Encountering Impostor Syndrome

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter @Preece_Kelly for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros, sewing and cute cat photos.





Last autumn, Dr. Caitlin Kight (Senior Academic Developer) and I collaborated to develop a workshop on impostor syndrome for PGRs. We already offer a number of wellbeing sessions on the Researcher Development Programme (RDP) for PGRs, but wanted to augment our exisiting offer by developing a session to address an issue we know is endemic in the PGR community. Impostor syndrome can result in significant issues with wellbeing and motivation, and leave some PGRs questioning whether an academic career is for them. The session provided a space for PGRs to share their experiences of impostor syndrome in a safe environment, and to work with the faciliators and their peers to come up with suggestions of how to combat feelings of impostor syndrome. Caitlin and I didn’t have the answers – indeed we frequently experience impostor syndrome ourselves! – but in the session we aimed to use our expertise to ask the right questions. And the responses to these questions were powerful. As such we wanted to share them with you here – anonymised – in the hope that sharing these discussions more widely will help other PGRs who are experiencing impostor syndrome feel less alone.

Why do we experience impostor syndrome?

  • We hold ourselves to high standards and have high expectations of ourselves (often having higher expectations of ourselves than we do of others)​
  • We compare ourselves to others too much, because we are socialised to compete with others from a young age​
  • We don’t want to let people down/we experience feelings of guilt​
  • We fear of looking stupid, and our sense of value/self-worth is connected to intelligence​

What is it about the culture and context of academia that might cause Imposter Syndrome?

  • HE is an environment where we are rated and judged on our intellectual abilities (through academic assessment, metrics like the TEF and REF, student evaluations)​
  • The competitive nature of academia (which can often mean people aren’t always constructive or kind)​
  • HE has structural issues such as racism, gender inequality and queerphobia​
  • Academia is performative, and can be lonely and isolating​
  • In academia, IQ is valued more than EQ (emotional intelligence)

We ended the session by brainstorming ways to overcome impostor syndrome in practice. Here are some of the suggestions we came up with:

  • Actively reward yourself for deadlines and achievements
  • Collect good feedback or a list of achievements to look at when you are feeling down
  • Focus on what you know, rather than what you don’t know
  • Try to remember that the standards in academia are not person-specific, and it is acceptable to go at your own pace

Scientist and mental health advocate Dr. Zoe Ayres shared a great template recently on Twitter, to fill in and have on hand when impostor syndrome strikes!

When I’m struggling with impostor syndrome I like to listen to what I called the ‘impostor syndrome anthem’ by Grace Petrie – Nobody Knows That I’m a Fraud – and remember:

Well some days life feels like a play that you have not rehearsed
But one thing’s true of all of us sharing this universe
Is we could all be doing better and we could all be doing worse
And everyone you know feels like a fraud

Planning a research podcast!

Digital forms of research communication have always been important – but with Higher Education moving online in the past year, being creative with digital communication has become even more important. As part of our new suite of online resources, two of our graduates Dr. Tom Nicholas (Drama) and Dr. Debbie Kinsey (Medicine) have developed a course of Creative and digital research communication based on their own experience and expertise. We’re going to share some of these resources as part of a new blog post series, to get you thinking about the different digital formats you can use!

Planning a podcast!

One of the benefits of podcasts is how flexible they are – you can make something that really fits with your topic, audience, and style. But that also means it can be hard to know where to start! These questions will help to guide your thinking.


What will your podcast be about? Try to be as specific as possible. For example, rather than “my research” it could be “Experiences of PGR students during their degree” or “philosophical and theoretical ideas about X applied to current events”. If you’re not sure, write down your general idea and then write down all the different specific ways you could approach it.

Who will your audience be? Knowing who your audience is will help you to form the content of your podcast. For example, you might use very different language when talking about your research with another academic in the same field, than you would with someone outside of academic who has very little knowledge of your topic.

Describe your ideal listener in as much detail as possible – what are they interested in? What do they already know about your topic? What don’t they know? Are they academic or not academic? What else do they enjoy?

