By Anna L. Crofts
This post was submitted to the 2020 QCBS symposium essay contest / Ce post a été soumis lors du concours d’essai du colloque 2020 du CSBQ
This autumn, while conducting field-work at Parc national du Mont Saint Bruno, I was struck by the evolution in my feelings that not the park evoked per say, but the northern temperate forest evoked. It was a sunny day and as I waited for the GPS accuracy to resolve, I felt a sense of calmness and confidence that I associate with things of familiarity. I knew the identity of the trees that surrounded where I stood and how the forest composition would change when I moved. This feeling of comfort was in total opposition with the feeling of foreignness that I experienced at the beginning of my doctoral research when I first moved to Québec. While this foreignness was likely driven in part by the fact that the temperate forest is composed of species that were new to me, what was more apparent was the lack of nostalgia and feeling of connectedness I had previously experienced when working in other ecosystems. As I watched the GPS become more and more accurate, I was further struck by how this transition from foreignness to familiarity perfectly reflected the evolution of my relationship with my doctoral research topic. Initially, just as I felt like an outsider in the temperate forest, I felt like an outsider with regards to my research topic.
Understandably, my doctoral research is focused on a topic I am motivated by or else I would not be here in the first place; however, it is divergent from my previous research experience. While the idea of learning a new skill set and interacting with a new body of literature was initially enticing and a motivator for taking this PhD on, I never would have suspected the insecurities that arose because of it. Once I began my PhD and struggled to familiarize myself with my new research domain and attempted to generate research questions I wanted to pursue for my doctoral studies, it felt as if I had taken a big step backward from the level of academic competency I had reached at the end of my Masters. Feelings of being unqualified began to negatively affect my work productivity, which led to not meeting self-implied goals, which further drove feelings of not measuring up to the task. This positive feedback loop of self-doubt I was stuck caused me to feel like an outsider in a research space my project occupies and, in turn, I was blind to the progress I was actually accomplishing.
These feelings of being inadequate are, unfortunately, not rare in academia nor are they limited to one stage of academia. Imposter syndrome is not a barrier that must be overcome once but a recurrent struggle for some as they progress through their academic career. While imposter syndrome can be experienced by anyone, it is important to note structural inequities result in it more commonly and, or more intensely experienced by certain groups (e.g., women, visible minorities, etc.). While easier said than done, we academics need to find ways to separate these feelings from fact prior to the feelings of inadequacy being internalized to the point they become debilitating. One commonly cited approach is simply to break the silence – you are not alone, many of us have had, and will continue to have, similar experiences. In doing so, maybe more of us will learn these feelings are, merely, minor setbacks to be overcome and that we possess the knowledge, capability, and work ethic to be as successful in our undertakings as anybody else.
I have been trying to recall a specific moment, an inflection point when my attitude towards my research project changed but I think it has been more of a steady positive, but fluctuating, trend – a series of small eureka moments. I wouldn’t say I have reached the feeling of total comfort but I have reached a place of ever-increasing confidence in relation with my project. I am ready to tackle the challenges that arise in the future, I am no longer actively searching for metaphorical coniferous stands, distinct from southern Québec’s majority deciduous temperate forest, that resemble familiar spaces in which I have been successful in my past. I know I belong here.