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Episode 1

Feel Like A Fraud?

Jonathan: What am I doing? I am in no way qualified to be here.

Chris: Hi, welcome to Potential the podcast from the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy in which we talk to physics students about the good times, the hard times, the ups and the downs of starting a career. About falling over and then picking yourself back up again, about finding your path and then changing direction completely. If you are in the middle of your degree and wondering ‘what happens next?’ we’re here to help. My name’s Chris Stewart. In this episode, we’re talking about a feeling many people have at some point in their life…

Natalie: I shouldn’t be here!

Chris: Where you think, ‘Someone’s made a mistake!’

Natalie: Why am I in a corporate job with a physics background?

Chris: ‘I shouldn’t be in this job. I shouldn’t be allowed to do this degree!’

Xanthe: Oh, well, maybe they just let me in because I’m a girl.

Chris: ‘Everyone else is smarter and more capable than I am. I am a total fraud.’

Natalie: Oh, it’s so real. I definitely have it. I think I’ve had it since day one. Starting uni, let alone my career.

Chris: Today we’re talking about imposter syndrome. It’s a feeling that many people will know really well, even if they’ve never heard the term before. It’s that sense that you’re just not qualified to be doing the degree or the job that you’re in, and eventually someone’s gonna notice that. And when they do, you’ll be found out, exposed as a fraud and probably thrown out the door.

Natalie: Oh, it’s so real.

Chris: Let’s get a good description of imposter syndrome from some of our physics graduates, shall we? In this episode, we’ll talk to Xanthe…

Xanthe: I am an automated test engineer at BA Systems Digital Intelligence

Chris: Calum…

Calum: I am an associate in the internal audit division at Goldman Sachs in New York.

Chris: Lottie…

Lottie: I am an investment professional. I work for a company called ORC. I am the head of Advisory and head of the Abu Dhabi office.

Chris: Jonathan…

Jonathan: I am a European patent attorney and I work at a company called Appleyard Lees.

Chris: Nicola…

Nicola: I’m currently working for a startup, a FinTech startup, and I work in technical operations.

Chris: And we’ll start with…

Natalie: Hi, I’m Natalie Greenwood, and I currently work at Aviva as a IT audit internal audit manager.

Chris: Natalie did her physics degree at the University of York. She remembers what it was like starting university after her A levels in Leeds.

Natalie: I, I think it comes from being the smartest person at, at sixth form and coming in and you’re no longer the smartest person, so you feel like you shouldn’t be there and you’re an imposter in a room full of people who are much clever than you.

Chris: Your peers, your colleagues all seem to be coping better, learning faster, and you are just not as capable, and it feels like eventually that’s gonna catch up with you. The thing is that kind of self-doubt can worm its way into your brain in all sorts of ways.

Xanthe: I was one of eight girls in a year group of about 120.

Chris: That’s Xanthe. She did her degree at York too, where she discovered that the gender imbalance that you find in many physics departments wasn’t great for her self-confidence. 

Xanthe: So, first of all, there weren’t very many of us. So, it sounds like, okay, well actually, you know, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe I’ve done enough to to, to get in and maybe I’m, I’m good enough. But then that very quickly becomes, or, well, maybe they just let me in because I’m a girl.

Chris: You do well at school. Get into a physics degree only to find yourself wondering why they let you in in the first place…

Xanthe: You’d try and shrug those off, but there’s always that little sort of mustard seed that sort of sticks in your brain and you go, oh god, you know, maybe, maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m not supposed to be here. Maybe. Maybe I was just brought in because of where I’m from or you know, because I’m a girl or because of, you know, my name sounds funny or whatever. If you linger on that too long, it can really get you down and you just, it becomes this vicious cycle of if you think about it too much, then you, you don’t try as hard because you’re like, okay, well what’s the point? What’s the point in me trying hard because it’s nothing, you know, nothing I’m doing that’s got me here. It’s, it’s something else. And then you start sort of start spiralling downwards and downwards and you can end up where you don’t wanna be.

