Navigating imposter syndrome and life in a foreign land as a first-year PhD student

By Ahaana Mahanti
PhD student at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, Copenhagen Business School.

“Phd-you-got-this.jpg” by Dasaptaerwin, used under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons at

I was trying to comprehend if everyone was simply “winging it” or were they already far ahead in the scholarly journey as it felt like I was the only one drowning in self-doubt and hopelessness.

I was off to a great start when I first stepped into my PhD journey in November of 2022.. or so I believed! I entered this tiny, beautiful country at the peak of its dark, gray, windy and confusing weather. Having come all the way from a tropical country like India, I underestimated the impact the weather would have on my then-high spirits while kick-starting this intensive academic journey. With no friends and family in a strange land far away from home, I was soon spiraling into these bouts of crippling loneliness and anxiety, but hey I couldn’t already be complaining. After all, it was my decision to embark upon this complex and exhausting pursuit of intellectual curiosity for the next three years of my life.

I spent the first three months setting up a routine for myself, exploring this tiny little endearing city of Copenhagen, and getting to know my peers and who’s who at the department. Let’s not forget the uphill struggle of finding an affordable living arrangement in the city that would suit the requirements of a 30-year-old adult woman. This was no less stressful than a job application. The next three months went by questioning if I really deserved to be here amidst all these brilliant people. Was I fooling myself and everyone else into believing that I was smart? Was it just luck? Was it pure merit? It seemed like my colleagues were far more adept at reading and critically analysing scientific papers while it took me hours and sometimes days to make sense of just one paper. I was trying to comprehend if everyone was simply “winging it” or were they already far ahead in the scholarly journey as it felt like I was the only one drowning in self-doubt and hopelessness. 

Thanks to my compassionate PhD community and the generally flat hierarchical structure common to the Danish work culture that I was able to find a safe space to openly discuss my apprehensions. Opening up, however, did not come to me naturally! I felt I had so much to prove especially because I had come from a Global South country with experiences no one could relate to. Eight months down and that’s when it hit me, that my knowledge lies in my own disparate and varied experiences, something I could build on and share with the community I so desperately wanted to be a part of. I figured out some coping strategies which included a combination of venting in a safe space (seriously use those free counselling sessions your university offers you), withdrawing for a bit only to come back rejuvenated, and the magical yet the most basic strategy – getting a walk in the nature.

To all my fellow PhDs out there, imposter syndrome is real and very natural to some of us. The beauty lies in the realization of how the biggest lessons come from the most ordinary, “human” feelings that we are absolutely entitled to have. Embrace the process and see yourself evolve both as a scholar and as an individual. 🙂