Philosophy PhD Nicole Woodford reflects on ‘imposter syndrome’ and on setting up her own company

As a recent alumna in philosophy at the University of Hull I’m currently celebrating passing my PhD and launching a new business. It’s a point in my life that I’ve been worried for years would never come. Like many, I suffered greatly from the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter syndrome can be described as the feeling a person has when they are unable to internalise their accomplishments, along with a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. This feeling may be familiar to students and academics alike.

Despite being an ‘A-grade’ student and holding a first-class degree, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of not being good enough. A couple of years into my PhD, however, I was provided with an opportunity that helped me to successfully pass my doctoral viva with no corrections and go on to launch a business. The opportunity was simply to work in an office with other students who were going through the same thing as myself.

I therefore hope to use this post to stress the importance of having a good support network. Of course, academic success depends heavily on natural talent and work ethic, but the influence of other people is often overlooked. In my case, I made good friends with two other PhD students: James, my now fiancé, and Fiona, my close friend and business partner. Throughout our studies we found it helpful to share our successes and failures; to learn from and help each other. This type of support is vital, yet admittedly it is very difficult to come by.

Another key element of success is self-confidence. Imposter syndrome can be tackled through sharing experiences with others, but feelings of doubt can remain when students lack confidence in their own capabilities. Whilst tutoring at the University of Hull, I noticed that even the most seemingly confident students felt anxious about their work. A particular source of stress concerned students’ abilities to write essays and dissertations to the required standard of English. Many also struggled with related issues, such as how to structure essays or reference correctly.

Having recognised these problems, Fiona and I launched ‘Larkin Tutors’. Larkin Tutors was backed by the University of Lincoln and East Midlands Incubation Network and it aims to help students improve their confidence and academic writing abilities through proofreading and private tuition. I’m so glad that I endeavoured to finish the PhD as I now have a doctorate and my dream job of running a business that helps others. Though, I can’t stress enough that my personal accomplishments are dependent in so many ways upon the support of others. For those feeling like quitting or concerned about bad grades, my greatest piece of advice is to recognise that these feelings are normal and try establishing a solid support network, whether it’s your classmates, lecturers, parents, or professional advisors. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that independent research must be done alone. In fact, loneliness renders lone research incredibly difficult.


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