Chris: The weird thing is often it has nothing to do with your actual achievements. You can be doing fine in exams or getting good stuff done at work. Outwardly, you’re doing great, but inside you’re just waiting for somebody to notice how bad you are at all of this. Nicola did her physics degree at Leeds and when she was at school, she had a great teacher who helped her through the tough bits of her A level physics course, but when she got to university, she really felt the loss of that individual support.

Nicola: I think, at university, not having that kind of direct individual, um, that was kind of like seeing you through your, through your studies. It was kind of your left on your own and, and I think that opened up my mind to think, okay, right, these people, they get the concepts way quicker than me like they, like, we’re going through this lecture, for me this is like quite fast paced and, and everyone else seems to be keeping up and, and like, am I gonna be able to survive? Like keep going on this, survive this!

Chris: In case you think only undergrads suffer from this kind of doubt. No, no, no, no. Here’s Jonathan. Another Leeds graduate who found himself surrounded by imposter syndrome when he started his PhD.

Jonathan: The conversations you have with other people who are doing a PhD, it probably is a lot of imposter syndrome because it’s a lot of people saying, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. No one has a clue. But, but I think the overriding feeling is no one has a clue what they’re doing.

Chris: And when he left the PhD and started working, the doubt didn’t seem to go away…

Jonathan: I think I’ve had that more, now, I’m in a professional working environment and I think that’s very normal. Everyone ends up doing a job that you have no experience in before because why would you, it’s your first career. You can go one day feeling like, yeah, I’ve done a great job today, this is great, and the next day I think, what am I doing? I am in no way qualified to be here. I’m an ex-physicist working in law now, what? Like, this is strange. I shouldn’t, this is a very strange place.

Chris: Natalie found the same thing when she started work it felt like everyone else had it together. And she was lacking the absolute basics.

Natalie: Sometimes you’re like, well, why am I in a corporate job with a physics background? Like I, I shouldn’t be here? Like everyone else has got a business degree. Like they know more about how a business works. It took me, it took me months to figure out what on earth was going on in terms of like the actual business structure, whereas people learn that in the first year at uni.

Chris: Okay, let’s pull back a second here. Not everyone feels this way and it’s completely natural to feel a bit disoriented when you start something new. Calum graduated with a physics degree from York and went into the finance world with an internship and then a graduate position with Deutsche Bank. The early days in that job were spent flying off to different places, learning the ropes. It was pretty intense.

Calum: To be honest, for me, it was more my brain was just perpetually spinning.

Chris: At university Calum had settled into a way of thinking that really worked for him…

Calum: With a very academically intense degree, you are used to having a wide array of stuff that you are trying to digest on a pretty regular basis. But my, my philosophy for my degree was always, hey, I’m gonna be confused, but I’ve just gotta keep going. And then suddenly the light bulb’s gonna go off. I’m gonna understand the concept, and then it’s gonna become easy. So, it wasn’t so much the volume of content, it was the, the content itself was the difficult part.

Chris: When he started his first job traveling to different clients each week, things were suddenly very different…

Calum: As I transitioned into the finance world, it was, the content’s not that hard, it’s just, there’s so much of it and I don’t really know what any of it is. So it was, it was very much juggling that, and I remember they would fly me out three or four o’clock on Monday morning, which was a lovely experience, and I’d fly back Friday night and I’d, I’d get back shattered. Would spend the weekend trying to recuperate, but wouldn’t really be able to sleep properly coz my brain was still spinning about everything that I’d done the week before, trying to kind of, I guess, subconsciously digest it and then kind of beginning to stress about what was coming the week after, I’m like, oh my God, I’ve gotta go out there and do this again and figure out all this stuff that’s kind of, kind of going on that I am, I’m still so new to and I don’t really understand. So, I wouldn’t necessarily call it imposter syndrome more, uh, probably information overload.

