Imposter syndrome: using professionalism to manage the symptoms.

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Most health professionals I have worked with have been afflicted with imposter syndrome, and low and behold I have found that researchers are afflicted with the same condition. I think I first became aware of this concept just after I graduated as a speech and language therapist (SLT- many moons ago). I recall a particular event; a joint session with a dietitian, where we visited a gentleman at home and decided he needed to be admitted to A&E that day. We contacted the consultant in A&E and the ambulance service and organised his admission. We both came away and felt rather surprised that we had been able to be so professional, and kept our fingers crossed that we had made the right decision. Turns out we did!

 

Since then I have continued to experience the odd bout of imposter syndrome but am generally able to employ my skills in “being professional” to put my fears aside and get on with it. And if I do this a couple of times the emotions subside and the activities I am engaged with become ‘normal’. I read an article a couple of years ago describing this exact feeling in nursing students- they described how a new graduate may spend a lot of time as a duck paddling furiously underwater (apparently gliding to any external observer) and then over time they refine their stroke so they can actually glide. The article explained that every time you try a new task you haven’t previously tried you spend some time paddling against the rapids until you can glide again. But over time these rapids are fewer and further apart (although never completely eliminated). The key in this scenario if being able to prioritise, act professional and get on with it.

 

Since I started my PhD I have spent more time paddling than I have had to in the previous few years. But recently I have realised that the paddling stroke I learnt as an SLT is a transferable skill. I was taught to be professional, to focus on the matter at hand and use humour to build rapport (but only when appropriate) and to follow up on commitments (aka deadlines). These are extremely useful skills in all sorts of research based situations: running focus groups, interviews; networking; collaborating; writing; ethics applications; taking constructive criticism; engaging with users and the public…not least with participants.

 

In short I feel I have more transferable skills than I anticipated. I have faced a new situation and am occasionally gliding now. Although I do see a couple of rapids ahead, I reassure myself that with the support of my supervisors, my mentor, my supporters, colleagues and friends I can navigate the waters. So to all those clinicians who are worried about swimming down the research route: don’t worry so much. Look at your weapons, your skills and your professionalism and apply it! They seem to work quite well here too. And you will not be lonely. There is a team of skilled people around you at all times to give advice and act as look out. We can weather the occasional imposter syndrome storm; in fact these storms are useful ways to refine weapons, strokes and skills.

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Paying it forward…supporting other AHPs to get into research

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It seems a life time ago that I approached my now supervisor for advice on whether my ideas would make a valid research project and PhD. I was pregnant with baby number two, had worked as a speech and language therapist for 11 years and I was keen to try my hand at research. I needed a change but had no idea where to start. My soon to be supervisor gave me advice on my research idea (it seems it was a good idea- phew) and some tips on funding and I headed off to have a baby. During my maternity leave I spent a lot of time on the computer and the internet – I searched for funding options and stayed in touch with my potential supervisor. I explored a few dead ends, and then decided I was fairly keen to give the NIHR application a bit of a bash. This was just a few weeks before the December 2013 deadline. I realised I needed a bit more time to work out how to complete the application.

 

In the mean time I returned to work and started developing a project that I had applied for during a pre-maternity leave flurry, and had been funded by a Guys and St Thomas’ charitable grant. My future supervisor mentored me on this project, and as the project progressed I started the application for the NIHR doctoral research fellowship. As I explored this option further I contacted previous successful applicants, nurses and speech and language therapists, for advice on how to complete the ridiculously mammoth form, and support on the technicalities of transitioning from work in the NHS to research. I recall one of the first conversations I had with a nurse, whom I skyped with. She was working part time, having just had a baby and returned to her NIHR fellowship just recently. What a relief to find out normal people with actual lives could still do research. You didn’t have to be dedicated 24/7 – you could have children and hobbies. This sounded promising. From here I can’t recall the details of all conversations I had but I know they were all extremely valuable. There were two speech and language therapists in particular who had been awarded their fellowships the year before, who generously shared their application forms and talked through the stages of the application itself. How do I phrase this to my manager, how can I make myself an outstanding candidate? And yes it is worth it. They were inspiring and I still speak to these ladies regularly to learn from their experience.

 

These countless nuggets of golden wisdom accrued from generous clinicians and researchers were what enabled me to navigate the route to where I am now. It gave me the wording for the conversation with my manager (a new manager with no knowledge of speech and language therapy) and the perseverance for the long haul. And I love where I am now, 9 months in and I am delighted with this route I have taken. Yet there seem to be few other speech and language therapists on this road with me. With this in mind I endeavour to pay it forward.

 

Last week I attended an information session for future potential UCL PhD students and NIHR candidates. `The room of around 40 people was buzzing with electricity from the start to the finish of the meeting. It was inspiring to hear so many great research ideas from passionate clinicians. It was also a great feeling to be able to pay forward the advice that was given to me. I was able to provide tips on how to become a better candidate (volunteer for a new role, become an RCSLT advisor, publish in a practice magazine….), advice on pursing research as a career with your manager (get your PhD on your appraisal…), what to do in what order (approach a potential supervisor asap). Don’t be intimidated by the forms and paperwork.

 

In writing this all down it comes to my mind that applying for a PhD is not something you need to do on your own, in fact you shouldn’t. There are lots of people out there who will happily help and support you on this route. In fact, as a small discipline speech and language therapists need to help one another, support and champion one another in order to push our profession forward. And once you have your funding and are on your way pay it forward and help someone else!