The confidence trick: impostor syndrome and PhDs in the non-academic world

Researchers have a great deal to offer the world beyond academia. But, as John Miles writes, knowing where and when to deploy these skills is crucial

John Miles's avatar
6 Jun 2023
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Taking the first step beyond academia into a non-academic role can be daunting for researchers, whether or not they are doing so straight after their PhD. For some, being an outsider is all too real, while for others it is easy to convince themselves that they do not and will not “fit in”.

The commercial environment can feel jarringly different from the university space, not least because it is usually driven by factors other than the pure pursuit of knowledge. And it is full of people who were busy building up extensive experience while their researcher counterparts had their heads buried in their PhDs. For researchers, this feeling of displacement is often compounded by the niggling sense that stepping along a non-academic path is somehow akin to admitting failure, as if the PhD were only really about preparing them for an academic career, non-existent as that may have turned out to be for them in some cases.

So it is understandable that, post-PhD, researchers might feel like they are starting from scratch in a non-academic role. That is no bad thing, of course – it is not unusual to become a beginner again at various points of our professional careers.

Confidence trick

Many researchers will make the transition to the non-academic space smoothly and successfully, confident in the applicability of their experience and the many skills they have developed during their time in academia. But others might find it difficult to get past the – usually misplaced – presumption that they fall short of what they need to succeed in a non-academic context. The phenomenon of impostor syndrome has been written about extensively across many different fields and can manifest itself as a lack of confidence, an unwillingness to speak up and/or a predilection for counting oneself out.

For this group, the “inadequates”, identifying and asserting their skills and their relevance to the commercial context can help build the confidence they need to succeed. After all, they will likely never stop being researchers. That is, they will never stop deploying their ability to plan and execute projects, to secure support and communicate ideas clearly, plus hypothesise, test and seek proof, be conscious of method and take an evidence-based approach.

Two sides of the impostor syndrome coin

All of these things become highly useful in a business context if researchers can learn to apply them appropriately. That is, at the right time and to the right extent. But there is, in my experience at least, often a perception among employers that researchers (especially those fresh from a PhD or a postdoctoral position) lack the experience to understand when best to deploy their considerable skills.

For those employers, researchers can seem too focused on specific details and too ready to pick things apart and question their existence. Years of being trained to deconstruct ideas, concepts and principles can work against researchers in the business context, where enormous financial and time pressures are at work every day.

This is the other side of the impostor syndrome coin: joining the “inadequates” are the “overcompensators”, whose laser focus on specifics and whose ability to apply their analytical and critical thinking skills to deconstruct just about anything are exercised without any filter and at every possible opportunity. Rather than risk feeling like a beginner again starting a non-academic role, the “overcompensators” jump at any opportunity to unleash their powers and feel like an expert again. But they can find themselves unintentionally irritating their more experienced colleagues and even alienating them. Like the “inadequates”, a lack of confidence often drives this behaviour: impostor syndrome is alive and well in the “overcompensators”, too.

Being a confident beginner

For both of these groups, it is important to remember that researchers starting non-academic roles are not expected to be experts from day one and that they will need to learn from others and build knowledge and experience over time. They need to have patience, listen to the people around them and be secure enough in themselves to recognise and understand the gaps in their knowledge – which they will bridge over time. And they should draw confidence from the fact that, if their colleagues are professional about it, they will understand this, too, and support them.

Researchers and employers have a role to play in reducing the effects of impostor syndrome. Universities are playing their role, too, of course, and can continue to improve their researchers’ confidence through skills development courses and other opportunities and provision, engaging employers in their programmes and measuring and evaluating progress regularly.

When working with PhD students and postdoctoral researchers during previous university roles, I have always been impressed by their capacity to adapt and understand their skill set, although usually this would take some gentle encouragement. Today, I work with a range of institutions and “doctoral training partnerships” running researcher development programmes, all of which are working to integrate the concepts of skills and competencies deeply into their provision. By turning these abstract principles into concrete things, they are helping to reinforce their researchers’ understanding of and ability to articulate their wide-ranging capabilities.

For researchers, this combined effort will help them to pursue fulfilling careers beyond academia, where they can put the skills they have learned into practice and continue to improve them. For employers, broader access to researchers with the right kind of confidence can only be advantageous, particularly given current skills shortages in the labour market. This is especially so if those researchers come with extraordinary skill sets, can get up to speed quickly and have a clear sense of what they can contribute – and where and when best to do it.

Having the confidence to be a beginner again is key. Even better is being brave enough to enjoy it.

John Miles is founder and CEO of Inkpath. He built the first proof-of-concept prototype of Inkpath while at the University of Oxford, where he was training officer for the humanities division and a research associate at Wadham College.

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