feelings, I engaged in plenty of reflections. Through these considerations, I came to realize that some feelings of imposter syndrome are completely normal. Research is important and can lead to significant changes. Although this is an awesome aspect of research, it can also feel like a lot of responsibility for students to take on. Simply acknowledging that I felt nervous and unsure helped me immensely. Ultimately, I understood that although research can seem daunting, overwhelming, and impossible—I was capable.
I am currently working on my third research project, and I have felt my confidence grow tenfold from where it began. Although I still feel unsure sometimes, I feel much more comfortable than I did before. The most important thing I learned is that research is a process, and sometimes I just needed to trust my instincts and push forward—even when I felt ill-equipped. A big part of building confidence in research is simply feeling okay with the unknown. Research is about discovering new things, and it is normal to start a research project with limited knowledge. I have found that it is crucial to begin with an open mind and accept that things might seem confusing or disorganized for a while—but eventually, the picture will become clearer!
A huge thing that helped me gain confidence and trust my instincts was keeping a research journal. I wrote everything in it: plans, ideas, thoughts, and worries. Having the ability to revisit the passages I wrote from a new perspective showed me how far I had come and how my confidence had increased. It can be difficult to see change when it is incremental, but returning to those pages showcased the growth I had gone through.
Here is an excerpt from an entry I wrote a little over a year ago while we were in the thick of writing our ethics application:
“It’s the first week of classes and I am already feeling like I bit off more than I could chew. Trying to conduct my own research on top of classes is starting to seem impossible. I’m feeling so unequipped to manage everything and so worried about this semester.”Personal Quote, (January 14, 2021).
During these days, I was experiencing a lot of imposter syndrome. I felt daunted at this massive research project that lay ahead, and I had no idea how I was going to tackle it. I felt confused and so stressed out by the prospect of conducting my own research while in school—but I am lucky that my research partner and two research mentors were so supportive. Imposter syndrome can be incredibly disheartening. It is always terrible to feel like your accomplishments are unearned and undeserved. During these periods, I leaned on the support of my research team. It can be challenging to break these feelings, so having a community of people who supported me and believed in me was vital.
Another aspect of imposter syndrome is being unable to accept and celebrate accomplishments (Corkindale, 2008). I found that celebrating even the smallest achievements helped me build my confidence. I was lucky to have a co-researcher with whom I was able to celebrate. For example, we went out for dinner when our ethics application was approved, and we phoned each other in excitement when we got our first survey result. Taking time to stop and celebrate all your hard work is an important aspect of overcoming self-doubt and growing your confidence as a researcher.
If I were to go back in time and begin my research journey all over again, I would tell myself to chill out!! It sounds silly, but seriously, research can be a long process, and all the answers are not usually clear right away. It is necessary to be patient and gentle with yourself. Sometimes you have to approach research from multiple angles until you find the one that fits; it can be discouraging, but it is an integral step. If I could re-do my research experience, I would ease up the high expectations I had set for myself and understand that feelings of self-doubt are normal. It can be difficult to build confidence when starting something new—change doesn’t happen overnight—but practicing self-kindness and learning to trust your instincts helped me immensely.
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Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/imposter-syndrome