Imposter Syndrome and the Graduate School Experience

Youngah (Karen) Kwon

When I first entered my Ph.D. program, I noticed that most of the other students there were from prominent schools, had impressive research experience, or both. Not only that, everyone except me looked and sounded like they knew far more about chemistry and research than I did. Even though I had extensive research experience and a list of published papers to back it up, I felt like the dumbest one out of the bunch. I started to doubt myself and think that the program must have made a mistake in picking me, and that I’d somehow fooled them into thinking I’m qualified.

It was only later that I learned this feeling had a name: “impostor syndrome.” The term was coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, appearing first in their 1978 journal paper, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” They documented that a lot of the women they studied felt like frauds in their positions, thinking they were there because of luck or a mistake. Traditionally women, people of color, and first-generation college students have been known to suffer more from the consequences of this “internal experience of intellectual phoniness” than others, although recent studies suggest that both women and men experience impostor syndrome equally. As graduate students living in the in-between stage of learning and professional development, it certainly seems as though we are more susceptible than we might be at other times. Here, I am going to talk about my own experience of feeling like a fraud, how impostor syndrome can impact your life, and how to combat it.

Impostor Syndrome Is More Common Than You Think

When I first started to feel like I was not cut out for the program I am in now, I tried to hide the inadequacy I was feeling. But then, as I talked to my peers whom I trusted, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I even got an e-mail from my school’s Women in Science group promoting a seminar on fighting impostor syndrome. That’s when I learned that what I was experiencing had a name. When I showed up for the seminar, I saw that the room was packed with graduate students feeling the same way I did.

Just realizing that the problem is common to many people can help you combat it. According to a 1985 survey, about 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at some point or another in their lives. A lot of successful people have also admitted to having suffered from it. The list includes former First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Emma Watson, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. One Pulitzer winner recently told me that he, too, suffers from the phenomenon, even since winning the prize. This means that it is not an actual inadequacy or lack of achievement that causes someone to feel like an impostor.

As a graduate student, it is totally ok if you feel inadequate. You’re just beginning your journey as an academic and a researcher. Even though your peers seem more advanced and qualified than you are, I bet most of them, too, feel insecure. Remember, you’re a beginner. You’re in graduate school to learn.

Impostor Syndrome Can Hurt Your Career

When I first joined my research group, I felt like I knew nothing. I couldn’t follow the progress of the project or understand the papers that I was supposed to digest, as they were in an area I was not familiar with. However, I was too ashamed to admit my ignorance to anyone and too afraid to ask questions, thinking that others would assume I was not smart enough. So I thought to myself, “I’m going to start asking questions once I’m all caught up with the studying.” Of course, that moment never came because I lagged even farther behind from not getting the help I needed.

The belief that we are inadequate can actually make us that way, as it can prevent us from asking questions and thus take away our learning opportunities, making impostor syndrome an actual self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit of a self-doubt doesn’t hurt anyone, as it leads to being well-prepared for upcoming tasks such as exams. However, since feeling as if we don’t really belong where we are makes us worry too much about being exposed as an intellectual fraud—and sometimes leads to procrastination or perfectionism—it prevents graduate students from actually getting the job done or taking chances when the opportunity presents itself.

In hindsight, I regret all the opportunities for growth I have missed. Instead of choosing to learn, I chose to cop out, which turned out to be a disastrous choice. I didn’t realize at the time that it is natural for a new graduate student not to understand the entirety of a project’s ins and outs immediately. “I’ll ask questions once I’m all caught up,” was simply a bad strategy; I should have proactively asked for help from postdocs and senior graduate students, which probably would have put me on the right track. The embarrassment would have been momentary, and in the long run, that approach would have helped.

Learn To Cope with Impostor Syndrome

My recovery from the impostor syndrome happened gradually after hitting rock bottom: I almost failed my second-year defense, which is a mandatory step that all graduate students in my department need to pass in order to stay in the program. After that wake-up call, I started to ask questions and seek help more proactively, while ignoring the shame that I was feeling. I cannot exactly pinpoint when I started to feel better about myself. I just remember that one day, I realized that I’d started to bounce back from small hiccups without escalating into feeling like the worst graduate student ever. I still had a healthy dose of self-doubt, but I started to believe in myself again—I could finish the tasks without worrying too much about letting everyone down.

What I did along the journey of recovery was to try to be more aware of my impostor syndrome. I kept reminding myself that, (1) it’s okay to ask questions or call for help, even when I think I’m exposing my vulnerability to the others, (2) all the extreme self-doubts I have are all in my head, and (3) one small mishap doesn’t mean that I’m not smart enough for graduate school. I’ve also found that, especially when it comes to combating self-doubt, documenting all the achievements and compliments from others can help, acting as a reminder that the feeling of incompetence isn’t the reality. The admissions committee doesn’t pick students on a whim; all graduate students have good reasons for being in their programs. It can come in handy to have documented proof you can reach for to remind yourself that you belong.

Stories from accomplished people tell us that the feeling of being an impostor may not quite go away, even when you achieve something great. As you climb up the career ladder, there are going to be even more accomplished people surrounding you, which could then make you feel like an impostor all over again. It seems to me that the answer is to be mindful of any level of impostor syndrome you have, but don’t let it get in your way. Don’t be afraid. Try hard; then you’ll thrive.

Often, It’s Not You, It’s Them

The postdoc’s comment, in his demeaning tone, verified my suspicion at the time that only luck had brought me there, and I actually did not belong in that academic space.

One day, when I was still in the deep valley of impostor syndrome, I was chatting with a postdoc and the topic of my previous research experience came up. After hearing about the papers I had published during those years, he told me I just got lucky. That totally sank my heart, as I was already doubting myself and wondering how I got into the program. The postdoc’s comment, in his demeaning tone, verified my suspicion at the time that only luck had brought me there, and I actually did not belong in that academic space.

Society constantly tells women and people of color they are inadequate. For example, black students attending so-called “good schools” are sometimes called “affirmative-action students” by their malicious peers. Many women scientists’ works are so undermined that they often go unrecognized by the media and award committees. Women and students of color don’t feel like they belong in the academic space because they do not see many people in higher positions who resemble them. That doesn’t mean they are right. That also doesn’t mean you don’t belong in that space.

It is true that I was lucky; I was lucky I met a PI who was very supportive of my career. I was also lucky all my experiments worked out and I was able to write those published papers. But I also know that I put in many hours of hard work to get those papers out. I now realize that it wasn’t just luck, but when I was suffering from impostor syndrome, that was hard to believe. Graduate students, especially those of us from underrepresented groups, need to give ourselves more credit and ignore ill-intentioned comments.

You Are Not Alone

People often say graduate school is a marathon. In other words, we need to take a good care of ourselves throughout this long process, including our mental health. Though impostor syndrome isn’t recognized as a mental disorder, it can have a real impact. As graduate students, we should realize that we are not alone in our struggles and learn to survive while being mindful of the societal biases that pressure us.