Imposter syndrome and how I sort of got over it

6 Jun

I remember being at the British International Studies Association conference many years ago and some bigwig in International Relations introduced another bigwig with the words ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is, then you probably are at the wrong conference.’ I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was – other than an older male who looked very pleased with himself. It is just one of the countless number of points of exclusion in academia where I felt that I did not quite belong and that I should not really be in the room. Some of the exclusion is simply rudeness – the stunning lack of social awareness and professional courtesy that some academics have towards others. Some of it is hardwired into the structure and practices of our sector.

The other day, the PhD students at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham organised an interesting session on ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘belonging’ in academia – hence the spur to write this blogpost. The notion of imposter syndrome seems to be gathering more attention in the academy. Part of that increasing attention is related to a welcome growing awareness of mental health and well-being issues in the academy. But very probably issues of imposter syndrome and belonging are as old as the academy itself. People have always felt that somehow they do not have the knowledge, skills, background, or qualifications to ‘fit in’.

What follow are the personal reflections of a white, male of a certain age in (what I hope is) reasonably secure employment. In short, they are reflections from a position of relative privilege. We should be very aware that the exclusion that makes up imposter syndrome is gendered and shaped by class, race and a range of other social and cultural characteristics. If I – as a white male – can experience imposter syndrome, what must it be like for a female of colour who does not have academic English as her first language and is in a room with more senior colleagues who are sharing a series of in-jokes?

Fundamentally, academia is exclusive. There are barriers to entry, not least in terms of qualifications. Hierarchy is everywhere in terms of the titles people have and their security of employment. Perhaps the largest driver of a sense of not belonging is the isolated way in which many of us work in the humanities. Unlike many of the natural sciences where people often work in teams, research in the social sciences can be a lonely furrow. There is often a triangular relationship between the researcher, the computer screen, and doubt. It is this doubt, I would suggest, that is the key driver behind imposter syndrome – the feeling of not being quite good enough or of not fitting in. Given the amount of alone time we have, that doubt can grow and become paralysing.

So what can be done? Before continuing, I remind the reader of my own privilege. Would I write the following when I was still mired in my PhD? It also helps that I am a comparativist rather than an area studies professional who has to perfect a language and become deeply immersed in one context.

In an odd way, I have come to see imposter syndrome as somewhat empowering. I realised early on in my career that there would always be someone cleverer, better read and more articulate in the room. That person had just published the definitive book on the subject, had just landed a whopping grant, or just come back from the most amazing fieldwork. While I could string together a few stumbling sentences on the topic, they would manage to extemporaneously speak for twenty minutes with fined-tuned oratory. I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that this would always be the case: there would always be someone cleverer in the room. So I got past being paralysed by imposter syndrome and just got on with my own thing. Some academics engage with what I do. Many others would dismiss it as variously unscientific or not theoretical enough. I can live with that.

I also think that a degree of imposter syndrome can be useful in the research process in terms of epistemology and positionality. The best place to begin research is from a position of not knowing. If we already know the answers, why do the research? But if we begin from a position of (feminist) curiosity, of wanting to find out the answers, and wanting to engage with others who have far more knowledge than us, then research becomes fun, rewarding and intellectually fulfilling. If it is about proving that you are the cleverest person in the room, well good for you. But I am not playing that game.

I was also struck by the very good advice from my colleagues Carly Beckerman and Ilan Baron on the importance of having a life outside of academia. That allows us to put the inevitable knock-backs (the rejected manuscript submissions, the failed grant applications, the punishing feedback) into perspective. It also allows us to fill the space that might otherwise be filled with doubt or a sense of inadequacy. Also crucial is the social infrastructure that departments can provide in terms of coffee breaks, after seminar drinks, and other opportunities to share with others. Many of the ‘rules’ of academia are not written down and so these semi-social interactions become vital information-sharing spaces in which the unwritten conventions of academia are passed on.