Chris: Okay, whether you feel like a total fraud and you’re questioning why anyone would let you into your degree in the first place, or you’re just wondering how to cope with a tsunami of new information. It’s fair to say that imposter syndrome and self-doubt are really common, and it can feel very troubling. And if you’re experiencing that kind of self-doubt, what can you do about it? The first thing is to realize it’s not just you. Remember Jonathan, who came to an important realization when he started his PhD…

Jonathan: The conversations you have with other people who are doing a PhD and the overriding feeling is, no one has a clue what they’re doing.

Chris: That right there, that’s the point…

Jonathan: No one has a clue what they’re doing.

Chris: Natalie said the same thing…

Natalie: I definitely have it. I think I’ve had it since day one, starting uni, let alone my career. But I think you slowly learn, everybody does.

Chris: ‘Everybody does’. Okay. Maybe not everybody. If you are doing okay and not overly troubled by this sort of doubt, that’s great! Keep doing that. That’s fine. But as Jonathan and Natalie found, lots of people do feel at least a bit fraudulent, especially early in their careers and understanding that is how you start talking back to the voices of doubt. Because if loads of people feel like imposters, then you can safely assume that the voice of doubt doesn’t really know what it’s talking about.

Natalie: People are just there at the, they’re in the same boat as you. They’re trying to get through the degree as well. You know, they’re, they’re going to the same lectures, taking the same notes. You wouldn’t have gotten if you didn’t kind of belong there.

Chris: So, we’ve got three tips from our graduates to help you fight against imposter syndrome. And that’s the first: start talking. Talk to your friends, your fellow students, your colleagues, your university supervisors. Tell them what you’re going through. And listen to what they’re feeling. Here’s Nicola…

Nicola: For me, shouting when I needed help and it was in a different format to school, before I’d maybe stay after class and speak to my, my teacher about it, but, but meeting up with my friends in the study rooms was the best way to kind of battle through that and allow myself to kind of overcome those hurdles and not let them build up. And I’ve always found that when, when my friends helped me throughout my degree, they would also say it helped them. So, it wasn’t like you are all going through it together, you’re all studying the same things at the end of day. And I think being able to pull upon those relationships, um, like really helped me.

Chris: Just sharing helps. And you’ll soon see that these feelings of doubt are actually really normal and pretty common.

Nicola: Putting your hand up, being candid, like open and honest, I think, um, is, is the best way to address things as soon as possible without letting them build up.

Chris: Tip number two on fighting against imposter syndrome: you’ve got skills. When she left university for the world of work, Natalie felt like she lacked the business knowledge of many of her peers. Surely, she thought ‘my bosses must be judging me on that’. Yeah. Not so much.

Natalie: The working one, I think was just because I didn’t have a, a business background and, and things like that. But never once did anyone think anything else. The amount of, like, the conversation style was always, ‘oh, you’ve got a physics degree’. Like that’s what kind of people wanted to get to know about rather than me not having a business one. You’ve, you have to be an intelligent person to, to get through a physics degree, I don’t think that’s any kind of secret. Um, you know, you’re very analytical, very kind of logical thinking. You’re the biggest problem solver I think you can find. So I’d like, I think that is, that’s the selling point of a physics degree. Like you, you can learn how a business works on the job. You can learn, you know, finance, how to read a financial statement and things like that on the job. But I think you couldn’t learn how to derive a physics equation in a, in a business setting. Does that make sense? So you already have the skills from that and kind of the analysis skills to put that into practice within a business, people really kind of valued that.

Chris: Think about it. You’re spending every day in your degree calculating and analyzing and applying concepts to new ideas.

Natalie: And no one listens when you’re a physics undergrad but it is, they are such valuable skills, like, like you wouldn’t believe, like until you’re in practice and you, it takes you half the time to figure something out that as it would say somebody else, and that’s because you’ve done it so many times, just in a different context.

