Fake it till you make it?

Impostor syndrome and Ph.D.

Elena Comincioli

People working in academia are prone to suffer from mental health issues such as Burnout and impostor syndrome. Maria Törnroos shares some insights on how to overcome such situations.

(Image: Verne Hol)


In August 2020, Aalto University introduced a new service catered to the research community: a Psychologist for doctoral students. Maria Törnroos, a scholar in work well-being and health, was appointed as the first person to hold this position. A couple of months since the start of her assignment, we got together in a virtual coffee to discuss Burnout and impostor syndrome, two of the main issues affecting the international doctoral community's mental health.



Elena Comincioli: Could you tell us about your new role at Aalto University?


Maria Törnroos: My title is a Psychologist for doctoral students, which means that 50% of my work time is dedicated to individual counseling. I'm like a student psychologist, but because I don't consider doctoral students as students in a strict sense, I would define myself merely as a psychologist. Individual counseling is how we operate every day. Since we are working in a university, we are not allowed to give mental healthcare. Hence, one half of my job is about being there, listening and supporting, and finding further support if needed. The other half of my job is developing the healthiest environment for doctoral students: for instance, by giving lectures or workshops to both the doctoral students and faculty or by supporting supervisors in their role. This is how it looks now: however, this is a new position, so I have been able to do this from scratch. I believe the first year of my job is about trying to figure out what a psychologist for doctoral students should do because no one exactly knows, and I'm the one that has to figure that out now!



Why Ph.D. Students might need a full-time psychologist?


I think that doctoral students have been neglected for a long time. Since they are not officially considered students, they couldn't get other student health care and services here in Finland. Furthermore, at Aalto University, just one-third of the doctoral students are employed: only one-third of them can count on occupational health care. In other words, most doctoral students simply don't get the same service that students or employees get. The fact that doctoral students have been neglected for a long time has produced evident results in many international research and surveys. You get a clear sense that Burnout and depression are widespread (prevalent)among doctoral students.



Let's talk about the concept of Impostor syndrome (IS). When reading about it, an interesting way to approach this issue is to consider that if you are feeling like an impostor, you are probably not. What about the opposite: what about people who are never questioning themselves - are they the true impostors? Or is no one an impostor, and no one should challenge themselves?


I think that no one should question themselves. The first way to overcome impostor syndrome is to detach what one thinks about oneself from reality. You should tell yourself something like: "These are just thoughts about myself; this is not the reality." People who don't have impostor syndrome or appear not to have it might already be good at separating these thoughts. They might good enough in some situations, but they are not drowning in them all the time, and they can separate themselves from these thoughts.



What are the causes, in your opinion? And how are that influenced by individual or collective dimensions?


The academic culture is quite ruthless and can generate this sort of feeling. We are afraid to show that we are weak or scared to admit that we don't know anything because that might mean that we are not good scientists. We may not get the promotion we want because someone in the promotion committee might see our weaknesses and promote someone else instead - someone who always seems confident in an unshakable way. Why does this happen? I believe the whole phenomenon is not anyone's fault. Instead, it is probably something ingrained in the structure of how academia works. And that is hard to change, but if we speak about this, we can find a way to change these things for the better.

One of the numerous memes available in Facebook groups dedicated to Ph.D. students. This one was posted on High Impact Memes

What are the consequences of feeling like an impostor - why is that wrong or dangerous?


First of all, it lowers your self-esteem, undermining your self-efficacy believes. If you think you cannot do things, perhaps you will not even try to do something, as you will have a constant fear of failure. This, in turn, might cause you depression and Burnout. All of this relates not only to the constant fear of getting found out as an impostor, but it also revolves around the fear of making a mistake - and I think it is quite contradictory that this feeling is so widespread in a scientific community. Science is about making mistakes and learning from them. Yet, this is not what we are taught as a scientist. We are taught that we should write the perfect article, and it should be published in the perfect journal… but that is not the case, and if we don't speak up about these things, it will not get better. I once had an article that I sent to 11 journals before it got published. It was four years of my life with this one article. I always try to bring this story up as much as possible. What you see on the outside and how you see someone's career has gone does not reflect all the failures. That is why some people, brilliant people, have started to put their CV of failures online. And I think that is a perfect thing because it shows younger scholars that these successful people failed so many times: they did not get the grant they wanted, they did not get the tenure track that they wanted, and their articles have been through a lot of reviews… and that all of this is normal! Just because we don't see it every day, we forgot how normal this is.



