July 6, 2018
It’s my very first week of grad school. I’m sitting in the Rackham Auditorium for one of a seemingly endless series of orientation talks and wondering how I got here. Two years prior to moving to Ann Arbor to start my Ph.D. I was answering questions about what I would do after college with “I don’t know what I am going to do, but I’m not going to grad school.” And yet - only a few months after obtaining my undergraduate degree, I find myself sitting in a room full of fellow incoming grad students. It’s in this setting that I hear the words for the first time: impostor syndrome. I’ve never put this name to it before, but the description sounds familiar. As my time surrounded by the ivory towers of academia wears on, I become even more intimately acquainted with the feelings of inadequacy that this term describes.
I could belabor the point, but you probably know the drill. It’s the class or exam for which your undergraduate studies didn’t prepare you well enough. It’s the seminar where the speaker doesn’t give enough background for you to follow a lick of it while everyone else in the room seems to be nodding along just fine. It’s the assignment that you don’t even know how to start. It’s your preliminary/qualifying/candidacy exam, in whatever form of evil it is delivered by your particular department or program. It’s watching your colleagues craft their thesis research while you wish yours had come with an instruction manual. It’s the feeling of helplessness that comes with drafting a manuscript for publication for the first time – or wondering if you ever will.
Fast forward several years. In the fourth year of my Ph.D., I’m sitting next to a second-year student in my department who is preparing for one of our major program requirements. Her proposal has a solid backbone, but it’s missing some key details. I can tell from the look on her face that she is freaking out. As I offer advice to strengthen her proposal, suggesting techniques I hadn’t even heard of a few years prior, it is a rare moment during my years in grad school that I have an unequivocal feeling that I know what I’m talking about. This feeling hushes the voice of impostor syndrome playing in my head, and if only for a moment, I feel a sense of belonging in my place here.
So is that it, then? Do I now have unshakeable confidence in everything that I do? Not even close. But having reflected on situations like this one, small victories—in class, in lab, and in life—leaves me more prepared when feelings of doubt inevitably creep in.
Spend some time reflecting on your own accomplishments – pull out your CV/resume, your grad school application, or that test or paper where you got an A. Hang it on the fridge if you need to. But mostly, have a mental list of these at the ready to refute your own thoughts in circumstances where you feel overwhelmed and underqualified. Remind yourself that you do belong here regardless of what the voice of impostor syndrome might be telling you.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.