Considering what your podcast is about and who your audience is, what format might work best? Make notes about how your podcast might be different in different formats (e.g. interview, group chat, solo). How much technical language or academic terms would your audience understand? How long should the episodes be? And don’t forget to consider your personal style and preferences – what kind of podcast would you enjoy doing?

How often should your podcast episodes come out? Weekly, fortnightly, monthly? How long will each episode take to make (e.g. recording, editing, sourcing interviewees)? How much time do you really have to do all the work involved? What other commitments do you have?

You should now have a clearer idea of what your podcast is about, who you’re trying to reach, what format would work best, and what schedule might work for you. Try to summarise your thoughts as follows.

  • My podcast is about:
  • My ideal audience is:
  • It will have this format:
  • It will come out on this schedule:

These resources were developed by Dr. Debbie Kinsey, doctoral graduate of the School of Medicine.

The Future Spaces Programme – Imagining the future of Researcher Development and Research Culture














Last week we started our groundbreaking Future Spaces Programme – working in collaboration with our PGRs to explore and determine the future of Researcher Development and Research Culture. As we continue to run exploratory workshops, we wanted to share with the PGR community what the programme is about, what we are doing it, and why you should attend.

What is the programme about?

COVID-19 has changed the shape of training and development, and communities and cultures of engagement. We know that everything will look different in a post-COVID world and we want to prioritise the student voice, and empower researchers to work in collaboration with the Researcher Development and Research Culture team to shape what that future will look like.

The Future Spaces Programme is designed to promote community, collaboration and creativity to shape the future of researcher development and research culture at the University of Exeter. We will work through three stages of inquiry, creativity and implementation to identify the future shape of Researcher Development and Research Culture at the University. We also intend to pioneer researcher-led initiatives within the University, with organisational support from the Researcher Development and Research Culture team and financial support as part of the Researcher-Led Initiative Awards.

What are our motivations for the programme?


  • To provide a group of researchers with the space and confidence to create something useful, practical, and meaningful
  • To gather feedback on Researcher Development and Research Culture provision
  • To help shape the future of researcher development/support post COVID-19
  • To work with some inspiring people and find out what’s possible
  • To develop new initiatives like the PGR writing groups that have a meaningful impact on the PGR community
  • To improve research culture
  • To improve the experience of distance-based PGRs
  • To explore and develop ways for PGRs to connect and share experiences

What do we want to talk about on the programme?

  • How we can ensure that training, seminars and dissemination events can continue online moving forward
  • How to ‘protect’ the community and opportunities created during COVID-19
  • How to promote and continue flexible working for PGRs
  • How to develop a Research Culture which includes both campus-based and distance PGRs
  • What does the ‘best’ PGR experience look like?
  • How to manage the conflict between face-to-face and online teaching and opportunities
  • Concerns about the future and career prospects – what does the future look like? What will HE look like?
  • How can we have a say in the future? How can we make it happen?
  • Clarify the purpose of Future Spaces and develop a Future Spaces Manifesto

We have sessions running twice a week for the next few weeks – each session is different, and allows PGRs to attend all sessions or dip in and dip out as they are able. We are also running a Teams channel so those who cannot attend ‘live’ can contribute asynchronously. PGRs can book through the following links, and join our Teams channel here.

Inquiry session dates

Inquiry session 3, 16/03/2021, 11:00-13.00

Inquiry session 4, 18/03/2021, 14.00-16.00

Inquiry session 5, 23/03/2021, 14.00-16.00

Inquiry session 6, 26/03/2021, 11.00-13.00

Creativity session dates

Creativity session 1, 13/04/2021, 11.00-13.00

Creativity session 2, 15/04/2021, 14.00-16.00

Creativity session 3, 20/04/2021, 11.00-13.00

Creativity session 4, 23/04/2021, 11.00-13.00

Creativity session 5, 27/04/2021, 11.00-13.00

Creativity session 6, 29/04/2021, 11.00-13.00


Please join us to shape the future of Researcher Development and Research Culture at the University.

