A Day in the Life: Maybe We’re All Imposters!

Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome:  a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.

People talk about imposter syndrome a lot when  it comes to graduate school – you show up and it seems like everyone is smarter than you so your admission must be some mistake. You feel like an imposter.

Everyone feels like a chicken on stilts amongst a flock of graceful flamingos every now and then...right?
Everyone feels like a chicken on stilts amongst a flock of graceful flamingos every now and then…right?

Imposter syndrome hits me pretty hard from time to time. There are days where I read a journal article for an upcoming class discussion, walk into the class, and then don’t say a word because it feels like everyone else understood the paper so much more than I did. Every question or thought I had is like kindergarten level stuff compared to the discussion going on, so I just stay quiet and listen – hoping to absorb the conversations  without anyone noticing that I’m not contributing. Unsurprisingly, keeping quiet and going unnoticed doesn’t help me stand out as a scientist or bolster my learning.

It’s weird because the rational part of my brain knows that I am qualified to be here. I know I majored in two physical sciences in undergrad at a highly ranked liberal arts school. I know I won a national fellowship that is paying for a huge portion of my degree. I know I have good ideas and thoughtful questions. And yet despite all of this, the irrational part of my brain keeps saying “you probably just lied your way into grad school! you don’t actually know anything! literally everyone here is smarter than you! man you sure are lucky to be here!”

Being aware of what imposter syndrome is has definitely helped me identify when the irrational part of my brain is talking, but that isn’t always enough to erase the feeling that I lucked my way into grad school. The biggest help for me in overcoming imposter syndrome is talking to the other first year grad students about how they are feeling. No surprise – almost everyone has felt like an imposter already even though we’re only a few weeks into the semester. Maybe we’re all imposters just putting on a show. Maybe the incoming class this year is 100% deceiving, under-qualified, or just plain lucky people. Or, more likely, we’re all pretty smart and really do belong here.

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