It is also important that we think about the environment we create in our own practice. I was very taken by something I saw many years ago. I was just starting out in a lectureship and David Denver from Lancaster organised a conference on elections and surveys. Many of the attendees and presenters were early career researchers and PhD students. David sat immediately in front of the podium. As people spoke, he engaged in active and positive listening. He nodded vigorously, would chip in audibly with ‘good point’, and would ask questions in very constructive ways. It was a generous thing to do and it cost little. I was also struck by Christine Cheng’s chairing of a panel at the International Studies Association this year when she opened the questions by saying ‘Questions from female and early career scholars are particularly welcome’. None of this is about dumbing down or abandoning rigour. Instead, it is about reminding ourselves of the importance of civility and inclusion.

New Article by me on the state of the art of Peace and Conflict Studies. If you cannot access it then email me ( for a pdf

2 Apr

New article by me:
Roger Mac Ginty (2019) Complementarity and Interdisciplinarity in Peace and Conflict Studies, Journal of Global Security Studies.

Link to article here

This essay unpacks some of the nuances and complexities of peace and conflict studies. While it accepts that there are divisions between those who study conflict and those who study peace, it argues that there are also multiple sites of overlap and complementarity. Many of those who study topics labeled as “peace” are actually studying conflict, meaning that we have a complex “masala” of peaceandconflictstudies. Moreover, trends within social science research more broadly reflect the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of recent work.

Can we stop using the term ‘ontological security’. It is ridiculous.

1 Apr

Can we all stop using the term ‘ontological security’? It is a ridiculous term. The concept simply means comfort or a feeling of security. There has been great academic work done the concept and it has helped us understand security in more sociological terms. This has been a very useful service as it helps us move beyond rather staid notions of security that prioritised states and formal institutions and tended to minimise the importance of people. Yet there is a conceit about the term that grates.

Many of us have conducted multiple interviews and focus groups with people in insecure or conflict-affected environments. In the history of the hundreds of thousands (possibly millions?) of research interviews and focus groups among conflict-affected areas has anyone ever used the term ‘ontological security’? Has anyone ever said, ‘Conditions in this area have improved after the peace, but I don’t feel more secure – ontologically.’? So if none of our research subjects use the term, why do academics use it?

Each academic discipline has its own vernacular and it is, of course, healthy for disciplines to develop their own debates and unpack the meanings of concepts and words. This blog is not making an argument for censorship or the ‘dumbing down’ of academic study. Yet, the term ‘ontological security’ seems particularly egregious. It relates to a very simple concept that can be conveyed using straightforward language. It is often used in relation to real people who are experiencing very real threats and situations of insecurity.

The use of such language, I would argue, represents a further stripping of the agency of people who may be under threat. We are aware from multiple sources (blogs, interviews, life histories, vox pops etc.) of the articulacy of people in conflict zones. They are as articulate (if not more so) than you or me. But using a term like ontological security seems to write over their voices. It risks reinforcing their apparently subaltern position. It seems to suggest: your narration of your own circumstances is not good enough and it needs to be (re)translated so that it can be better understood. The academic imperative of sense-making risks shoe-horning lived and embodied experiences of life into categories and concepts that may not be entirely faithful to the actual lived and embodied experience.

This is not an argument against specialist language. Many professions need to be precise in their communication. Medical professionals and others who rely on a technical jargon come to mind. But in the humanities (let’s remember the root word) we do not have such an imperative. Instead, we have made specialist language an imperative.

I should conclude by an act of disclosure that perhaps explains why I find the term ontological security just so grating. Recently I was fortunate enough to have had a piece published in Cooperation and Conflict (and I am very grateful for the opportunity). In that article I used the term ontological security. Yet I felt uncomfortable doing so. Academic strictures mean that often we have to anchor our writing in existing literature and – as this article was for a special issue on the notion of the everyday and International Relations, then it seemed relevant to anchor this piece in the concept of ontological security. And the reviewers (who were very helpful throughout the process) seemed to like the term ontological security and recommended more and more references to literature that used the concept. That is fair enough, and I gained a lot from reading that literature.

