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‘Insider’ or Outsider’? Dealing with imposter syndrome when starting a PhD

9 January 2022

From MSc to PhD

I’ve spent the past few months transitioning from an MSc to a PhD and coming to terms with the daunting tasks stretched before me over the next three years. Rather than using the momentum of the MSc dissertation to springboard me seamlessly into PhD research, I crashed. I scraped by the first term of the PhD in total burnt out, and it’s only now in the dark winter months that I am emerging from my hibernation and tentatively ‘testing the waters’ so to speak.

For the PhD, I’m turning my attention away from cold-water swimming and training my focus to a new challenge – cold-water surfing. The interest was always in surfing but while I found myself land-locked during the 2020-21 government mandated travel restrictions, I seized the opportunity to take the plunge into an auto-ethnography of cold-water swimming.

My findings, to me, were significant. My autoethnographic approach enabled me to conduct a longitudinal study of how I used cold-water dips as a coping mechanism to deal with my turbulent mental health during the dark winter months. Most interestingly to me was how I turned to the method in and of itself (voice recordings post-swim) as a way of coping and talking through my emotions, more so than the swim itself. Analysing the data made me realise how the study enabled me to cultivate a true sense of gratitude for the small things – sunshine on the water or the sound of morning bird song for example. It also revealed how I cultivated an embodied understanding of the local river environment, its currents, colours and rhythms and how this changed over time.

It was a hugely rewarding piece of research. Yet here I am, a year on and now living by the seaside, facing next to no motivation to get outside in the drizzly bleakness of this Welsh winter. A large part of this stumbling block has been this sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ – I’m doing a PhD?? on surfing?? It all sounds a bit ridiculous and despite the degree certificates I have hanging on the wall, I somehow feel embarrassingly unqualified for this research task. A large part of this has been due to the dawning reification of the task I have given myself – striking up a research project with surfers in Wales in winter. A scene that so far largely seems to consist of blokes and their short boards chasing barrels and ‘secret’ breaks when a storm rolls through.

It was a relief, then, when I came across Tommy Langseth’s (2012) article on ‘liquid ice surfers’ in Norway. In his paper, he writes of the ‘insider vs outsider’ phenomenon in local surf culture. The idea of ‘localism’ is well documented in surf writing, and it struck a chord with me, making me realise that this is perhaps precisely what is contributing to this sense of being an ‘imposter’. Langseth uses the word “neophyte” (a person who is new to an activity) and frankly, as an average surfer facing the first ever winter I’ve surfed through, that is precisely what I am.

Skill development

But there is hope. Langseth writes that, between the inside and the outside of the surf culture, “[t]he boundaries are fluid and continuously negotiated”. His findings confirm that “social upward mobility within the surfing subculture can be ensured by improving skills” (2012: 13). Therefore, if one of the ways to ‘negotiate’ this status is through skill development, I’m happy to see this research as a process of becoming immersed and learning, just as a I did during my little Masters pilot. As I said after ‘achieving’ my first ever swim in the snow, “if I can do that then what else can I do?”.

A small but important step towards my skill development is completing my National Vocational Beach Lifeguard Qualification (NVBLQ) next month February 21-25th in St David’s, Pembrokeshire. This is not only an excuse to get fit in the water, but it will deepen my understanding of the sea in a local context as well as giving me life support and first aid knowledge. All of these ultimately aims to make me more confident and competent as I come to understand the local surf breaks around South and West Wales.

So, in addition to this ‘skill development’, more simply Langseth writes about how just showing up and committing to surfing in winter can help with the transition from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’:

“…dedication can compensate, to a certain degree, for the lack of skills. Dedication can make it easier to get inside the surf subculture. ‘Geir’ emphasizes that as long as you can catch waves, you don’t have to be able to do tricks or show skills to be accepted: ‘When you are out on a day like today, when it is winter and minus two degrees and snowing, I would call everyone out there surfers’.” (Langseth 2012: 17)

I’ll try to think of this tomorrow morning when my alarm goes off before dawn to head out for a surf in the 7 degree drizzle.

Negotiating a way ‘in’

Langseth also (very helpfully) speaks from his own perspective as a self-described “learning surfer” doing this research with what he describes as the “core members of the region’s surf subculture”. As I begin to consider which groups and locations to research here in Wales, as described above I’ve been faced with a real sense of being an ‘outsider’ as I am not such a competent surfer that I would be in the line up of these big winter swells. Langseth writes about how his initial strategy of “hanging out” in the parking lot to chat to surfers was unsuccessful. Largely due to the low temperatures of a Norwegian winter and therefore the limited ‘hanging out’ that gets done. He found he was more successful after changing up his approach:

“I got hold of a video camera and I offered to film them surfing. As the surfers were interested in watching themselves, and it normally is difficult to get someone to stand on shore filming in minus 10 degrees, they were suddenly very interested in having me around. Instead of me calling them in the mornings, they started calling me. Also, after surf sessions I got invited home with them to watch what I had filmed.” (Langseth 2012: 9)

This also struck a chord with me as I’ve recently bought myself waterproof housing and the kit to get in the water as a photographer. In this way, the plan is that I will still be immersing myself but won’t be required to match the same level of surfing and I can hopefully build up some connections with surfers in the way Langseth describes. I’m also hoping that this will form part of my approach in using creative methods and possibly a visual output as part of the final thesis (more on this soon). Photographing moving objects while in the water, however, also requires skills that must be learned and that too is an ongoing process.

Another ‘way in’ I’ve found is through connecting with fellow female surfers. To ‘break the ice’ of approaching a surf spot for the first time, I’ve been connecting with women through instagram and existing networks to ask if they’ll be surfing around the Gower when the conditions are good. In this way, committing to a surf feels more accessible as I know I will recognise someone at the beach or in the parking lot. I recently wrote an article for ‘Daughters of the Sea‘ magazine about my research aims – the magazine launches soon and I hope that this helps in some way with networking and connecting with those who might be reading and interested in my research.

So, my takeaway message (to myself) is that I am off. I’ve started. I still don’t know for sure what my research questions are, who exactly I’m hoping to research or how I’ll be doing this research – but what I do know is that dedication and showing up will help me on this quest. Wish me luck!



Langseth, T. 2012. Liquid ice surfers—the construction of surfer identities in Norway. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 12(1), pp. 3-23.