When I started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I felt like an imposter. I thought that all of my fellow grad students were more together, had more basic science training (I never took calculus, intro bio or chemistry as an undergrad), were more articulate, less doubtful. I felt like I’d somehow fooled everyone into thinking I was qualified to get into graduate school, and couldn’t shake the anxiety that someone would ultimately figure out the error. When something good would happen– a grant, or an award– I subconsciously chalked it up to luck, rather than merit. It wasn’t until I was a year or two into my PhD that I learned that these feelings have a name: “imposter syndrome.” Imposter syndrome is incredibly prevalent amongst (though not limited to) graduate students, and has been the subject of research and countless blog posts.
I think one of the reasons early grad students in particular feel like imposters is because of the structure of graduate school; the goals are more nebulous, the hoops are fewer and less structured, and the bar is somewhat arbitrary. No one is actually graded on their thesis, and the timelines are often self-directed. It’s difficult to know how much work is enough, when to stop collecting data, when it’s okay to have a hobby or take some time away from the lab. This can lead to two things: 1) guilt, because you never feel like you’re adequate, and 2) a lack of a sense of progress or accomplishment, because the benchmarks in graduate school are much rarer than in undergrad (and the praise, for some, even more so). I was literally finished with the first year of my PhD before it really occurred to me that I had developed a body of knowledge about my field. This may sound ridiculous, especially because by that point I had a Masters degree; obviously on some level I knew that I’d been picking up skills and information for my classes. Still, it took me over three years to consider myself even somewhat knowledgeable in my field.
Eventually, I stopped feeling like an imposter, and I owe it to two things: feminism and mentoring. For me, learning about feminism and becoming interested in women in STEM opened my eyes to the ways in which my attitudes both resulted from and were reinforced by institutional sexism. A lot has been written about this, so I won’t go into detail, but basically, when I caught myself saying I was “lucky to have good reviewers” when my thesis was published in Science, changing that behavior became a matter of activism. In other words, I realized that fighting imposter syndrome, for me, was in part an issue of equality. This isn’t to say that white upper class males don’t feel self-doubt; rather, it’s easy to imagine how people from underrepresented backgrounds (women, people of color, first-generation grad students, etc.) might be more susceptible to feeling like an imposter, especially if you literally don’t see others like you in your academic surroundings. Saying “I earned this on my own merit and I am awesome!” rather than a surprised “Wow, that was lucky…” when I earned an achievement became a matter of personalizing the political.
Mentoring has been a very valuable part of my graduate career for a number of reasons, but it’s also been a large part of the cure for my imposter syndrome. For starters, the very act of mentoring forces you to put on a confident face, and there is some value to faking it until you make it. When my first mentees opened up about their secret fears, I was shocked with how familiar their concerns were. “Everyone feels what you’re going through,” I told them, and I was able to say it with actual, not faked, confidence. In retrospect, it would have been really valuable for me to have had my concerns normalized when I was a young grad student. Now, when I play the role of senior PhD student talking to a fresh new crop of grads, I make a point of telling them that they’re not alone in feeling like an imposter. Another benefit of mentoring is that spending time with my undergraduate mentees made me realize how much I had learned since I’d been a college student, which gets back to my point above about the structure of graduate school making it difficult to see your own development. There’s nothing like someone asking you for advice, feedback, or training to make you realize that you’re capable of providing those things.
As a final note, while imposter syndrome can be alienating and the source of unhealthy emotional turmoil, I do think it’s worth drawing a clear line between feeling inadequate and recognizing areas for improvement. Being immobilized by anxiety because you don’t have a background in math is one thing; identifying a gap in your skill set and setting out to work on that is another. This takes time, a lot of self-reflection, and is best done with a good mentor or three. I’ve been very fortunate to have an advisor who makes a point of identifying my strengths, praising my accomplishments, providing constructive criticism and suggesting ways to improve. If you’re not working with someone like that, I urge you to seek out other mentors like a senior grad student, a postdoc in your department, a committee member, or an online community (Twitter is great for this). Likewise, it’s good to have someone who can tell you when you’re being too hard on yourself, because we can’t all be experts at everything. Ultimately, whether you’re a newly-accepted grad student or a tenured faculty member, I think your goal should be to stop thinking of yourself as an imposter, and instead seeing yourself as a scholar with unique strengths, well-deserved accomplishments, and room to grow and improve.
Jacquelyn Gill is an ecologist and biogeographer. She recently completed a PhD in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has just begun as a Voss Postdoctoral Fellow at the Environmental Change Initiative at Brown University. She is interested in women in science and STEM diversity, public science literacy, interactions between scientists and science journalists, how scientists use new media, and increasing disability access at academic conferences. She can be found on Twitter at @JacquelynGill.
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