But as I was writing (and trying to convince the editors and reviewers to publish my article) I kept thinking of the people we had interviewed and ‘focus grouped’ as part of the Everyday Peace Indicators project. They were the inspiration for the paper. None of them used the term ‘ontological security’. They had narrated their experiences in very articulate and colourful ways. They had used rich idioms, vernacular insights and lots of language that grounded their views on peace and (in)security in terms of their families and communities. By using the term ‘ontological security’ I was being unfaithful to their voices. I was – I am convinced – engaging in a colonial practice. Just as colonial cartographers replaced local place-names with terms like ‘New York’ or ‘New Zealand’, here was I replacing their lived and embodied experiences with a ridiculous term.

So what to do? Jargon seems inescapable in academia. It is a passport allowing entry into specialised debates. To be taken seriously by editors, reviewers and peers we do seem to have to use an argot, especially if one is involved in conceptual and theoretical debates. I don’t have an easy answer. I am aware that we are all prone to the political economies of peer review. But I will try, as far as is possible, not to use ‘ontological security’ again.

Bloody Sunday: Amnesty not murder charges

14 Mar

A former British soldier is to be charged with two counts of murder arising from ‘Bloody Sunday’ – a massacre by state troops of civilians who were protesting for civil rights in Northern Ireland. For the relatives of the dead (13 civilians were killed) this holds out the possibility of a justice that has been delayed for decades. There will be predictable howls of outrage from the usual sources. English and British nativism will dispense with arguments on justice and simply play to home audience.

It is worth asking what is to be gained from bringing someone through the courts for something that happened decades ago. Certainly the relatives and many in Catholic-nationalist circles in Northern Ireland may feel that there is a chance that justice might be done. But it is worth looking at the wider context of Northern Ireland – a society in which there has been a peace process but very little reconciliation. There is a strong case to be made that retributive justice has little to offer Northern Ireland – especially given the time that has elapsed since the massacre. This case will simply stir up traumas, entrench bitterness, and give many actors the opportunity to trot out tired tropes.

This Bloody Sunday murder charge is only possible because of the failure of Northern Ireland’s politicians – and political leaders in Britain and Ireland – to follow the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement with a comprehensive reconciliation plan. Various ‘dealing with the past’ schemes have been put in train but in a half-hearted way. The leaders of sectarian parties have little interest in initiatives that would put them out of business. Political attention in London and Dublin has little bandwidth for Northern Ireland (aside from Brexit).

The alternative to retributive justice is a form of transitional justice that recognises the hurt and exigencies of a deeply divided society but also recognises the need to protect the peace and move on – however painful that might be. An over-arching reconciliation plan might include a comprehensive strategy to deal with the past and an amnesty for all Troubles-related deaths, injuries and damage. That, of course, is easier said than done but one cannot help but look at the twenty years since the Belfast Agreement was reached as a squandered opportunity to deal with the past and thus avoid dragging pensioners through the courts.

An all-encompassing amnesty as part of an over all reconciliation plan would – of course – be controversial (what isn’t in a deeply divided society?). It would mean that individuals that many would regard as ‘terrorists’ would not face charges. It would mean that families would not receive forms of justice that involve a court hearing and a punitive sentence. It would mean hard choices between peace and justice. But, with an over-arching reconciliation plan there is a possibility of seeing peace and justice as complementary – as forming a reinforcing process that moves a society out of the need for retributive justice.

We now have the spectacle of former IRA members being dragged through the courts – to the cheers of unionists and the right-wing press, and former British soldiers being brought to the same courts – to the cheers of some within nationalist Ireland. What we don’t have is a reconciliation process.

Karen Bradley and the justification of state killing

7 Mar

There was some surprise at Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s comments justifying killings by the British State. The surprise is surprising. Bradley is a British unionist and is merely upholding British unionist policy that the British state is legitimate. The logic of British unionism, like all forms of nationalism, is violence. Some British unionists are civic and seek forms of pluralism and toleration. But this is a minority interest. The logic of nationalism is the exclusion of others – by the use of force in some cases. In this case, the logic is that the British state must hold the monopoly of violence in Northern Ireland and therefore is correct to defend the use of force against subaltern and dissenting voices.