How can I recognize if I have IS? As an example, if I am bad at quantitative methods, and I found myself in a context where we are discussing these kinds of methods, I might feel inadequate. I might think that all my colleagues are better than me - and I am an impostor by sitting among them. Inevitably, there will be situations where you don't have a set of skills that everyone else seems to master. How can you recognize if you have IS or if you are just in a healthy situation where critiquing yourself can lead to acquiring the missing skills?


I think that overcoming IS is strictly related to how you react in moments like that. When we found out that we don't know something, we should not focus on the sole thought that says, "you are missing that skill." Instead, we should start by acknowledging that we are dealing with that thought and react by asking ourselves: Would you like to let go of the view, or would you like to act on the thought - perhaps by acquiring the missing skill?  In other words, you should recognize that you are having this thought about not being as good as these people - but that 'that's ok: that is just a thought. Perhaps, I can learn something from these people or practice quantitative methods and become as good as them. I don't think you have to recognize that you have IS per se: I believe that it is suitable for everyone to accepting these kinds of thoughts as no more than ideas - not the truth.



How can I avoid having IS as an individual?


Individually, the first step is to recognize and observe these thoughts. However, I don't think we can prevent this from happening to people unless academia changes. At the same time, I believe that we can help people recognize these thoughts patterns by merely talking about it, and then we can start to mold these thoughts patterns. They are just thoughts, and we are a human being that can think, and that is a richness and a strength that we all have. Sometimes, the ability to think takes us in the wrong direction. When that happens, we have to step back and become in charge of our thoughts again. It is not easy, and it takes a lot of practice, but this is one way to mitigate the consequences of having such thoughts.



Do you think there is also a way to prevent IS from a broader, systemic perspective?


I think we need to be more open about the occurrence of failure, and more open about what it is to be a scientist, and how little each and any of us know. It is crucial that people who have been successful and recognized can speak up about the challenges they have faced. At present, the pandemic is exacerbating our problems. If we don't have any social interaction, we cannot easily see what other people are doing and what other people are struggling with. Hence, the risk is to disconnect from reality and get convinced that everyone else is doing fine, and we are the only ones who are struggling. In short, we need to be more open as a community. At this time, professors and senior scholars should make sure that their research group has enough social interactions to avoid getting disconnected from the reality of academic work.



Earlier on, you mentioned that IS could lead to Burnout. Could you help us to get a better understanding of this phenomenon?


Burnout occurs when your resources are not enough to handle all the demands of the environment you work in. It can lead to depression and anxiety and specific medical issues, also with physical symptoms. I would start by mentioning the three signs of Burnout. The first one is exhaustion: you are physically tired, and you don't have the strength to do anything else. The second one is cynicism: you start to develop an increasingly cynical attitude towards your work towards your colleagues, perhaps even towards things that happen outside work. Finally, this affects your occupational self-esteem negatively, as you no longer feel that you are in control or that you know what you are doing: hence, you start to question yourself, and you begin to think that you are not good enough. We might say that IS comes again here - indeed, it can be a symptom of Burnout.

Previously, it was believed that Burnout first manifests itself through exhaustion. However, a Finnish research group has recently found out that Burnout can also originate from a drop in self-esteem levels. That is why managers or supervisors were once advised to look for exhaustions as Burnout's primary early sign. Today, we suggest that they keep their eyes open if they observe a drop in self-esteem levels. If they start to see that their employee doesn't believe in themselves anymore and have trouble executing tasks, that can indicate Burnout.



What are, in your opinion, the leading causes of Burnout?


I believe the leading cause is the tension that exists between the individual and the environment. One theory, the job demands-resources model, actually defines it as a mismatch of resources. Talking about resources, they might be something you have as an individual and something that comes from the environment. For instance, you enjoy support from your supervisor and your colleagues; you have autonomy; you can control your work hours, and you have a fulfilling job. The demands are well known; it can be the workload, the working hours, the financial situation. For doctoral students, for instance, the economic situation can be a significant demand factor.

