Home » imposter syndrome » The end is in sight – or is it?

The end is in sight – or is it?


Draft thesis went to supervisors about ten days ago and received comments/suggestions/advice from one. I don’t really expect to hear from other until end of next week – hang it all, it is the holidays!

I’ve got a list of things I need to do before I can submit thesis. Most are fairly minor, like decoupling EndNote and making a few minor amendments to my bibliography that I can’t do while still using EndNote.

The only challenging bit still to do is getting my Conclusions into shape – and I’m struggling with that! Spent a fair bit of yesterday afternoon throwing my rattle out of my pram, not helped by those closest to me – and who have PhDs – trying to tell me the conclusions are the easy bit and a place to ‘big up’ what I’ve done. All that’s doing is making me question whether I have actually done anything that I can claim in any way contributes to knowledge.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the doctoral journey so far and I’ve learned a lot about myself and other stuff, but have I actually done anything which I can claim adds to knowledge? I’m not so sure. In fact, I feel that any claim I make will be sheer arrogance. The question is whether that is my old friend ‘imposter syndrome’ popping its head above the parapet again, or am I making a realistic and honest assessment of what I have achieved, or not achieved, over the past four years?

I know that with a bit of effort, I can make the minor changes to my draft conclusions that are needed and add a few more paragraphs in order to have a thesis fit to submit. I am also unsure whether I want to. Part of me feels I owe it to my husband, my advisers, my friends – all those folk who have put up with me over the past months as I’ve disappeared into my mental cave – to finish what I have started. Another part of me feels that it would be so much easier to walk away now before I make an even bigger fool of myself and really do show myself to be the fraud I am. If I had the time, now would be good for a couple of days away from the desk, but deadlines loom and I’ve either got to get the job done, or forget it, and I want whatever decision I make to be a positive one, not an act of sabotage.

I have learned stuff that I do consider useful and valuable. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a room in a church hall talking to two women. All three of us have sons on the autism spectrum. Mine is now adult and living pretty independently while studying for a foundation degree. Their sons are both in the middle years of primary school and one has a younger son, who may also be on the spectrum. We were chatting about a meeting one of them had been involved in at school and she was talking about the difficulty of getting school personnel to accept her son was not the same as other kids – yes, they accepted the diagnosis and had put some strategies in place, but the expectation was that the boy would then become like the others. We got to talking about difference, accepting difference and the role of schools in normalising and socialising children – OK, those were not the words we were using, but they were the ideas, and they were ideas that were coming directly out of my research findings. The other woman was a teacher as well as a parent and talked about how her perceptions of children with special needs had changed as a result of her own experience, but she also experienced difficulties relating to professionals when talking about her son. The conversation moved to how a knowledgeable parent can be perceived as a threat by a less knowledgeable practitioner – effectively we had moved on to Bourdieu and cultural capital and the field of struggle…

Yes, I have learned things that help me to understand the dynamic of what is happening in some situations where parents struggle, and parents and practitioners end up fighting each other. I can apply that knowledge directly in my support role – and the ideas I share resonate with the parents I share them with. The question is whether or not that knowledge, those insights, actually count as contributing to knowledge in the way academia understands knowledge? Is completing and submitting my thesis the way to share that knowledge and those insights, or is now the time to walk away and seek a different way of disseminating what I have learned – or maybe I can do both.

Whatever I decide, I need to decide quickly!



  1. Sounds to me like you have new knowledge: a need for people/ educators to accept difference, and to support those who are different differently. It may not be the first time its suggested (I dont know) but it does sound like this knowledge is not common. Such knowledge matters for participants in your study and it matters for those who still come in contact with such services.
    The fear of completion, of perfectionism, of being less than perfect is holding you back, but the phd is just certification; the story needs telling in every avenue that you can make it be heard; academic spaces are but one part of this.
    Best wishes Liz,

  2. M-H says:

    Gosh, this is a bit dramatic! A few things come to mind.

