imposter syndrome

Since I started this blog in 2014 I see that a common theme is my lack of belief that I am capable of doing intellectual work. In particular I have struggled with the literature review. I don’t know how to read the literature effectively, don’t know how to take notes, don’t know how to bring it all together and write about other people’s research etc.

I have read all the books on how to do a literature review, attended training courses, sought advice from various people. However, 4 years into the PhD I am still struggling. However, this week I’ve had a bit of an epiphany. I finally feel that I have some control over how I am going to write one of the literature review chapters and I suddenly feel really light and relaxed and confident. There are two specific resources that helped me. First this mind map:


Thanks D.R. Rowland, whoever you are!

And secondly the book ‘The Literature Review: A step-by-step guide for students by Diana Ridley

But these resources aren’t the magic bullet, it’s not like I haven’t been told or read about how to do a literature review a million times, rather something shifted in my mind. I want to share with you the thoughts I have been having for 4 years and how these have stopped the advice in the books, and from other people, sinking in:

  • I am not capable of managing all that literature. It’s too big a task for me and I am not capable of tackling it. Other people are neater and more organised than me that’s why they can do it.
  • I am not capable of understanding the theories and concepts in the literature. Other people are more intelligent than me, that’s why they can do it. I can only do more basic and descriptive work.
  • The techniques I read in ‘how to do a literature review’ books all probably work, but they won’t work for me because I’m not clever enough to implement them.
    • I’ve given up on the suggested technique. It’s because I am stupid, lazy and don’t have the stamina to see it through.
    • If I create my own technique it will probably fail because I am stupid and it will probably be fundamentally flawed.This technique I’ve read in a book isn’t working for me, but I’ll persevere anyway because surely I’m the one that’s wrong here, not the technique.
  • I can’t let anyone know that I am not sure how to do a literature review. It’s OK to not know in the first year but to not know in year 4 is a disgrace. If anyone finds out they will be shocked.
  • Nobody must know I think these thoughts as they are self-absorbed.

Out of the above, I think the main thing I needed to stop thinking was that I can’t create my own technique to read, manage and record the important things from the literature. But I can. It was just having the confidence to give my own technique a go. After 4 years of struggle, it only took me 1 hour I’d say to sort out how I am going to manage and record the important things I have found in the literature! It’s really simple. Just some headings in an Excel spreadsheet, but the key thing is, they are my headings, bespoke to my project and needs. I will share with you how I am going to approach this task in a future post as I better make sure it actually works for me first.

So my advice to you would be to read the books on how to do a literature review, but also remember that you can create your own bespoke method too by drawing on what you have learned from your reading and through trial and error. If you are thinking the same negative thoughts as me you probably don’t believe me. You may even be thinking that I am more organised, disciplined and intelligent than you…….but I am not of course.  Just relax, have confidence that you are becoming the expert and finally, keep it simple, stupid!

P.s. Thanks also to the UCL institute of Education Academic Writing Centre for some advice given to me on a private forum about taking ownership of my writing.


You know when you are little and you bravely climb a wall, but then you get paralysed with fear and have to shout ‘help I’m stuck!’ for someone to lift you off. In hindsight the wall was tiny, the distance and danger was all in your mind, but there was no way you could get over your fear by yourself. Well, this is how I feel about my thesis and have done I think probably for many months, but did not really know it was a big problem until another supervision meeting started with ‘Annika, this work doesn’t make sense to us. Are you OK?’.

A couple of weeks ago the supervision meeting started liked that. Which was very disappointing for me because every meeting of late has started with concerned looks and questioning of why my work always seems to be off on a tangent, why my supervisors can’t see where I am going and why I never seem to actually do what I said I would do in the previous meeting. It is quite obvious that I have some sort of anxiety problem but I sort of thought this was normal, but it has started to affect my progress so badly that I haven’t really achieved much and I am 2.5 years into the 3 year PhD.

So finally I have accepted the help of someone to take me off the wall. I saw a woman at my university who deals with students who need advice – normally for things like changing supervisors, extensions on assignments, financial worries – but she was recommended to me because she was lovely – and indeed she was. One thing we spoke about to try to boost my confidence in my abilities was to remember that I won a prestigious and competitive scholarship. This is some evidence that someone at some time saw that I had potential and thought I was capable of doing the PhD. Not everyone has this, so it is something I need to use to help boost myself. Grab what you can! Also I was reminded that my upgrade was really good. It was agreed by two eminent professors that I am capable and that the project plan was at a doctoral level. So after this meeting I felt much better. It is not arrogant to remember that you have achieved some very good things.

Secondly I booked an appointment with a counsellor. I went to an assessment meeting where they ask you open questions about every aspect of your life which is interesting but emotionally exhausting! I am not sure I want to go back – but know I probably should and would benefit so I better I suppose….

Finally, I have been making sure I exercise more and look after myself physically – which of course can positively  affect mental health. My going to the gym has been so erratic that my favourite  yoga instructor said ‘where have you been, are you OK?

Everyone is asking if I am OK. They have always asked this, but perhaps I never wanted to admit that I wasn’t OK (I don’t think I knew I wasn’t until this crisis). But now I feel like I am becoming OK again and that my thesis will be OK and OK is good enough!


Me stuck on a wall in the 1980s! Nothing changes eh?

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