According to this model, demands alone might not be enough to lead to stress and Burnout - it depends on whether you have the resources to balance those very demands. If you have a lot of things on your plate, but at the same time you have the support from your team, that should not be a problem. Burnout comes when you don't have, for instance, a boss or supervisor that supports you, or you have been bullied at work, or you have no control over when and where you do your job. In other words, it is a mixture of the demands and resources, but it also a combination of the individual and the environment. It does not just depend on the environment, but also on how the individual perceives it. Burnout is also a consequence of prolonged stress.



What are the consequences of Burnout? Why is it that bad to experience it?


In Finland, if we talk about health and anxiety, we use the international diagnosis code, which, unfortunately, does not provide an official diagnosis for Burnout. If you experience Burnout and you go to the doctor, she will diagnose depression. This is a big issue. Often, Burnout can cause depression and anxiety, or it can cause sleep problems that, in turn, can impact other factors of your physical health. In terms of behavioral outcomes, this would lead to low productivity and low creativity: you might even leave your job or get a general sense of low satisfaction towards life.



How can I recognize if I have it or if you are just demotivated, or even just a little bit lazy?


If you feel exhausted, at some point, you will recognize that your exhaustion does not go away by merely sleeping over it. At the same time, you might notice that you are extra sensitive, and you might burst out crying. If you have all these symptoms, together with low self-esteem, I think it would be a good idea to check online, where there are some questionnaires that you can fill in if you suspect that you might have Burnout. A cynical attitude towards your colleagues and your work might also be a big issue. I have seen and experienced the feeling that you get this knot in your stomach every time you think about work. I experienced two Burnout: I know how it feels. However, I did not recognize it at first. It was a colleague of mine who sent me to the doctor.



How did you overcome your two burnouts?


It is not a fast process. After my first Burnout, I went to the occupational health care, to the Psychologist, I followed the psychotherapy from Kela (note: the Finnish social security program), and I went to the therapist for three years. This is one of the things that I'm advocating for: we cannot put on the individuals all the responsibility to heal themselves. Most problems come from the environment. In my case, I went to therapy for three years, but in the same period, nothing changed in my work environment. After two years and a half, I finally understood: "Ok, it is not me. It is the environment: now I have to leave." I experienced a breakdown last fall and realized that I had tried to change myself for two years and a half, while what was fundamental to do was to leave the environment that was making me sick. When I left, I felt so happy.



How can you prevent from experiencing Burnout?


This is a tough question. If we think about Ph.D. students, I will list a few things that can help: adequate supervision, frequent supervision, and open communication, respectful and supportive. That is what supervisors can do. Simultaneously, academia has to create an environment where you have structures that support the research journey. For instance, here in Finland, I think we should improve the funding situation. If doctoral students are employed, they can go to the doctor quickly if something like this happens. This is part of the broader organizational culture. If we have a supportive culture, that can also help because if doctoral students can see that they are taken care of, this would significantly impact their well-being.


On a more individual level, you can prevent Burnout by putting yourself first. You can focus on what kind of work routines is better for you - and have a healthy lifestyle: rest and recovery, try to eat well, do physical exercise. You can also try to improve your psychological flexibility, which we mentioned earlier- that is, becoming able to tell your thoughts from the truth. Finally, social support from peers is super important. If we compare ourselves to the right people, we can see that others are also struggling, and it is ok to struggle. Especially now, during a pandemic.



It seems that in academia, there is a shared belief that during your career, it is normal to experience mental health issues. A lot of people jokingly say: "during a Ph.D. you get depressed." In a way, it seems that everyone is aware that mental health and life in academia have a problematic relationship. What do you think should change in the discussion?


Telling each other that if you start a Ph.D., you will get depressed, do not help the cause of normalizing depression. On the contrary, it only makes it worst. Instead, what we should do is to share more of our own experiences. I know a post-doc student that openly talks about the fact that she has been to therapy. The professors in her group are asking her: "Please talk more about that, because we want everyone to understand that it is ok to go to therapy, it is ok to feel bad and seek help." It is also essential that we have to start changing the system. Rather than just saying, "you will get depressed if you come here," we should ask ourselves: what is it that makes people depressed? And what can we do to change that? If we all put our heads together, I know we could develop a solution that can work for everyone.



What is the main takeaway you would like to provide to someone skim-reading this interview?

Focus on yourself, listen to yourself, and do not be afraid to ask for help. Everything you are feeling is ok. Your thoughts are just thoughts, and you have the power to influence them. But first, you have to accept that you have those thoughts.