We’re all frauds: managing imposter syndrome in grad school

Imposter syndrome (or imposter phenomenon) is the feeling that you do not deserve to be where you are and that you will be exposed as an “imposter.” This is a common phrase I’ve heard people use to describe how they feel in graduate school, and have come to realize that I, too, suffer from it.

I first became interested in this topic during a conversation I had one day with a friend of mine, Diane Dotson, a graduate student in conservation biology at Clemson University. We jokingly went back and forth talking about how much we don’t belong in our program and how we have no idea how we got to where we were. It was a casual chat, but I realized how negatively we were talking and decided to mention imposter syndrome. We both realized that we found the other person to be completely qualified in their position and were proud of each other. I’ve since talked to multiple friends at my school and in other graduate programs and they all say the same thing: “I feel it too.” Seeing as so many people suffer from this negative emotion that can impact mental health, work life, and ultimate success, it is an important issue to address.

The term was first coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a particular group of high-achieving women who attended their therapy sessions. Since then, it has become a more common phrase that is heavily attributed to graduate students, probably because they encompass a large percentage of individuals who experience it. Those in higher education, even faculty, are at a greater risk for this syndrome, as stated by Anna Parkman (2016). It should be positively noted that many people who ultimately experience this phenomenon are successful, intelligent individuals who have earned a high-level position in their chosen field. Therefore, if you feel this way, know that you are not alone, and you should be proud of your achievements that have brought you to this level of success.

One reason graduate students suffer from imposter syndrome is because we are just starting out in our field. We are constantly surrounded by higher level professionals who have worked in the field for decades and therefore have way more experience and knowledge. It can be intimidating when you are working alongside a Nobel Laureate or Howard Hughes Investigator, but it is important to note that everyone has been in the exact same position at some point, even those now on top. Even if you think someone is extremely intelligent and you wouldn’t be able to contribute anything in a conversation with them, you should remember that you offer unique opinions and ideas that someone at their level may overlook. Also, practice makes perfect; if you don’t get used to stating your opinions and asking questions early on, you will never learn the skills it takes to succeed in your field. And lastly, it has been documented that even faculty and staff in higher education experience this phenomenon, so they can be a great resource for advice about how to manage imposter syndrome.

Another reason graduate students experience this feeling is because we are typically over-achievers who work hard, were always at the top of our class, and struggle when we do not reach perfection. Graduate students love their field so much that we wagered our entire career on passing graduate school, and when things don’t go as planned we can go into panic mode. But that is the nature of graduate school and research in general; we will eventually fail. We all get negative data, experience an experiment that just won’t work, and when our entire future is on the line it can be scary.

However, it is important to learn from these mistakes and not to sulk over them. An experienced researcher will tell you that sometimes the best ideas come from failure, so whenever you’re feeling like everything is going wrong, don’t get stuck on the negatives and try and look at things from a different angle.

It is important to realize that your fellow students are probably feeling the same way as you, and it can be helpful to discuss it together. Sometimes just knowing that you aren’t alone can be just what you need to realize you do belong. Or maybe you are going through a very stressful time and it’s a sign to slow things down. Don’t be afraid to talk to your PI or other mentors about how you are feeling. If you think you are struggling more than others, it is good to catch the problem early before it becomes worse and can cause even bigger problems.

Sometimes it is intimidating talking to someone you see as an authority figure, and it may be better to talk with your peers. At my school, our graduate student association is a good resource. We typically hold events with people from around campus on topics we find helpful. I recently suggested imposter syndrome to the association as an important topic to address and am now looking into finding a speaker from our Health and Wellness Center.

Lastly, don’t forget that you earned your position and were chosen because people believed in you and your abilities. Everyone in graduate school wants you to succeed, and most people are willing to help as long as you seek them out. There is some great literature out there on the topic, including these articles: How to Get Over Imposter Syndrome as a New Graduate Student, Feel like a Fraud?, and How to Banish imposter Syndrome and Embrace Everything You Deserve.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Caitlyn Blake-Hedges is a PhD student in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Florida State University. She works in the lab of Dr. Timothy Megraw, investigating the function of the centrosome in development and disease using Drosophila as a model. In her free time she enjoys yoga, running, Netflix, and watching college football (Go Clemson!). Email: caitlyn.blake-hedges@med.fsu.edu