Chris: Look at it this way, the organization that employs you, they’re not stupid, right? They know what they want. And they hired you. Here’s Calum again to explain…

Calum: Early in your career, companies have made an investment in you. They’re not expecting you on day one to be able to rock up and do the job. They’re expecting you to be reasonably intelligent, to have a good skillset that could potentially be useful, but then they’re gonna give you all the tools to allow you to, to kind of go and do that. And then two, kind of coupled with that is, at least for the first kind of 12, 18 months in your career, basically just try and be an information sponge. Like, just soak in as much as you can coz there’s no real thing that you are on the hook for, and you know, in hindsight I can see this, but when you are, you are thrust onto the job, you’re being sent to all these places and you’re kind of like, oh my god, like I need some output, it’s very hard to forget that, but in, in the grand scheme of things, you are kind of, you are, you are helping them out by kind of stepping up a little bit, but you’re still there to kind of learn and grow and it’s a, it’s an investment in you in the longer term. And so I think having that, that mindset that, you know, it’s not just day one, do a job, it’s, hey, day one, the investment in you really begins and kind of philosophically kind of viewing it that way, I think once I got that kind of mindset shift, things begun to get a bit easier and I wasn’t as stressed and I began to kind of make my peace with things a little bit, as well as actually learning more about the, the broader business and, and the job itself.

Chris: Natalie went from university into a graduate scheme with KPMG.

Natalie: It’s really great about grad jobs is that, you know, you are so free to make mistakes, like the amount of things that you’ll get wrong, and at the time it’s horrible, you feel like you’ve completely messed up, but they wouldn’t give you things you could massively mess up and everything gets reviewed anyway, there’s so many stages of people looking at it. So when, when kind of, you join there, everyone always says, you know, ask any questions and you know, make mistakes, like you are there to make mistakes until you figure it out. Like this is the best way to learn.  The imposter syndrome, kind of, it doesn’t disappear coz like even now I’m like, how have I got to where I’ve got to now? But I think grad schemes help steady you in, if that makes sense.

Chris: So, take some comfort in that. You’re not expected to know everything already. You got into your degree or your job or your grad scheme because you have some great skills and most importantly, you can learn. Calum’s been thrown into the deep end at work a few times now, and he’s got a great philosophy that sums it up perfectly.

Calum: When I’m thrown in deep end, I just need to one, learn how to float and once I can float, then I can learn how to swim. You’re not being thrown in the deep end to swim straight away, like you need to just figure out how to kind of be there. Chill. Get your bearings, get an understanding of what’s expected, and then you can figure out, hey, okay, now I’ve got this base, what can I, what can I do from here?

Chris: Now, while we did say before that loads of people do feel this sense of doubt, not everyone does. We talked to Lottie, who’s a Leeds physics graduate and now working in Dubai for a private investment company. And when we ask whether she ever felt like an imposter, she said…

Lottie: I don’t. I I, well, is it bad to say no?

Chris: See, for Lottie doubt and feeling like an imposter, it’s all tied up with confidence and she’s noticed that sounding confident, and being competent, they’re not always the same thing.

Lottie: People can say something in a very confident manner, then people believe them and they trust them because they’ve said it with such confidence, but it doesn’t actually make anyone correct. It’s normally the quiet person in the room who actually is taking all the notes and they know what they’re talking about.

Chris: So, to Lottie, it’s not about sounding confident, it’s about feeling confident, knowing that you’ve done the work and believing in your own skillset.

Lottie: I quite often get confronted with a completely new problem to solve. Whilst I’m not confident of the answer at the time, I’m confident that I’ll take the right approach, and it’s quite a diligent, thoughtful approach. So, I think I’m probably confident because I know that I’ve done the work in the background and I understand it, and the more questions I’ve asked, the more confident I’ve got, if that makes sense.

Chris: Yeah, it does make sense. Don’t focus on what you don’t know. Focus on trying things out, making mistakes, asking questions. Have some faith in your abilities and soak up as much as you can. Now, that can be hard. I know. How do you push through the doubt when you feel like you’re just not good enough? Xanthe was feeling like that in her second year of her degree when she got some great advice. Here she is with our third anti imposter tip…

Xanthe: I went to a few, um, lectures by different people while I was at university. Um, people, you know, like alumni coming back who had, had gone into jobs and who were coming back and talking about what they did for a living. And a few of them were saying, you know, oh, I didn’t think I was good enough, but I put the work in and now here I am. I, I faked it until I made it.

