A Decade-Long Dream and Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Helena Rutkowska
DPhil in History

A decade ago, I started dreaming about studying at the University of Oxford. I was enamoured with Latin at school and after attending an open day aged 17, I fell in love with the university and the city. So, in 2013, I applied to do a Classics undergraduate degree here. I remember passing the initial entrance test and staying in Oriel college accommodation as I was interviewed about subjects from English Literature to Philosophy. I came out of every interview sobbing due to feeling like I hadn’t done well and that I had embarrassed myself. Yet, as I left the city after a dizzying week of meeting brilliant lecturers and scholars, every fibre of me hoped that one day, I would be calling Oxford my new home.

The rejection broke me when it came in. Having always worked hard and having attained the best grades at school, I lost all motivation for some time afterwards, calling myself every horrible name I could think of. (It was only years later in therapy that I realised that I was experiencing “negative automatic thoughts”, that not everyone had them and that I did not have to verbally abuse myself every day to live a normal life.) Fortunately, I was later accepted by the University of Durham, so I carried on with my schoolwork and lived there for the next three years.

I came out of Durham in 2017 with a first degree but little else, having sacrificed my mental health due to overworking in effort to convince myself that I was “good enough”. The rejection from Oxford, amongst other things, clung to me like sticky tar and when I entered the working world, a decision that disappointed many at the time who thought I should remain in academia, I finally sought out counselling. I was diagnosed with a generalised anxiety disorder and I spent the next year and a half learning about myself, about mental illness and how to manage it.

Through CBT, medication and meditation, I made a lot of progress and eventually, I decided to once again pursue my dream of working in the heritage sector. To do this, I knew that I would have to go back to university. So, I plucked up some courage and despite the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I completed my Master’s degree in Art History and Curatorship at the Warburg Institute in October 2020. I briefly considered doing a PhD, but having hoped that the world would return to normality by 2021, I applied and got accepted onto an internship at an art gallery in Italy with a January start. By the new year, however, it was clear that I would not be able to go, so I had to rethink what I was going to do next.

You would not then believe my surprise when on Wednesday 6th January 2021, upon conducting research on how to apply for a doctorate, I came across an advertisement for an amazing Collaborative Doctoral Award, which spoke to all my interests and required applications to be in by Friday 8th January. This PhD was to be at the British Library and the institution that I never thought I would apply to again. You guessed it – Oxford. Fear seeped into my every pore, but I had no time to overthink whether returning to an institution that still made me feel so many negative emotions was a good idea. This was about my career so within 48 hours, adrenaline sky high, I somehow managed to get an application in. Even more miraculously, after a mentally-challenging waiting period of almost three months during the heart of the pandemic, I found out that I’d got in.

I now realise that I should have celebrated this – an acceptance from Oxford or any other university is a massive achievement in its own right. Yet, all I could think about before moving here was that I was not clever enough to be at such a prestigious place and that I would either get kicked out or have to drop out. The self-confidence I had gradually been rebuilding over the years began to crumble and so even before term started, I knew that I would have to seek out help once again. This became even more apparent as Freshers’ Week occurred – one of the most exciting but overwhelming weeks of my life. At every turn, I was introduced to what I thought were the most confident, bright, witty and switched-on people I had ever met. I will say that a year on, all those adjectives bar one stand true for all the amazing friends I have made at St Hugh’s College and elsewhere. This is because, while it may seem that everyone is on top of things except for you, the truth is, most students have experienced painful imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It turns out, while I was busy convincing myself that I was never going to succeed here early on last year, many people were experiencing the exact same anxieties as me. We were all just dealing with it differently.

I managed to find this out thanks to two avenues which I will always be grateful for: the counselling services at Oxford and brave students who decided to share their struggles with me. From the beginning of term, St Hugh’s College had highlighted how time with our college counsellor – in person or online – could be arranged through a simple click of a button (just email counsellor@st-hughs.ox.ac.uk). It was thanks to this free and confidential space that I was quickly alerted to all the mental health resources that Oxford has to offer, from reassuring podcasts on self-compassion (https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling/self-help/podcasts) to DBT group workshops designed specifically with academics in mind (https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling/workshops). Hearing similar testimonies to mine from undergraduates to postdoctoral researchers made me understand that I was not alone and slowly, but surely, I realised that I was good enough to be here. No one expected me to be an expert. I was here to learn and what would be the point of going to university if you knew it all anyway! Instead of feeling intimidated by scholars telling me new things I did not know, I began to cherish how much knowledge I could gain from them. Funnily enough, many have since said the same thing to me about my own skills.

It has been incredible to see the transformation within myself between this Michaelmas term and last. In fact, I recently turned 27, so to think that my dream of studying at Oxford first materialised a whole ten years ago is honestly mind-boggling to me. Yet, it has been great to remind myself of how far I’ve come and not to focus too much on the future with its struggles ahead. I still experience doubts and stress regularly, but I feel much better now knowing that I have such a fantastic support system here. I hope that one day, I will be able to celebrate achieving my doctorate but until then, I am going to concentrate on keeping a balanced lifestyle between work and rest, deepening my connections with the stimulating minds around me and enjoying life – here and now – to the full. In the meantime, I urge anyone who once struggled like I did to reach out to a friend, the university or a professional as soon as they can. I truly do believe that it could change your life for the better.

This was written by Helena Rutkowska in 2022. Helena is a 2nd Year DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, undertaking a Collaborative Doctoral Award with the British Library. For more information on her research, please see her academic profile: https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/people/helena-rutkowska