32 In University & Grad School

Grad Students & the Impostor Syndrome

impostor syndrome

After a long break, we’re back with a post for my Grad School Series. I read a post recently on The Happy Type (by recently I mean 2 months ago – oh my time flies!) about grad school, which really inspired me for this topic, and I have found myself discussing it often with the Brit and think it’s a very important subject to raise when discussing grad school. Today we talk about the impostor syndrome.

Definition (according to the CalTech Counseling Center) : “Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”

Let’s be brutally honest here for a second — doing research, writing thesis and dissertations, and being involved in academia in general bring self-doubt and the impostor syndrome is one of the way that self-doubt expresses itself. I think it’s a feeling many have while entering grad school, whether at the masters or doctorate level. It might continue well into your degree as well.

The fact is that in this new era, we are expected to have a university degree. It’s that simple. Many of us will head into undergrad degrees without a second thought because that’s the normal path to follow. However, what I want to point out here is that committing to postgraduate studies is something else. It requires a larger interest and a bigger level of commitment. To me, it was always all about stepping through a door of knowledge and be privilege enough to learn from the best in the field.

If you’re like me, you went from a graduating class of many, even hundreds, to a graduate programme of perhaps less than 10. My programme only accepted 6 new students. You then find yourself in a group of people that are similar to you. Another way of looking at it is to notice how every single person is now really brilliant. Perhaps you were at the top of your class (I really wasn’t, but anyhow..), but now everyone in the class used to be the smartest kid of their class. The fascinating thing is to discover the different ways in which people are brilliant, their different backgrounds and abilities, and the way that helps create an interesting mix of people for seminar discussions.

Little confession: I felt like the stupid kid of the class. Throughout the year, I felt as though the admissions people had made a mistake.  Everyone else was so smart! I felt like the odd one out. Then, one day on a class night out, when everyone had some wine in them, everyone started discussing the fact that they all felt stupid. It was truly fascinating! There I was, not the only to have felt self-doubt! Then, I talked about it with friends and with the Brit and learned that everyone had felt that way at some point. I heard these more than once: “They probably picked me because no one else applied” “Maybe they won’t be satisfied with their decision.” “Why would they fund ME?” “Maybe I’m not good enough.” There are lots of maybes in there!

Remember: self-doubt affects us all.

Tips on how to deal with the impostor syndrome:

– Talk it out with friends and family. They are usually the best people to talk to, to make you feel like you’re the best!

– If that doesn’t work, because you think they’re biased (cough cough I was guilty of that), then perhaps telling a supervisor or professor might help. I know I slipped it in once during a conversation with my supervisor and she quickly reassured me. It helped more than I could ever say!

– Make a list of why you’re awesome! Do you speak a second/third language? Can you recite past the fifth digits of Pi? Can you lick your elbow? It will all help make you feel better when you remind yourself of your skills and abilities!

– Inspirational posters worked a magic on me. I know I wasn’t the only one in St Andrews who loved Feminist (and other inspirational) Ryan Gosling and had posters all over my wall!

– Remind yourself of why you’re there. Perhaps you’re not there to be the best or to get into a PhD, or even academia afterwards, perhaps you’re there simply because of your love and fascination for history, or biology, etc. Sometimes that is motivation enough!

– If your dream is to pursue studies into academia, then remind yourself that everyone has known struggle. Everyone has made mistakes and dealt with setbacks, from mathematicians to classicists, and therefore you are not alone!

– On a similar note, always remind yourself that everyone has felt that way, every single student who talks in class wonders if it’s truly relevant, even the ones who appear so confident.

– I think it’s also important to remind yourself that they did pick YOU, from a (large) pool of applicants. I started also seeing it like a job application – employers will pick you if you fit their company. It’s the same for school. Perhaps you didn’t have the best academic record, but if you sold yourself the right way and showed that you’d be a perfect fit, why wouldn’t they have picked you?

Have you ever felt impostor syndrome? xx


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