A PhD student? With impostor syndrome?

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Yeah. I know.

So last week I found out that my MSc dissertation (which I was writing this time last year, and was frankly having a much easier time with than I am having trying to grapple with my current thesis chapter…) has been shortlisted for a prize. Specifically, the Sunley Prize from the Howard League for Penal Reform. It’s very exciting.The prize, should I win, is not only a cool £1000 but also an additional line on my CV, the publication of the dissertation in a slightly more Howard League-friendly format than its current form, and a swank awards ceremony.

I’m not expecting to win. I’m surprised and honoured even to be shortlisted given how out of place (to me) my title feels compared to the others. This is perhaps side effect of the broad derogation of humanities from social science: all the others are “real” sociology/criminology/law dissertations whereas mine is “only” English/med hums. Any day of the week I will enthusiastically and ardently defend my discipline from anybody who would shit on it, so this other feeling is strange and hard to explain. Perhaps it’s just that, knowing how literary studies — and pop culture work in particular — can be so readily sneered at, I assume no awards panel would actually want to applaud some academic dilettante (that’s me)’s analysis of what most people might call a glorified soap opera watched by lesbians and chavs that hasn’t even been on TV for a decade when they otherwise give prizes to work on the experiences of foreign national women in UK prisons or prisoners’ emotional management strategies or the impact of motherhood on sentencing decisions in England and Wales (just a selection of previous winning dissertations).

When I’m not having a thesis crisis (cresis? thisis?), I usually feel okay about my stuff. In more reflective, circumspect and less anxious moments I can reassure myself that everything is fine, my achievements are deserved and more good things will happen in the future, too.

I obviously felt bold enough, and excited enough about my work, to bother entering the competition. I wrote the thing — pretty painlessly, too. I got a great mark for it. And then I wrote densely-packed blurbs explaining the importance and worthiness of it all. My supervisors supported that application. And here I am, shortlisted.

That’s sort of what’s supposed to happen, I guess.

Presumably the shortlisters felt my dissertation was as worthy as the others, or else it wouldn’t be up there with them, but I can’t help feeling like it’s all just someone’s terrible error. This isn’t really helped by the fact that Oxbridge is also rather over-represented on the shortlist, making up 60% of candidates’ affiliations, and with only me (King’s) and three others (Strathclyde, Middlesex and Manchester Metropolitan) left representing anywhere else. It just gives me a feeling that this is principally an award meant for “elite” students — and since I feel about as far from elite as it’s possible to be, so erupts the impostor syndrome.

This sort of writing is meant to end on a positive note, isn’t it? Unfortunately I don’t have the answers…

 

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