There was a moment when people may have thought that the British State was somehow neutral in relation to Northern Ireland (and indeed, Secretary of State Peter Brooke famously sent the IRA a secret message saying as much). But this moment was very much procedural. It was part of the peace process and designed to encourage Irish republicans to call a ceasefire, engage in negotiations, and disarm. That moment has long passed. Those strategic goals on behalf of the British State have been achieved. There is no pretence from the Theresa May government that it is anything other than unionist. Mrs May has been very clear about that in her public pronouncements. Part of this is the expediency of keeping the Democratic Unionists on board to prop up her minority government. But in a deep cultural sense, British Conservatives are statist, militaristic and unionist. That is part of their DNA – hence there should be no surprise at Karen Bradley’s comments. It is why I simply do not believe her apology.

There is another aspect to this as well: the fact that Karen Bradley was brazen enough to tell the truth about her support for state killings. Some commentators have put this down to Bradley’s by now well-known incompetence and professional laziness. I am not so sure (although I cannot dispute her incompetence and laziness – sue me Karen, we’ll happily go over your ministerial record in court). I think there is a wider issue here of the coarsening of political debates. We see this in many contexts: just check out Fox News and much of US politics for its rebarbative ‘stuff you if you don’t like what I’m saying’ tenor. In the UK, Brexit has been responsible for wiping away the pretence that pills should be sugared and that government should appear to be listening. Bradley’s comments should be placed in the context of a rougher form of political discourse, in which there is little pretence at achieving consensus, and no shame in offending citizens. It is worth reminding ourselves that Bradley’s offence is egregious. While she does not have the rhetoric flourishes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or his counterpart from the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, she is effectively saying the same thing: the state has the right to kill some citizens without any pretence to due process.

Bradley’s apology is very revealing. It apologises for ‘offence caused’ rather than the actions of the state itself. A meaningful apology would mean going against her political base. It would separate her from the Daily Mail reading Conservative heartland and from the British Army – a surrogate for all things that are upright in broken Britain. That is why there was no meaningful apology. Bradley – like Duterte and Bolsonaro – was being honest when she justified state killing.

New article by me. Email if you would like a pdf copy

7 Mar

Circuits, the everyday and international relations: Connecting the home to the international and transnational

Article can be found here


The primary aim of this article is methodological. It proposes circuitry as an analytical device – not a mere metaphor – as a way of connecting the everyday and the hyper-local to the national, international, transnational and all levels in between. Thus, the article is concerned with international relations’ perennial levels of analysis problem. The study is prompted by empirical research from the Everyday Peace Indicators project in which research subjects narrated their own (in)security in terms of the home and the immediate vicinity of the home. The home can be regarded as a key part of everyday and ontological security for many people, but how do we connect this to the international and transnational? The article draws on the literature on engineered and biological circuits in order to propose a novel analytical device with which to emphasise the connectivity between apparently unconnected levels. A life history is used to illustrate how the analytical device might be operationalised.
Keywords Circuits, everyday, home, ontological security, peace

Letter to Dr David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England

25 Feb

Dear Dr Sweeney,

Through repeated spamming, I have become aware of a conference organised by an outfit called Westminster Insight on the subject of REF2021. The conference is fully privatised and will occur behind a very high paywall. I did try to raise this issue with Research England on Twitter but was met with a bland statement that did not address my questions. Further questions were ignored, so I wonder if you would be so kind as to answer the following:

  1. What is the rationale behind a public body – Research England – providing two keynote speakers at a wholly privatised conference?
  2. Has Research England conducted due diligence on Research England? In particular, is Research England aware of their spamming practice, and the likelihood that they are not GDPR compliant? Further, does Research England condone the spam, and has it considdered the reputational damage of consorting with a firm like Westminister Insight (whose website lacks basic information: Take a look at the “About us” section here: and the fact that much of their spam comes from a “John Smith” does raise questions)? Can Research England make the due diligence report public?
  3. What practical steps will Research England engage in to ensure that attendees at the conference will not have competitive advantage in REF2021? For example, will there be free live streaming, will there be a freely available transcript, and can there be a guarantee of no corridor conversations?
I am sure, like me, you are anxious that public bodies are run with transparency and so I would appreciate your responses to these important questions.
Yours sincerely
Roger Mac Ginty

New article on “Mobilities and Peace” by Oliver Richmond and myself. Email me at if you would like a pdf copy.