    First, if it’s truly too much for you to claim the work you’ve done (as opposed to last-minute nerves), or you really feel that it won’t ever be good enough, then walk away. It’s your life, you can do it if you want to. But it’s quite a final thing to do; you need to be really really sure that is what you want.

    So, if you haven’t been creating new knowledge, what have you been doing? What has the point been? I’m fairly sure your supervisors wouldn’t have let you get this far if they didn’t think you were going to get your PhD. And you get a PhD for original work – which is another way to say for creating new knowledge. That’s the key thing. It might not be world-changing, earth-shaking knowledge, but it’s something new. One of my informants said this: “A thesis has to tell you something you didn’t know before you started reading it. It could be something you might have guessed or imagined, but you didn’t know what the answer would be.” Does yours do that, do you think? If it does, then it’s worth finishing.

    I do think this may be imposter syndrome. I return to my point about your supervisors: do you trust them? If so, have they really encouraged you to go on so far in order to make a fool of yourself?

    A lot of advisors suggest you should have a sentence somewhere near the beginning of your thesis (even maybe in the abstract) that says “The important thing about this thesis is…” or “This thesis contributes to what is known about x by…” or some other statement that says why you’ve bothered to spend all that time and effort and brainspace on what they are about to read. Can you make a sentence like that? Forget your doubts; pretend that you really believe in yourself and try and write that sentence. If you can’t, then maybe you have wasted your time. (But I doubt it…)

    A day off mightn’t be a bad thing, you know….

  3. Pippa says:

    I think that this will give you some perspective regarding how big a contribution is really expected.

  4. ffolliet says:

    You’ve just expressed your opinion; your thesis is just the same. It is based on reading, learning and interpretation and is yours. Foolish? That is ridiculous. You have just submitted a draft thesis, not written on postcards, in crayon, in an afternoon. Man up, accept that you may actually have created something of value and worth and finish the amazing job you have started. Let others decide its worth.

  5. Kathy Robinson says:

    Hi Liz
    I am a latecomer to your blog and PhD circuit and so I hope I have got the correct understanding of the core of your PhD – that it is practitioner research. If this is so then blow away the imposter syndrome immediately otherwise you will not be able to trail blaze effectively for all practitioner researchers (like me) who follow behind. We are of a similar age, both of us had similar careers with the OU including Regional alliance ( although SL was not for me ). As a very experienced practitioner, with wider additional experience, what you have learned about your topic that you did not know when you started is the unique contribution of your thesis.

  6. Don’t let the worry over that imposter specter get to you; you have made it this far and are now nearly there. If there wasn’t something there, you would have been gone already, and in some ways I feel I am along the same final sprint as you are and we need to remain focused and allow the people around us to encourage toward the final step. It will be ok.

    BTW, the new knowledge that is created does not need to be earth-shattering or even the best thing you have ever written. It just needs to be written and then you finish. As this PhD stuff is so focused anyway, it seems to reason that the new knowledge would also be highly focused (and thus not considered amazing or profound) that will be appreciated only by those who know something about your area and how you added to the literature there. Everybody else will just be impressed you are done!

  7. Anna says:

    Liz, all I can add is this: it is not you who should be deciding the significance of your findings (despite what we have to do for our conclusions). Your job is to put your findings out there and their significance will be decided by others. What you are actually controlling in this current decision is whether to allow others to see your work.

    I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: *put your hard work out there, get the thesis done and visible to others*. Then you can choose to walk away from it or not, as you prefer, but with no regrets.

    One last question: what if people find your work useful in helping them to cope with a situation such as your participants have been in? Personally, I think that your research can be of immense value – even if just one person is helped by what you’ve done, then your work’s value is beyond measurement in a piece of paper.

  8. lizit says:

    Thanks everybody who has commented – I’ve read, pondered, read again, had a good sleep and had another go at drafting the conclusions. The support here and on #phdchat has helped me to get into a better place with this – and a place I don’t think I would have been without your support.

  9. […] and to write the conclusion that I couldn’t write in December (see my blog post of 29th December). There is nothing too arduous there – and there is no way I am walking away at this point […]

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