Poster Session- College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences Conference 2021

Below are all the entries for this year’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences conference poster competition. Please look through the posters and vote on your top 3 here- EMPS Poster Competition 2021 vote.

Poster 1: Jets and instabilities in forced Magnetohydrodynamics flow

Click here to enlarge Poster 1
Twitter Link

Poster 2: Mechanical properties of PEEK filaments before and after Fused Filament Fabrication extrusion process

Click here to enlarge Poster 2

Poster 3: Fault Tolerant Control of a Dual –System UAV Using Sliding Modes

Click here to enlarge Poster 3

Poster 4: Supply chain network design with Sustainable supplier selection and order allocation under Disruption Risk and Uncertainty

Click here to enlarge Poster 4
Twitter Link

Poster 5: Comparison of State Estimation Performance of Nonlinear COVID-19 Model Using Extended Kalman Filters: Case Study in USA and India

Click here to enlarge Poster 5
Twitter Link

Poster 6: Two dimensional simulations of solar like models with artificially enhanced luminosity

Click here to enlarge Poster 6

Poster 7: Exploring the Dynamics of a Vibro-Impact Capsule Moving in the Small Intestine via Finite Element Analysis

Click here to enlarge Poster 7

Poster 8: Vibration Comfort of Pedestrians on Slender Footbridges

Click here to enlarge Poster 8
Twitter Link

Poster 9: Nanocomposite hearing overlays for next generation high performance/low emission internal combustion engine applications

Click here to enlarge Poster 9

Poster 10: Characterising Exoplanets with the James Webb space telescope

Click here to enlarge Poster 10


Scientist without a lab

Jennifer is now a third year PhD student in the biosciences department. Jennifer looks at how elevated CO2, commonly found in fish farms, impacts lumpfish growth and behaviour. Lumpfish are farmed to be deployed into salmon pens across the U.K. and Ireland to remove sea lice, a parasite which graze on salmon and can make salmon vulnerable to infections and breathing difficulties. Jennifer has 4 main parts to her research; a partnership with Ocean Matters (the U.K.’s largest lumpfish farm), experimental work in the University of Exeter Aquatic Resources Centre (ARC), sample analysis in the biosciences department, and data analysis (the dreaded deskwork). 

When the first lockdown hit in March 2020, I was ~ 18 months into my PhD. For students in biosciences, this is upgrade time (the meeting in which MPhil students are assessed and a review panel decide whether you have made enough progress to ‘upgrade’ your degree qualification from MPhil to PhD). I felt that my upgrade could not have come at a worse time- I was suffering from pretty much every ‘classic’ symptom of burnout which was not a great start to working from home; I felt tired, unmotivated, easily frustrated, and like nothing I did was right. I wasn’t used to trying to sit at my desk for 8+ hours a day and it was really getting to me, and those around me. I eventually had to push my upgrade until I felt ready, which was a couple of months later; my assessment panel were really supportive, reassuring me that I was not supposed to feel normal right now- we were in a pandemic, and it was ok to feel down and unproductive while we adjusted to working from home.

Back in ‘normal’ times I would be at my desk on campus, off tinkering with my experiment in the ARC, running samples in the lab, or in meetings, all in a day. Looking back, this ‘all over the place working schedule was hectic but felt normal, and it made me feel productive. When lockdown hit, I was suddenly a scientist without a lab, without fish, without new data, and I really struggled to adapt my day to being sat in the same place for hours on end. I had so much time on my hands, but I wasn’t doing enough, I wasn’t being productive enough…

Back in March 2020, I was a couple of weeks away from starting a long-term experiment having just transported hundreds of lumpfish from Ocean Matters to Exeter (only a 500 mile round trip…), which was not great timing. This experiment would have informed two thirds of my thesis and is still on hold, almost a year later, which still fills me with stress as I can feel the hand in clock counting down.

