I’m not special – The flip side of impostor syndrome

I’m not special. Except to my parents, and hopefully my fiance.

Don’t worry this isn’t a downer post (it’s actually quite positive!). I’m not currently stuck in a spiral of impostor syndrome, wondering who could possibly have let me continue into the thesis writing stages of a PhD (although those days definitely do happen). I’m just being honest.


I want every PhD student out there to know you don’t have to be some kind of genius to finish, you just have to be determined. The longer I spend writing my thesis the more I understand this, and it’s a really comforting thought. Yes a PhD is a huge accomplishment. I’ll feel ridiculously proud (and probably exhausted) when it’s finished, but I won’t have finished it because I’m special. I will have finished it because I was determined, because I kept going and because I made it through the slog. This month alone I’ve made the same time-consuming graphs three times (there are 30 of them…). I think they’re finally finished (although I thought that after attempts one and two as well). A PhD is about perseverance, provided I keep going and write a thesis I will be a Dr (yes, yes there’s that unique contribution to knowledge and the pesky viva at the end but I’ll deal with those when I get there).

Not being special doesn’t mean I haven’t worked hard, but when people tell me how smart I am be to be doing a PhD I feel the need to correct them. I’m no smarter than my friends who aren’t doing a PhD. I recently had a chat with the boss where I pointed this out. He disputed it, but I think that’s because he thought I was being hard on myself. He told me wasn’t allowed to say that about myself. People seem to misinterpret what I mean. When I say I’m not special I’m not saying I’m not good enough, I’m saying the PhD doesn’t have to feel like an unattainable goal. Saying you must be special, or really smart, etc. etc. etc. to do a PhD almost nullifies the hard work we put in.

PhD’s are hard-workers, we’re dedicated (although hopefully with a healthy work-life balance), and we’re definitely able to take criticism. We have so many great qualities but these aren’t because we’re special, they’re because we worked bloody hard!


5 thoughts on “I’m not special – The flip side of impostor syndrome

  1. I think I know where you’re coming from, but I think too you’re in danger of normalising the PhD experience, maybe because you’re surrounded by people who do them. I fully accept that many more people are intellectually capable of doing a PhD than currently actually do one, and that getting a PhD is more about determination than smarts, BUT the fact remains that you do have to have a certain level of intellect to get to the point of doing one in the first place, and MOST people will not have that level, either because gaining any kind of formal education is not something that they are interested in, or because they’re just not capable of it.

    These days to get to the point of just qualifying for a PhD (putting aside the funding issue for the moment) most universities will expect you to show a certain knowledge of your subject matter, and, crucially, evidence of original, critical thinking and even in those who have graduated from a university, that is not always the case. it’s quite possible to get a low 2:1 and not have shown that. Throw funding into the mix – you know as well as I do that those who cannot afford to self-fund have to apply for various grants and these are very competitive. I don’t know about in STEM, but in the Arts and Humanities, the particular funding programme I won, they won’t even look at you if you have a 2:1 UNLESS you have very special mitigating circumstances (e.g. a 2:1 gained years ago when the cutoff criteria for a first was much higher, supported by an excellent Master’s grade).

    Take both of those into consideration and I would contest your assertion that you don’t have to be ‘smart’ to do a PhD, you don’t have to be a genuis, I completely grant you that, but you DO have to have a certain level of intellect that I think most people – especially those who don’t have those intellectual capabilities – would describe as ‘smart’. You say that you feel no smarter than the friends who aren’t doing a PhD and I fully accept that, because as a person of a certain intellectual level you’re going to seek out people who have a similar level to you, who at least are capable of understanding what you’re talking about. That’s human nature. And that’s what I mean by normalising the PhD experience.

    Ironically though, I also agree with you that doing a PhD doesn’t make us special. It just makes us determined intellectuals who have worked our backsides off to achieve something for which society sees fit to give us recognition. I was reading this morning about a chap in America whose father injected him with HIV when he was five. Against all medical odds, he’s survived to his mid-30s – and survived through those years when HIV was poorly understood and he was terribly bullied for it. But what’s truly amazing is that he’s forgiven his father, he’s not eaten up by bitterness, instead, he’s choosing to focus on life and living. Now, THAT is special. THAT is amazing and precious and something we can all learn from. Just having the determination to work and endure for three years… ppfft. pales in comparison.

    (sorry. rant over.)


    • I don’t mean to offend, and of course people doing PhD’s are intelligent. The idea of the post wasn’t to normalise the PhD to those outside but to normalise it to those inside. I wanted to try to speak to other PhD students who often feel everyone around them has it together (and is smarter than they are). I hope that helps explain where I was coming from 🙂


    • Thanks Sophie 🙂 writing is going quite well. I nearly have my first results chapter drafted which means I’m sticking to my self imposed schedule. Hope it’s going well for you too? Looks like you’ve been up to loads of fun non-thesis things as well, loving the positive work/life balance x


  2. I enjoyed reading you post.
    It is well grounded. I am a mature aged PhD student coming to it after a professional career. I don’t see myself as special just very privileged to have the opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

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