The Academic Imposter

“Entrepreneurs are the rock stars of this generation”. So says Adam Purvis (, Director of the Power of Youth, an organisation dedicated to the ‘positive economy’ and the idea of purpose above profit. Purvis is exactly that new-era rock star, engaging, motivating and sodden with positivity. Commerce is what will change the world.

I believe this too, or a version of this. I’ve always aimed too low before, not taking my own achievements seriously. In my heart of hearts, I believe that I passed my viva because my external examiner felt sorry for me and let me off with minor corrections. This is imposter syndrome; we all know about it. It affects academics more than perhaps any other vocation, and it stifled me in my early days. My articles went unsent to anyone but the lowest ranked journals and my fellowship applications lacked ambition, focus and any sense of passion. I was passionate about my subject, I read widely and wrote a lot. But I took every criticism as a sign of failure and backed up my perceived shortcomings with self-loathing.

On the face of it, then, it might seem unlikely that I would have much in common with someone like Purvis. He has the kind of self-belief you’d associate with someone who is ignorant of the challenges of life. But he’s not. He’s seen the worst of poverty in developing countries, he’s talked with politicians focussed only on elections, he’s changed the minds at the top of a large consulting firm. And he is able to see how he is changing the world by speaking directly to young people, to entrepreneurs and self-starters. He’s telling them that their vision matters and that they are the great hopes of human society.

When I decided to start up in business for myself, I was determined to make a difference to how people felt. What’s difficult for me is being brave enough to state how and where this difference is to be made. That’s the imposter syndrome again. But what people like Purvis have shown me is that, unless you’re willing to say what you’re intending to do, no-one is going to listen. You have to start by rejecting the role of the imposter. That’s a hard first step, because, if I’m honest, it’s easier to succumb to the ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ than it is to stand up and say “I am changing the world. Here’s how.”

PhDs are about changing the world as well. As Matthew Might ( has so memorably shown us, every PhD thesis adds a little bit to human knowledge, expanding our world. People who have completed their doctorate have, even if just for a moment, stood at the pinnacle of human achievement through their hard work and individual genius. That’s an amazing thing to have done. If this is you, you should know you’ve already added to the world. Now you just want to work out how you want to make your next impact.


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