Thankfully, I was able to get back on campus in August 2020 and completed a short experiment with the fish I brought back 6 months earlier. Not the experiment that I was originally planning, but one which has progressed my lab skills and will inform a future experiment that I hope to complete later this year. In August, I was so glad to get back on campus, back working with my fish, tinkering with my experimental set up, and learning in person, but that feeling didn’t last long… Lab life felt slow and I started to feel all of the things which I had been feeling working from home- the burnout, the frustrations, all of it. I actually missed working from home!

Working from home has definitely allowed me to gain appreciation of what productivity means to me. The little jobs which I often left to fall to the bottom of my to-do list have become incorporated into my day. Thanks to my reduced commute (3 seconds rather than 30 minutes), I don’t feel guilty taking time out of my working days to do some chores, run errands, or to take a long lunch break to do some exercise. Each day is different, some days still feel long and like a massive struggle, but I no longer feel the same pressure to be constantly working and constantly be ‘productive’.

We are still in a pandemic, we still can’t hug our friends, and we still can’t knock on our supervisor’s door when we need help.

Upon reviewing the past year, I know that I like to stay busy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean lots of meetings and lots of running around. To feel happy and like I am making progress with my PhD, I need to focus on one or two projects at a time, learn all that I can, see them through to the end, and really try to get them right. For me, mixing campus work with working from home is what is best, at least for now. Every day I try to listen to my body and my mind and make sure that I put them first, because nothing is worth the feeling of burnout that I felt last year.

Plan A to Plan D

Rev Nicolle Sturdevant is a PhD Candidate with the College of Humanities, Penryn researching shared sacred landscapes in Scotland and Wales. She is supervised and supported by Prof Joanne Parker and Prof Philip Schwyzer. She lives in Scotland with my husband, two children, mum, two dogs and four cats. She is also the Honorary Pagan Chaplain at University of Aberdeen. 




In 2018 I began my PhD at Exeter to explore sites that have ancient sacredness along with active Christian architecture. The purpose was to see how those who actively engaged with these sites such as members of the churches, the spiritual community and tourists viewed this shared landscape. I had already planned out how I would conduct my research. Everything was structured, logical and organised down to the last detail. Fieldwork was to begin in October 2019 and run for a year. This would include focus groups, interviews, surveys at sites.  All of this was approved and encouraged by my supervisors. I was excited to get started!

Then I made a small, ever-so-slight change. My supervisors and I realised that I would collect the majority of my data within a six-month window so it was logical to shorten my time frame. It would save on travel and money, plus I could focus on the fieldwork and analysing data exclusively instead of writing my other chapters at the same time. I had already completed the initial prep work so this was a very minor change. Again logical, purposeful and Plan B.

All of that changed in March 2020. I received an email from the ethics committee that all fieldwork was stopped due to COVID-19 and could only be conducted online via Teams or Skype. Not only was my logical order in chaos, but my fieldwork was in danger of not taking place at all. With the agreement of my supervisors, I decided to remove the survey portion of my research as that relied on tourism, and put off my focus groups until we had further guidance from the government. So this was now… Plan C. The hope here was that I would be able to conduct the fieldwork in Winter 2020 and/or Spring 2021. Then of course, that changed again with extended lockdown at the beginning of 2021.

So now I am on to Plan D. I have conducted several interviews and another practice focus-group utilising Teams, which seem to work. None of this is ideal as the human connection is being missed. Instead of tea and biscuits together I am confirming they have received/read/sent the forms via email and can connect to Teams. For participants that do not have internet, they are being interviewed individually, in addition to the ones that were to be interviewed from the very beginning.

On top of all of this, archival research has been restricted. My original submission date of September 2021 has been pushed back to February 2022. I know I will finish my thesis, however all of these continued changes have caused anxiety over when. As a parent, spouse, chaplain and tutor for secondary school students, the pandemic was already affecting my daily life. This now felt like one more roadblock in my research yet my supervisors have been supportive the whole time. Plus, the PGR Writing Group has been instrumental in keeping me ‘sane’ during all of this. It is one thing to be told you are not alone, but to know this is invaluable. The takeaway here is find your support network and if this research is something you really want to do, they will help you find a way.