Guest Blog: Fighting imposter syndrome with a feeling of belonging by Becky Selwyn
The next guest blog comes from an amazing colleague from the University of Bristol. Dr Becky Selwyn is an award winning Senior Lecturer in Engineering whose caring and supportive teaching methods shine through for her students. Becky writes about the challenging phenomenon of Imposter Syndrome, and how the academic community around us is fundamental in developing the sense of belonging that helps us to grow and develop our self-belief.
Belonging / bi-ˈlȯŋ-iŋ / noun
a sense of fitting in or feeling like you are an important member of a group or place
I don’t belong here.
Like many of my colleagues, and many more people in every walk of life, I struggle with imposter syndrome. It’s a feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing, and that one day soon everyone will find out that I’m a fraud. In spite of this fear, which fluctuates in intensity from moments of incapacitation to a quiet murmur while I try to get on with my job, I actually quite enjoy what I do. This probably worsens the fear – after all, if I didn’t enjoy my career, I wouldn’t worry about being kicked out of it so much!
Luckily, imposter syndrome is really common – up to 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives – and there are plenty of articles explaining it and offering ideas for how to overcome it. (e.g.  and ). This means it’s very likely that some of the people who might identify me as an imposter are also trying to avoid being identified as one themselves. It’s not just me who doesn’t belong – at one point or another, most of us don’t feel like we belong.
But this post isn’t about the negatives of imposter syndrome, it’s about the positives of life as an academic, and sharing what helps me to get through the harder days (of which there have been plenty over the last few years) in the hopes that it might help someone else.
In March 2020, when teaching went online, I was too busy to really notice the abrupt end to real human interaction. One of my closest colleagues was ahead of the game though and set up a virtual Friday debrief for some of our little community. This Friday debrief is still running and is one of the highlights of my working week. A chance to catch up with some of my people, share our rants as well as our successes, or just take time to realise we are all in this chaotic environment together. It’s a valuable moment to start emptying our minds of work stresses and preparing ourselves to enjoy the weekend ahead.
Our friendly debriefs have also allowed me the chance to see up-close just how terrifyingly incredible my colleagues are. This may seem unhelpful for the imposter in me, but it has actually proved to be a useful insight into how others do things – a chance to work on my own weaknesses by learning from some of the greatest people I know. These are people who have strengths in areas that I know nothing about (or have actively avoided until now) and people who take differing approaches but achieve similar, or better, outcomes.
One colleague excels in playing the academic game – always knowing who has the power or the money you need to make something good happen, and how to persuade them to say yes. From this colleague I’ve learnt the beauty of playing the game on my own terms to be able to spread good practice more widely.
Another is an expert in the technical terms for pedagogical things that I want to do but can’t describe – offering the language that I need to convince others to join the adventure. Others take different approaches to student interactions, showing how effective a fair but firm approach can be when supporting students – an approach I admit would sometimes give better results than my own softer approach.
Some share many of the same views as me, and acknowledging our shared strengths can quieten the imposter in me for a while, while commiserating about our shared weaknesses helps me feel less alone.
So what can we do to foster this sense of belonging:
Make time to chat with colleagues as part of the working day. For many years, this was never a priority for me – with part-time working, a young family, and a previously strict no-working-at-home policy, there was never time to just chat with colleagues. Everything had to have a purpose. Now I see the purpose of ‘just’ chatting as a way of building my feeling of belonging – supporting both my development as an academic and my wellbeing.
Recognise the strengths of your community. The imposter in me doesn’t know how to do much, but learning from and imitating others who do know makes it easier. Working with and learning from others also increases my feeling of belonging, giving me a stronger platform from which to fight my imposter syndrome.
Of course, we are not the only ones feeling like imposters – our students feel it too – and as academics and role models (whether we want to be or not) we owe it to our students to support them managing their own imposter syndrome and to help them find ways to feel like they belong here.
The benefits of students feeling that they belong at university are widely known – from increased learning thanks to collaboration between students, to improved wellbeing and better student retention .
As academics, we can support students to develop a sense of belonging, by being role models and showing them how we found our own sense of belonging:
Let’s start every encounter with a welcoming smile and be open and honest about our own experiences – sharing the fears we have all experienced at some point, and how we overcame or managed them, so that students can see that even we struggle sometimes.
Let’s design our units to provide opportunities for students to talk to each other so they can recognise and celebrate their similarities and differences.
Let’s make time for both formal and informal group work so that students can work together and help each other – regardless of constraints imposed by timetables or space we can plan short or long collaborative projects, or class time to work through examples side-by-side.
Some students won’t feel comfortable with these things (I don’t either!), and that is ok.
Let’s offer gentle encouragement by being explicit about why we are doing things, and sharing more examples from our own experiences of how spending time working with other people has helped us to feel like we belong.
Everyone can benefit from feeling like they belong in a community, and everyone’s community will look different. All we can do is recognise our own communities, share our experiences with others, and support them to start finding their own place where they belong.
Becky's top tips for developing a sense of belonging:
About the Author:
Becky is a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. Alongside her award winning teaching work, she undertakes pedagogic research investigating ways of improving student engagement in their learning. Read more about Becky's University of Bristol 2021 Teaching Award on the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching blog https://bilt.online/becky-selwyn/ . You can also find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.