7 Jan

Mobilities and Peace


This article considers how an increasingly visible set of mobilities has implications for how peace and conflict are imagined and responded to. We are particularly interested in how these mobilities take form in everyday actions and shape new forms of peace and challenge existing ones. The article considers fixed categories associated with orthodox peace such as the international, borders and the state that are predicated on territorialism, centralized governance, and static citizenship. The article can be read as a critique of liberal peacebuilding and a contribution to current debates on migration, space and the everyday. Through conceptual scoping we develop the notion of mobile peace to characterize the fluid ways in which is being constructed through the mobilitiy of people and ideas.

KEYWORDS: Mobility, peace, peacebuilding, migration, sovereignty, states system

The link to the article is here.

Tips for writing

6 Dec


In recent years I have struggled to carve out time for writing. A mix of family demands, an increased administrative load, and the sheer busy-ness of academic life (particularly the never ending stream of emails) have meant that writing projects have suffered. The following are the tactics that I have used (with varying degrees of success) to try to protect writing time.

Put it in your diary

Teaching and meetings go into our diaries but do we cordon off time for writing? If we don’t specifically block-off writing time in our diaries, the danger is that the time will be seen as blank and therefore will be eaten up by last minute Skype calls and meetings. So put it in your diary (“Writing 8AM – 12 NOON”) and treat it like a meeting that cannot be re-scheduled.

Set a daily word target

On writing days I set myself a 1,000 word target. The target is realisable. If it was too high, I might very well miss it and thus feel that I had ‘failed’. By having a realisable (and respectable) target of 1,000 words, I can feel that I have made real progress and that sets me up for the next day of writing. I can only keep the 1,000 words per day rate up for about four days. After that I would have to spend some time – usually a few weeks – taking notes and reading.

Write messily

I write first and insert full references later. I do not use referencing software as I have found it to be very untrustworthy (for a start, it cannot deal with my name). Instead I just write and insert full references later. If a reference is at hand, I will insert it or I will simply write “REF” as a reminder to myself, but I would rather use my writing time to get my words on screen than track down whether the year of publication was 2007 or 2008. The result might be a messy draft but at least it you have something to improve on.

Work with your biorhythms

Some people are early birds and others are night owls. Whatever you are – work with it rather than against it. I write best in the morning and so would not dream of grading or engaging in admin tasks on the morning of a writing day. The morning is for writing and the afternoon is for editing what I have written, answering those emails, and those dull administrative tasks.

Get feedback as you write

If possible, I try to get feedback on drafts of my work – even if it is messy. Good, critical feedback is invaluable. People are often busy and I understand completely if they don’t come back to me with feedback, but often my informal reviewers are aware of a literature that I have missed or will have a different disciplinary perspective. Psychologically, I think, the informal feedback process helps me believe that my writing is moving forward towards publication. I also grab any opportunity – brown bags, invitations to give seminars, teaching – to float ideas I am writing about. Some of the best feedback I have ever received has been in MA classes when I incorporate some ideas into a class. If it can survive a good MA discussion – it is likely to survive Reviewer 2.

Press send

There is no such thing as the perfect essay, article, book chapter, dissertation or thesis. There will come a point though when you cannot do any better without feedback or a break. It is better that a draft is out there getting feedback (even rejection) than sitting in a file. Even if a manuscript is rejected by a journal you are likely to get feedback that will help you improve it. A manuscript squirrelled away on a file might as well not exist.

None of this should give the impression that I am some sort of writing machine and that I have it all sorted. I have really struggled to privilege quality writing in recent years. Indeed, writing this blogpost is an act of prevarication – I really should be dealing with the second set of revisions for an article. And none of the (let’s face it, really obvious) points I have made above speak to the quality of our writing output. That might be the subject of another blogpost. I would hugely appreciate if readers would share their ‘top tips’ on writing.