Chris: What does that mean though? Fake what exactly? You can’t fake knowledge, obviously, and that’ll never work, but you can fake confidence and surprisingly it can work really well.

Xanthe: Sometimes it is important to fake it till you make it because you think you’re faking it, and you think you’re faking it, and you think you’re faking it until one day someone says, oh, you’ve made it, and you’re like, oh, no, no I’ve been faking it this whole time! But, oh no, actually no, look at where I’ve come from, you know.

Chris: If you turn up to a meeting or an interview or start a new assignment with the attitude of, well, look, other people can do this stuff, and they’re clearly not all geniuses, so I must be able to do it too. You’ll be surprised how well that can work.

Xanthe: You’ve gotta trick yourself into doing the work and making sure that you don’t listen to those horrible little voices because they’re just talking nonsense.

Chris: I said we had three tips for you, but here’s a sneaky bonus, fourth tip, before we finish this episode. Now this might be a little bit controversial for some people around you at university, though it shouldn’t be. Natalie’s got a revelation to share with you, so lean in. You might not need to get a first…

Natalie: Yeah, it wouldn’t have made a difference had I got a first or a 2:1 or a Master’s or a Bachelor. Like they, it would’ve, I, there were people I joined with who did masters and people who got 2:1s and 2:2s, and we were all in the same cohort. So, uh, I think, yeah, businesses as a general rule, 2:1s and firsts are basically the same thing. Not that, not that I’m sure any of the professors appreciate that, but yeah, I think going into a world of, going into a grad scheme or a job, I think don’t, it’s not worth it in my opinion. It’s the whole package, not  what’s on the piece of paper.

Chris: Does that mean you don’t have to try? No, but maybe, just maybe, you can let go of some of the pressure you’re putting on yourself. If you want to achieve the best you can do, great. But it’s also fine to say, I want to go in this direction, and if I don’t need the absolute highest grades to get there, I can focus on having a balanced life, putting in the work, but not hurting myself while I’m at it.

So where are we at the end of this episode? If you are suffering from imposter syndrome, take it from our graduates, you can get through it.  First, you’re not the only one feeling doubt so, talk to others about it. Share the load. Second, remember that you are already getting some skills that employers really do want. And when you start something new, whether it’s a degree or a job or a grad scheme, no one is expecting you to get everything right straight away. They’re investing in your ability to learn, and you are showing them that you can do that right now. And third, sometimes you’ve gotta fake it till you make it. Talk yourself up a bit. Remind yourself you’ve got skills. You are able to learn new things. You are already more mathematical and analytical than many people are anyway. And that sneaky bonus tip number four, keep in mind that getting the highest grades may not be the right goal for you. A degree isn’t about the percents and the numbers, as Natalie said…

Natalie: it’s the whole package, not what’s on the piece of paper.

Chris: I think we’ll give Xanthe the final word today…

Xanthe: It’s definitely difficult, sometimes you wanna focus on those voices and feel sorry for yourself. But I think if you do that, then yeah, you’re never gonna get anywhere really. You’re gonna stick to your guns, you’ve gotta fake it till you make it. You’ve gotta be right. I’m gonna be self-confident today. I’ve gotta, I’m gonna smash it and you know, I’ll put the work in. It’ll be fine. It’ll be good.

Chris: Listen, if you’re going through a difficult time, if you’re feeling imposter syndrome, self-doubt, or any of the topics in this episode, please reach out. Talk to your degree supervisor or your university’s support office. They really can help. You’re not alone.

You’ve been listening to Potential, a podcast for physics students, brought to you by WRIPA the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy, a collaboration of five university physics departments all working together to better prepare students for graduate level technical employment. The show is produced and presented by me, Chris Stewart. Huge thanks to all our wise Physics graduates for sharing their experiences so openly and honestly.