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Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever thought to yourself, do I belong here? Am I good enough to be a graduate student? What will happen when everyone realizes I'm not as smart as they think I am? Everyone else really seems to know what they're doing; how come I don't?

I'm here to tell you that you are not alone. Most, if not all, graduate students will have thoughts like this during graduate school. These types of thoughts occur because of a phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome. According to Caltech's Counseling Center, "Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence." Impostor Syndrome is very common in graduate students. Listing a few of the characteristics of graduate school reveals why that is the case: research is stressful, requires long hours, expectations are high, and competition is extreme. In addition, the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies can make students more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome. I dealt with Impostor Syndrome as someone who came straight to graduate school after my undergraduate studies, but many other circumstances can contribute to feelings of inadequacy in high prestige places. Maybe you're coming from a different country or are of a different gender. Maybe you're from an educational or racial background that is underrepresented on your campus. Not being able to see others like you in a high-pressure space can also contribute to Impostor Syndrome.

I know this firsthand because I have dealt with Impostor Syndrome myself. Every question that I posed at the beginning of this article is a thought that I have had personally. When I first started graduate school, I was taking a lot of courses. And, coming straight from undergrad, a place where I succeeded if I studied, I figured it would be more of the same. But it wasn't. It was very different. The courses were more demanding and the exams were more challenging. I received decent scores in my courses when I first started out, but, in the winter semester, I did terribly on an exam. It was the lowest score in the class (confirmed by the maximum and minimum scores written on the blackboard). I can still remember looking at that blackboard, staring at what I had taken to be failure. This was the first time in my life that I could recall performing so poorly on an exam, and, as a student already struggling with some thoughts of Impostor Syndrome, I took the result as confirmation that I was unfit for graduate school. Unfortunately, this just made things more difficult.

The focus I had on this one exam wasn't healthy. I had taken many exams in my lifetime and had performed well on most of them. One poor exam couldn't change that, and one poor exam wasn't going to get me kicked out of graduate school. Spending so much time worrying about the exam made all of my work suffer, whether it dealt with that class or not. I continued struggling with Impostor Syndrome like this for much of my first two years as a graduate student. It wasn't until I recognized my Impostor Syndrome for what it was that I was finally able to start feeling better.

A technique that worked for me was to write down all of my thoughts. This allowed me to focus on the negative emotional thinking and it helped me realize that my negative thinking was not based on facts, or that it was based on just a few small facts (such as my poor exam). Next I made a list of all of the positives that I had experienced before and during graduate school. I focused on academic accomplishments that I was proud of and thought back to times when I was very confident. Before graduate school, I would often contemplate a problem for hours before solving it. Yet, in graduate school, I had told myself that I didn't have the time to think so long about one problem, especially if it felt trivial. But that's not true. Better to solve one problem well, than to solve five other problems poorly.

In the process, I learned that in life there are going to be difficulties, but it's how you respond to those difficulties that determines your true success. Performing poorly on that one exam was merely a difficulty, not a failure. I am now in my fifth year and I can say that I continue to have feelings of Impostor Syndrome. Nowadays, though, I am able to recognize my thoughts for what they are and to spend less time worrying about small difficulties and more time focusing on what my personal strengths are.

If you believe that you are struggling with Impostor Syndrome and would like more information on the topic, here is an excellent blog for recognizing and dealing with it. If you are unsure if your feelings are related to Impostor Syndrome or depression, you can ask yourself a few questions: Do your feelings of inadequacy extend beyond the work setting? Do you feel an absence of hope? If so, you may have some symptoms of depression.

If you would like help, there are many resources on campus to support you. Here are few:

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
University Psychological Clinic
Rackham Graduate School

Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Susan Montgomery whose recent workshop on Impostor Syndrome gave me some ideas for this post and for always being a great resource for giving me and other students positive feedback.