As PGRs we quickly become very comfortable in our own bubbles since we are so focussed on the details of our project. However, that’s not to say that for some of us, being a PGR doesn’t bring a whole host of anxieties. Some of the most common experiences include feeling isolated and lonely during our research. Ayesha recently offered her advice to help combat these feelings, highlighting UofG societies, clubs and events for PGRs. We can also feel like we don’t really belong in our positions and that someone is going to catch us out at any minute and show us the door! Known as imposter syndrome, this is incredibly common for researchers at all stages of their career, and even in industries beyond academia. This post attempts to tackle these two common worries head-on and offer some reassurance to all those worried that the next question will prove your undoing.
While becoming the expert on your topic brings a sense of satisfaction, there’s no denying that it can feel overwhelming at times. Many PGRs feel like they can’t share their concerns with others because our research is so specific. It is also true that we can feel even more isolated when those outside of academia (and sometimes within) make assumptions about our role. This can take the form of ‘what is your real job?’ style questions which can slowly erode your confidence. My top tip is to mention that actually, you work multiple ‘real’ jobs; as a tutor, a writer, a researcher, and anything else you might do part-time. Always emphasise your achievements: these people, although usually unintentionally dismissive, don’t realise how fantastic you are.
It is also true that hearing about colleagues’ achievements can make us feel isolated. Comparing ourselves to others can be really problematic because we begin to question whether we are doing enough, working fast enough, or generally good enough, when others seem to be doing so much better. Please try to remember that everyone works in different ways. While one PGR in your department might finish their thesis in record time, others might have published articles, or undertaken extra projects to engage with the public or fund their research. Your own achievements are all that matters. Find a path that works for you and stick to it, you don’t need to change to keep up with others.
How to combat isolation
Working independently is an excellent skill to master, but it can make you feel lonely sometimes. Whether you have an allocated desk space or need to seek out a spot each week, it can be difficult to meet other people and step away from your research. While I am an advocate of taking a long walk to clear your head, it is also true that nothing beats a good natter to help work through your frustrations and solve problems. Even chatting about totally irrelevant things can make a huge difference to your mind-set since stepping away from your research can help you recharge. During the day, try not to eat at your desk and instead seek out friends or colleagues to go for lunch with. I know how hard this can be, since you feel like the clock is ticking and every minute must be spent working, but take up that offer of coffee/tea/full blown lunch and I promise you will feel better!
Other ways to combat isolation include getting involved in research seminars in your department and across the UofG. You don’t have to present at these groups, but go along and listen to the talks, meet new people and enjoy the free lunch/drinks! Just being around other people can relieve a lot of pressure. I wish I had gone to more seminars outside my own department, purely for the fun of it. I often felt intimidated to go along to things that weren’t related to my research but actually, attending a seminar just because you think it sounds interesting is a great way to tackle loneliness and keep your mind healthy. This is also true of reading groups: seek out any that you find interesting. Even if they don’t seem particularly related to your research, taking some time away from your project and spending time with others who share your interests can be really relaxing and often proves fruitful, since you can network with colleagues across disciplines. Check your School Moodle for the social calendar which should promote events across your department, or look out for emails and sign up to newsletters from groups across the UofG.
Feeling like an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be in their position can often be exacerbated by feelings of isolation. Here at the UofG we are lucky to have lots of opportunities to deal with this debilitating issue. Take a look through the workshops and training available on MyCampus and you will see that the UofG recognises that feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome really do affect PGRs. I can recommend a few of the workshops including ‘This is what I do…and why it matters’. Go along to this workshop and you will learn to combat the nay-sayers using positive techniques that remind you why you are doing your research and more importantly, what makes you amazing at what you do! Being able to articulate your work for different audiences will make you feel like your work really matters and this can help to challenge these negative imposter feelings. If you can, try to sign up for Hugh Kearns’ workshop on the 7 Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students. Not only will you come away with practical tips to move your research forward, but Kearns takes the time to remind you that everyone feels like a fraud at times, even the most distinguished professor. Taking the time to go along to any training or development workshop, even specialised ones for your research area, will introduce you to other PGRs who share the same worries and concerns as you. Many workshops are designed to be interactive, so get talking and you will be surprised how many others feel the same.
Our series of posts on isolation and the associated anxieties, like imposter syndrome, aim to show our PGR community that they are not alone. We often share similar worries and challenges as PGRs and the best way to combat them is to get together, meet new people, and share our thoughts. Let us know how you think we can challenge these feelings and what you do to feel positive about being a PGR here in the comments or over on our Twitter @UofG_PGRblog.