Guidelines on Preparing a PhD Proposal

22 Nov

This document is intended to help you write the PhD proposal that will accompany your application to undertake a PhD. It is written from the perspective of someone wishing to undertake a PhD in Politics and International Relations, but could well apply to other areas of the humanities and social sciences. As well as putting together a proposal and application, it is recommended that you get in touch with prospective PhD supervisors (especially in the UK system) to check their availability and interest in your topic. If they are poor email correspondents at the proposal stage of your PhD, then they may well be poor correspondents when they are your PhD supervisor.

Prospective PhD students are not expected to compile the ‘perfect’ proposal: all research proposals change – especially in the first few months of PhD research. A proposal is likely to be an iterative document that you will update following correspondence with a prospective supervisor. The proposal is an indication of the research to be carried out so that prospective supervisors can judge whether or not the proposed project is viable and whether or not they would have the expertise to act as supervisor. It is worth bearing in mind that a PhD should seek to make an original contribution to the study of a particular issue. A PhD is an opportunity to study a particular issue in great depth, so it is prudent to maintain a concentrated focus rather than attempt overly broad research such as presenting a grand narrative history of a long time period or research based on very general terms such as ‘conflict in Africa’. By far, the most common reaction to a PhD proposal is: ‘It’s too broad’, so you it is worth thinking about how your proposal can be narrowed down: narrow concepts, single theories/thinkers, just one or two case studies rather than many, a limited date range.

Given that a PhD is expected to make an original contribution to knowledge, a good way to approach your proposal is to identify a particular policy/practice or academic puzzle. For example, there might be debates in academic and policy circles about where a particular policy (like peacekeeping or a specialised from of transitional justice) works. A PhD proposal could be developed around answering that puzzle and using a mix of empirical research (perhaps through fieldwork) and concept or theory-building.

Different institutions will prescribe different word limits for a PhD proposal, but they are usually around 1,500 words – that is enough to set out the basic parameters of the proposed research. A research proposal should cover the following:

A working title

This should do more than convey the key words associated with the proposed research. It could be phrased as a question or a hypothesis and can help narrow down the focus of the research.

Key Research Questions 

It is sensible to separate out the key research question from subsidiary questions that are in service of the main question. Getting the right question(s) is the most important way you can narrow down the focus of your study.

Key theories, frameworks or concepts

If your proposed research will depend on key theories, frameworks or concepts then it may be useful to indicate your understanding of them and how they will be utilised in your research. A few references to relevant literature may help.


Specify the approach you feel will be most appropriate to the topic and mention any ethical and access issues connected with the research. Is the methodology feasible? Universities are keen that research conducted in their name does not endanger those being researched and the research.

Thesis structure and Chapterisation

How will the thesis be organised into chapters? Again, it is recognised that this is a draft document, and so the chapterisation is preliminary. It would useful to write a paragraph on each chapter and think about how each chapter will connect to create an integrated document. Depending on the topic, many theses will have a trajectory that begins with chapters that unpack key theories or concepts, then uses those concepts to develop an analytical framework (or set of questions), then discusses the methodology to be used, and then presents and discusses findings. It is worth stressing that not all these will have this structure.

Timescale/research planning

You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research. A useful way of doing this is to break the proposed research into chapters.

A note on the literature/debate/(sub-discipline) you would like to contribute to

This will show prospective supervisors your knowledge of the literature and it may give you an opportunity to provide a rationale for why your research is necessary.


You should include a short list of references to key articles and texts.

Other things to consider:

It is worth asking yourself: “Why do I want a PhD?” Or to put it another way, “What will I do with a PhD once I get it?”

It is also worthy bearing in mind that there are quite different systems for PhDs – the US and UK systems differ considerably.

It may be that your work will be inter-disciplinary and supervisors from different disciplines will be required. Also, think about the implications of inter-disciplinarity if you are considering a career in academia. While inter-disciplinarity is a good thing, unfortunately most job opening are for single-discipline scholars.