I have often felt lost during my PhD and it often seems to get mixed up with the imposter syndrome. I’ve often felt like I was wandering through the woods without a map or compass, while some of my colleagues seem to know right where they are going. Honestly, I was worried that if I said anything I would be exposed as an imposter and so I kept my head down writing lists and making plans to try to mark out a way forward. It wasn’t till braver friends of mine started to talk to me about similar feelings they were having with their PhDs. I wasn’t alone, and neither are you, which is a good start.
However, it got me thinking, why do so many of us feel lost? At first, I thought it might be a problem with me or my programme, but as I started to think more about it and talk with my supervisor I came to a different conclusion. A PhD by it’s very nature is about producing original work and while many people have earned a PhD no one has ever done your PhD. You feel lost because you’re exploring uncharted territory and expanding the map of knowledge. In earlier degrees we are treading over well marked and well warn paths, but in a PhD you’re cutting a new trail. I think seeing it in that light makes that feeling less the panic or dread of being lost and more the excitement of discovering something new. It makes me an explorer instead of an ill prepared hiker with a poor sense of direction.
Through this experience and thinking I’ve found a few things helpful to deal with this lost feeling. That’s not to say I have this figured out and never feel lost, but these actions and perspective have helped me better cope with the feeling.
Stop comparing – In earlier degrees you were going through the same courses as your peers and you could compare notes on reading and assignments. You could get a feel for what was expected of you and if you were keeping up with everyone. In my experience so far, PhDs don’t work like that. Different people do different aspects of their PhD at different times, so when you compare your own progress to someone else’s your bound to feel behind and lost. Remember your colleagues are likely working on a different part than you or they just work differently than you.
Ask – Your supervisor is there to be a guide. They can reassure you that you’re where you need to be and what you’re feeling is normal. They can help point you in the right direction. It may not always feel like they understand and so their reassurance might seem empty, but again that’s because you’re in uncharted territory. They haven’t been exactly where you are, but they have been in their own uncharted territory before and remember what it looks like and feels like, so trust them.
Embrace the adventure – Remember you’re not lost you’re exploring something new. It will still be a bit frightening and nerve racking at times, but that’s what makes it an adventure. If you can accept and expect that lost feeling as part of the journey and experience, it removes some of the fear and anxiety that goes with it. Remind yourself that that feeling isn’t signaling that you’ve done something wrong, but instead that it means you’re right where you’re supposed to be. I’ve found that change in attitude one of the most helpful ways to keep this feeling from adding to my struggles with the imposter syndrome.
These are just a few of things I’ve learned as I’ve worked through my PhD, and on my good days manage to remind myself of them. My hope is that you find them helpful too. I hope we can start to see ourselves in a different healthier life, not as imposters, but explorers. What about you, have you ever felt lost along the way? How have you dealt with it? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experience, so feel free to comment below or tweet about it @SGSAH_blog.
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